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DO I REALLY NEED A MAIN SPEAKER?

Over the past 10 years, I’ve coached dozens of Cru fundraising events, and no two events are exactly alike. Actually, that’s one of the things that I love about my job: even though our events are the same at a base level, no partner will have exactly the same experience at any two Development gatherings. Something I’ve learned to appreciate about Cru’s local teams around the country is that they are always looking to innovate. I think that’s why we are so effective year after year as a ministry. Our staff’s desire for innovation drives us forward as a ministry to reach new scopes in new ways no matter the circumstances.


Most of the time in event planning, this aspiration for innovation comes in the form of a suggestion of how a team's event could or should break away from the mold of TeamGold’s tried and true practices. And of course, as the main admin and editor for TeamGold, I’m biased toward sticking to the formula.


It’s very common for teams to suggest that maybe they should forgo the main speaker altogether and either shorten the event or replace the main speaker with more student testimonies. After working with so many teams over the years, I think I have a decent grasp of the main reasons teams want to do this and what it looks like when they choose to go down this path. I’ll say right up front that I think this is usually an idea that doesn’t carry the benefits that a team hopes it will.


Of course, I’m just one person so I don’t have all there is to say on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts or anything you think I haven’t considered. Let’s talk about it!





WHY TEAMS WANT TO DITCH THE MAIN SPEAKER

It would be silly to try to write out an exhaustive list of reasons that teams consider altering the Main Speaker portion of the schedule; there’s a wide array of reasons that a team might consider this. But here are some of the most common reasons that I hear:


  1. “We have so many great changed-life testimonies! I’d rather use that time for those stories than a speaker.”

  2. “Our guests are busy and need to get home for babysitters, sleep, etc. If we cut the speaker we can get them home earlier!”

  3. “We don’t know who to ask to be a main speaker” or “The people we asked are all unavailable.”

  4. “Forgoing the main speaker will save us a lot of time, money, and stress.”

  5. “We’ve had a main speaker every other year and it feels like things are getting stale.”


I always appreciate knowing that a team is thinking through how to make their event as effective and meaningful as possible. Before a team goes down this path, though, I think they should consider what is lost by forgoing the main speaker. Almost all the time, the benefits of having a main speaker outweigh any potential gains from skipping or altering this section of the event.


I always appreciate knowing that a team is thinking through how to make their event as effective and meaningful as possible

TESTIMONIES ARE GREAT…IN MODERATION

We are all working to advance the Gospel within our scopes, so it’s always exciting to have stories of lives being changed through a relationship with Jesus. And so I totally get it when teams are excited about making more space for testimonies. The typical Vision Dinner testimony is just three minutes long and there are only two of them (three if you count the Partner Testimony). What teams typically suggest is that they could cut the 19-minute Main Speaker section, add 2 or 3 more student testimonies, and give them each a lot more time to share how God has changed their life through Cru. Again, this is a great idea in theory, but I don’t think it usually goes over the way that a team expects.


For instance, trying to allot more time than 3 minutes per testimony sounds like a great idea. The student can share more details and give a clearer picture of God’s work in their life. But in reality, when I’ve gone to events where students have 5, 6, or more minutes, they are often sloppy and less focused. The students fill those extra minutes with extra details and context that dilutes the overall message.


If you have more than two great stories to tell, why not send them out in ministry updates throughout the year?

Additionally, more testimonies makes it harder for guests to remember everything that was shared. When there are 5-7 stories shared on stage on top of all the other stories embedded throughout the evening it’s hard to distinguish between them even a week later (let alone a year). This is why we at TeamGold suggest the testimony setup that we do. Two student testimonies allows you to choose the two best stories/communicators who will tell a concise story that impacts guests in a meaningful way.


If you have more than two great stories to tell, why not record those students sharing their testimony and send them out in ministry updates throughout the year so that they don’t get diluted in a sea of consecutive stories? You are sending out updates throughout the year to everyone who attended your dinner, right? (wink wink)


MAIN SPEAKERS LEAVE AN IMPRESSION THAT OTHERS DON’T

I think I’m able to see this point more clearly than most because I’ve been to many different events hosted by many teams. In that sense, I might be a little bit more like a typical event attendee. Most people at your event have been invited to many other events like yours, hosted by many different organizations, and they all tend to blend together after a while. And what I can say for sure is that if you have a great main speaker, what they have to say will be the #1 thing that people remember about your event.


