This post is the first in a multi-part series.

It was a cold and gray day on March 1st in Woodland Park, Colorado. Spring was still a few weeks away, and snow blanketed the foothills and mountains.  But that didn’t stop 170 interested residents from attending their local 2014 Wildfire Preparedness Kick-Off Event, sponsored by the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, the City of Woodland Park, Colorado State Forest Service and numerous other partners.

What made this turnout so impressive, particularly at a time of year when wildfire isn’t always the first thing on residents’ minds? Many factors can positively boost attendee participation: having a great “headliner” or keynote speaker, creating an interactive and relevant agenda for community members, providing refreshments, drawing on the energy of a recent wildfire, and developing a well-coordinated media strategy. Forest Schafer, North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Forester and FAC Network participant, recently shared his insights on several of these factors following a community meeting in his blog post: Lessons in Community Engagement from North Lake Tahoe.

The following three-part blog series breaks down additional topics to help you recruit a great keynote speaker, craft a creative conference agenda, and issue a media advisory. These helpful ingredients are provided to ensure that your next event is a resounding success!

Ingredient #1: Recruit an engaging keynote speaker

I’ve done my fair share of recruiting keynote speakers for wildfire workshops and conferences, but to ensure there were some universal best practices, I consulted several articles on recruiting good speakers and blogs devoted to event planning. Some consistent themes, confirmed by my own personal experience, rose to the top:

1)   Vet potential speakers

Chances are that you are planning your event with a collaborative group of partners. Brainstorm among your colleagues to come up with a list of options that you can vet. Ask yourselves what you know about each speaker and whether this person is engaging and well spoken. If you can’t find out much about this person, call him or her and you’ll at least get a good sense of their speaking style and personality. You may also want to Google the candidate to see if they appear in any videos or webinars. One more note: ensure this speaker hasn’t been doing the circuit for the past year; otherwise, you run the risk of your audience having already seen them and getting speaker fatigue.

2)   Ensure their topic is relevant enough

You don’t have to obsess over knowing exactly what they will present. Offer general guidance about the audience, the conference theme and your expectations, but let them take it from there. What you really want is for your speaker to connect with their audience by sharing a personal story, breaking down highly technical information into concepts that can be easily grasped by a wide variety of participants, or relaying an important experience. An engaging speaker will know how to make their talk relevant.

3)   Plan in advance

Even if you aren’t asking Al Gore, you’ll want to start the process early.  The more time the better, particularly because your first choice might not be available. Be prepared to offer information on how much your budget can handle in terms of travel reimbursement, and try to gauge whether they are likely to request a speaking fee. Have an idea of when you plan to schedule them in the agenda (opening, lunch, etc.), and have your talking points ready about the conference and audience – sometimes you have to do a bit of selling!

And one final word of caution about asking politicians: their schedules change frequently, right up until the last minute. So don’t get your hopes too high if you have asked your senator or governor, and it doesn’t hurt to be prepared with a backup plan. In my experience, unless they’ve called the meeting themselves, it’s unlikely you’ll have a reliable commitment.

Northeast Teller County Fire Chief Tyler Lambert with keynote speaker Linda Masterson

Northeast Teller County Fire Chief Tyler Lambert with keynote speaker Linda Masterson

In the case of Woodland Park’s event, the organizers chose Linda Masterson, a Colorado Front Range resident who recently authored the book Surviving Wildfire: Get Prepared, Stay Alive, Rebuild Your Life. The book details her personal account of surviving a wildfire and what she learned, including how to prepare for losing everything. Linda was a good choice because (1) she could provide a resident’s perspective of living in the wildland-urban interface and (2) authoring a recent book on wildfire gave her additional credibility.

Look for Part Two next week, where I will discuss creating an interactive agenda.  Have any more tips to add? Share them in the comments!

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