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Genealogy Conferences – Delivering the Content


[This is the second in a week-long series of posts on genealogy conferences entitled Genealogy Conferences – The Magic Recipe]

My perspective on the life of a genealogy conference speaker is my own but I bet it isn’t much different from many of the speakers and presenters who serve as the main educational content providers at these events. While I’ve only been on the speaking circuit for about 18 months, in that short period I’ve been able to experience a wide range of situations where I feel I’m experienced enough to dispense some advice on genealogy speaking.

Glamorous It Ain’t!

The whirlwind life of a genealogy speaker is far from glamorous.  There is so much preparation involved both on the part of the event organizers and the speaker that by time the event takes place, in a way, you just want it to be over.  But it is in that moment – when I am in front of a captivated audience – that I feel it is all worth the preparation.  And the payoff comes when attendees come up afterwards and ask questions or simply say, “Thank you!”  Again, those two words have such power.

The Good

  • The pay rate for genealogy speaking can be pretty decent – anywhere from $75 and up for an hour’s worth of speaking.
  • If you love to travel and want to see new cities and towns, speaking at genealogy events is a great way to do so. Very often a genealogy society that is “hosting” a speaker will offer to show them the sights including research resources.
  • Speaking on genealogy is a great form of advertising for your genealogy business.  Especially if you’ve built up an Internet or social media presence, audiences love to see you “in the flesh” and speak with you.
  • Each and every speaking engagement is a chance to sell any books or other products you’ve developed.
  • The more you speak, the more places that hire you, the more your reputation increases in the genealogy community.  It helps to have a niche and once you find what you’re good it, exploit it.
  • Speaking gigs can very often lead to other opportunities – they usually “chain” off of each other as I say.  Someone will hear you speak and go back to their society and discuss hiring you for their upcoming event.

The Bad

  • You want travel? How about the delays? How about the overnights in airports? How about being a road warrior and flying 50,000 miles a year? How about hotels that look alike and having a sense of “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium.”
  • While the pay rate is good, many don’t realize it takes about 30 hours of preparing a syllabus and slides for each 1 hour presentation.  For a new presentation, you don’t see the payoff until you’ve delivered that content at least a couple of times.
  • You can’t realistically make a living just on speaking gigs.   You must be able to sell your products and that means marketing, publicity and doing what I call “the hustle.”
  • Public speaking takes skill especially when it comes to dealing with the public. It can also wear you out especially if you are doing a full-day workshop with four presentations.
  • People will steal your content. Sad but true, but folks will use your syllabus as they see fit.  I cover this at the start of any presentation and make it clear what copyright is and what is my intellectual property.
  • Some societies and events handle speakers better than others.  I really hate to say it, but I’ve had some gigs where things weren’t “as advertised” in terms of accommodations or speaking venues.

Do’s and Don’ts

Some advice based on my personal experiences:

  • Have a contract, and a good solid one at that.  I’ve developed a five page contract that I insist on using.  I don’t allow societies or venues to simply send an email agreement. I’ve had venues cancel on me a week before the gig and in the meantime I’ve turned down three other offers. (Note: my contract template will be available at the Federation of Genealogical Societies new templates and exemplars section of the members-only website in a few weeks. This is another reason to join FGS!)
  • Join the Genealogical Speakers Guild.  For a nominal membership fee not only do you have great marketing resources available to you, but you can networking with fellow speakers.
  • Guard your intellectual property. Make sure it is clear in your contract what a venue can and cannot do with your syllabus or the recording.  If you find any violations especially weeks or months later, use the normal cease and desist tactics you would use if someone had violated your copyright.
  • Don’t schedule speaking engagements too close together.  They wear you out and you don’t notice until you’ve done 10 presentations in a month and wonder why you are so tired!
  • Do spend time with your host society and socialize at dinner or other opportunities. Show an interest in their events and their projects. Give advice and encouragement.
  • In terms of travel, make sure you join every loyalty club possible for airlines and hotel. Invest in a lightweight backpack, preferably a “wheelie” type. For some conferences you have to provide your own projector and computer.
  • Provide feedback to the society or event planners once you get home. Send a thank you note or email. Or if things didn’t live up to your expectations, let them know.  This is an opportunity for them to improve their event.
  • Join Toastmasters International.  Even if you’ve been speaking for years, Toastmasters can help you with new speaking techniques and you can test drive new presentations.
  • Have an Internet presence and one that is up to date.  When you speak, make sure you mention your website on one of your slides or have business cards available at the podium.  I went through 3,000 business cards last year alone just at speaking engagements.
  • Have fun! If you don’t enjoy speaking about genealogy then perhaps it isn’t for you.  I have yet to meet anyone who has said they don’t enjoy speaking in public about what they love.

New Models

Here are my ideas on what changes are taking place already in terms of genealogy speaking and what we might see in the future:

  • The webinar or virtual presentation method will continue to have a big impact on the genealogy industry. With rising gas prices and the expenses involved in hosting a speaker, more societies and venues will take advantage of this delivery method.
  • The industry needs resources to help genealogy speakers make the transition to webinar speaking. It is not the same as speaking in public and the technology element can be a bit intimidating.
  • More inspirational talks.  While getting down to the nitty gritty of how to’s and methodology is needed, one way to attract newcomers to genealogy is to inspire them. We’ll see more of these types of talks developed.
  • More events will incorporate live streaming and other means of allowing far-flung participants to at least get a taste of a conference.  This means more technology and having more of a stage presence as a speaker.
  • Intellectual property rights will be tested especially with webinars and recordings.  Make sure you are clear in your contract as to what can and cannot be done with any recording.