This is because a great speaker makes your guests feel like it was a privilege to have been at your event. A year from now, when you invite someone to come back to your event, they will probably either remember your event as either one in a sea of similar events or as “the event where I heard that speaker”. And this shouldn’t be too surprising to you. If you are Cru staff you have probably attended dozens of conferences for both staff and students. At those conferences, you’ve heard many testimonies and main speakers alike. I’d venture to guess that you probably remember the names and messages of far more main speakers than you do the testimonies at those events. The same will be true of your event.


A great Main Speaker will be the #1 thing that people remember about your event.

Obviously this isn’t universal. Some events have amazing testimonies that attendees remember forever (as long as they aren’t drowned out by ten other testimonies) and others have lackluster speakers that aren’t worth remembering (see Lap 3 on TeamGold for advice on picking a great speaker). But overall, we’ve seen that the Main Speaker is a vital part of your guests’ memory of the event.


P.S. For what it’s worth, I’d say the 2nd most likely thing for your guests to remember about your event is the food. How good the food is directly impacts how likely a guest is to return. Just “food” for thought.


YOUR EVENT REALLY DOESN’T NEED TO BE SHORTER

This is something I’ve seen change in the past decade among the teams I work with. 10 years ago, most teams wanted to make their event longer than the recommended 2 hours, 10 minutes. They felt like two hours was too rushed to share everything they wanted to, and that it would be much less stressful for everyone if they stretched it another 30-45 minutes. And, indeed, many events do run over time precisely because it’s hard to fit everything into that window.


Lately, though, I hear many teams wanting to make their events shorter and more casual. I’ll keep this section brief - it could be its own blog post - but here are my thoughts:


  • If your event is much shorter than 2 hours, it feels less worth the trouble for your guests to clear their evening, get out of the house, or arrange for childcare.

  • Sometimes a shorter or more casual event conveys the message that the team doesn’t feel their ministry is “worth” highlighting in a formal, in-depth way.

  • We’ve seen it proven over the years that the more professional and “complete” an event is, the more guests are willing to give.

  • Shorter events usually fail to give a “full” enough experience to motivate partnership. A 90-minute Vision Brunch with light refreshments, a quick overview of the ministry, and a couple of stories feels more like an extended elevator pitch than a full ministry presentation.


Let me be clear when I say that I don’t think there’s anything “magical” about the official 2 hours, 10 minutes length of an event. I’ve seen amazing events that are just under 2 hours and great ones that are closer to three. But overall, I don’t think the benefit outweighs the loss if you’re going to cut a section as crucial as the Main Speaker.


MAIN SPEAKERS PROVIDE A PERSPECTIVE NO ONE ELSE CAN

The reason I see the Main Speaker slot as such a crucial role is because it is often one of only two roles on stage that offers an outside perspective on your ministry (the other being the Partner Testimony, which is only 4 minutes and, like other testimonies, can’t be depended on to carry an event). A great speaker is both connected and disconnected from your event. What I mean is that they have some connections - maybe they were involved in the past, are currently involved, or have a similar mission/vision to your ministry - but they are also distinctly separate from your ministry and have some level of objectivity.


A great speaker is both connected and disconnected from your event.

The staff and students who are on stage have valuable things to share, but everyone expects them to vouch for the ministry because they are the ministry. A great main speaker can use their 19 minutes to share a powerful testimony of how God has used this ministry or another like it to impact their life forever. Again, they can also do this in a way that inspires and engages the audience uniquely among the program participants.


On top of all this, the main speaker is positioned at a vital time within the program: just before the financial appeal. Their words are the last ones that guests will hear before they are asked to partner, so they are uniquely set up to show the guests how effective and trustworthy of an investment opportunity they’re about to be given.


SUMMARY

Overall, here’s what I think I’d want to communicate to any team who approaches me with the idea of cutting out the main speaker portion of their event:


  1. There are many teams who have tried this or wanted to, so they’re not crazy for considering it.

  2. Of the events I’ve seen, cutting out the main speaker almost always makes an event less effective and less memorable.

  3. The main speaker is what attendees will remember most about your event. The details of testimonies and ministry updates are rarely remembered years later, but a great main speaker can be unforgettable.

  4. The main speaker plays an important role in the flow of the evening and provides a perspective that can’t be given without something equivalent in its place.

I hope this helps you as you think through your upcoming event, and I hope that you stick with the Main Speaker, as it's one of the best parts of a Vision Dinner. Again, feel free to leave a comment with any additional thoughts or questions you may have!

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