When Speaker Needs to Cancel Speaking Engagement

ER from California asks:

I recently spoke for a large national meeting.  By the end of my Friday afternoon session, my throat was feeling a bit dry and hoarse.  I was scheduled to speak the following morning.  However, when I awoke on Saturday I had NO voice… not even a squeak!   I tried everything I could think of:  I steamed my face, drank tea, water, used throat lozenges and nothing worked.  I immediately located the event planners to check in with them.  They realized that I would not be able to present, but had no idea how to resolve this.  We searched the course catalog for other speakers who might be able to speak on this topic but came up with no other options.  Together we opted to cancel the class.  I felt horrible, and still do….  What advice would you give to the speaker and the meeting planner in this situation?

Dear ER,

Thank you for sharing your personal experience through this question.  This is a topic that we all – speakers and event planners alike – would be well advised to think through before it happens.  I’ve reached out to industry experts to ask for their opinions and experiences for creating a best case scenario in situations such as these:

Katherine Eitel, Dental Industry Speaker/Consultant (20+ years)
(Training Workshops for Speakers/Trainers)

When I’ve lost my voice, it’s typically been due to a cold.  I’ve been successful in getting it back enough to speak using Throat Coat medicinal tea and menthol lozenges dissolved in hot water.   (They accompany me to each speaking engagement – just in case.)    Also, most A/V professionals will know how to turn your mic way up and position it so you don’t have to strain and can basically speak in a whisper and still project over the sound system.

If I did suspect any issue with my ability to perform adequately, I would contact fellow speakers I trust to see if they were available.  Most speakers will help out if they can.  (It’s always a good idea to offer to donate your honorarium to them.)  I would discuss the situation and my recommended solution with the event planner to ensure it meets with their approval.

If we were not able to find a speaker to fill in and needed to cancel the session, I would ask the planner what I could do to make it right and negotiate a new agreement.

Crystal Soucy, CMP; Director of Meetings and Continuing Education
Connecticut State Dental Association (6 years)

If an organization can’t deliver exactly what was advertised, it may be best to cancel/refund.  You’ll need to decide whether attendees are choosing this course for topic/content or to hear this particular speaker.  We’ve had luck replacing a speaker when it was topic/content that was the draw and we could ensure that the replacement speaker met the required level of expertise in the topic area.  However, replacing a speaker that has a following and some may have selected based on name recognition will undoubtedly lead to disappointment.  The negative feelings over a cancellation w/refund are very different than the negative feelings that could arise with under-delivering.  In the latter case, it can be a real “ding” on the meeting’s reputation.

Bottom line:  It depends on the circumstances and it’s never an easy, cut and dry decision.  The impact from all angles needs to be carefully considered and ultimately, the perception of the attendees is most important.