Genealogy speaking is just one component of my business model and what I do in the genealogy community.  I feel it keeps me “grounded” in that I can get out there and speak with members of the community in person.  Just like we tell folks that not everything can be found online when it comes to genealogy resources, the same is true for interacting with the community.  It takes place in person and for me, speaking in public in front of an appreciative crowd is one way for me to make that connection.

Disclosure:  Please see Disclosure Statements for more information on my material connection with genealogy societies and vendors.

©2011, copyright Thomas MacEntee

16 thoughts on “Genealogy Conferences – Delivering the Content

  1. I hope you’re right about the new models. I actually love public speaking, but travel is tough for me right now.

    I also hope that the rise of the online genealogical community will mean that there are a greater variety of speakers featured at events. I’m amazed that some conferences continue to feature the same people over and over and over. I like to see new faces!

  2. Toastmasters is a wonderful low cost organization for genealogy speakers to hone and practice their public speaking skills. I’ve been a member for 8 years and joining was the best thing I ever did.

    Re speakers at conferences – theme conferences are good although it is still important to have a nice mix of speakers on varying topics in order to appeal to more people. Technology talks are hot these days (look at the interest in Rootstech with the intermingling of the programmers and genelaogists).

    There are a lot of interested folks out there asking “How do I get started researching my family tree?”. We need to find ways to engage and connect with them.

    I like what Holly’s Family History Expos are doing with their regional conferences. She also gives new speakers a chance to get started.

    SCGS Jamboree is another organization that is doing very well at attracting attendees with top notch speakers and topics and a very well run conference.

    I haven’t been to FGS, NGS etc….yet! Soon I hope.

  3. As you said, speaking can be very tiring. Some presenters enjoy being ‘wined, dined and shown the sights’, but the organisers should discuss this with the speaker in advance. Those who work full-time (and are spending their only days off travelling to and presenting the seminar) may prefer a quiet dinner and an early night. ‘Coffee after the seminar’ is often a good way for the speaker and organisers to get to know each other better.

  4. This is another excellent post and discussion topic. You really hit the mark with summarizing the life of a genealogy speaker. I’ve been on the speaking circuit for over 10+ years now and would just like to add some comments. First, for those just starting out, it takes time to build your niche and your audience. Don’t be disappointed or take it personally if you are not accepted to speak at the national conferences or big venues on your first (or in some cases, second, third, or fourth!) try. I do agree with Kerry’s comment about more variety and hoping to see new speakers for some of the larger events. I also think it is important to always have some “How do I begin” talks to draw in the “newbies.”

    If you are trying to break in, just as in genealogical research, it is good to begin “at home” or locally. In addition to Toastmasters, you should try contacting your local genealogical or historical societies and libraries to see what events they will be holding in the next year and ask them if they are looking for speakers. You may have to do a few “freebie” or volunteer gigs before working your way up to receiving a speaker’s fee. But, it will give you a chance to practice and try out presentations, and build confidence. Also, you may wish to consider trying to speak to an ethnic genealogical society. Many have local or regional conferences (some even national). My first large speaking engagement was in 2001 at the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International’s conference (and I still speak at their events). I have never forgotten that they gave me my start as a genealogy speaker. The Family History Expos is another great venue. Holly does a great job with planning regional events and bringing in new speakers.

    I also agree that presenting for the webinar format is different than in-person speaking. For me the hardest thing is getting used to talking to the “computer screen” and not seeing the faces in the crowd. When you speak in person you can usually tell how engaged your audience is in what you are saying and you receive verbal feedback and cues. That being said, I like both methods of speaking–in person and virtual. The points about taking steps to safeguard one’s content/intellectual property are really important and I will be revising my speaker’s contract accordingly.

    Thanks, Thomas, for another engaging topic!

  5. I am so happy for this discussion. It has helped me to understand some of the joys and frustrations of other speakers.

    I have been a genealogy speaker for the past 20+ years. It all began when I was the local LDS Family History Center Director, and many of the local churches were interested in why we do what we do. I spoke at many of those churches, some in surrounding town, took lots of pedigree and family group sheets with me, and got many, many people on the road to tracing their family history.

    Then came the societies. County societies somehow found me and off I went. Eventually, the organizers of our state’s annual conference requested me and even asked for certain lectures. I developed about twenty or so, had tons of transparencies for overhead projectors, and spoke at the conference about every other year. I now have the luxury of my laptop and projector that goes along with me, even when the host society has their own. I know my equipment – and it knows me.

    Three years ago, I was invited to speak at BYU, and will be there again this summer to speak.

    But, I have never been able to break into the National Conferences (FGS, NGS), Each time I submit a proposal, I can look forward to the rejection letter that I know I will get. When I look at the lineup of presenters that are chosen, many of their topics are similar to mine. I guess because many of them have published, perhaps they are a bigger draw.

    Now, I’m getting older. I’ve had a few health issues. While I would have loved to do the national conferences, traveling would not be as easy as it would have been a few years ago. I don’t even bother to submit anymore. I already know what the answer will be.

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