Over the years, mishaps like car accidents, food poisoning, broken bones, and even flightpaths blocked by volcanic ash have prevented executive speakers on our roster from making it to their scheduled conference sessions.  Life happens and sometimes it gets in the way of a well-planned, well-rehearsed speaking engagement. But what do you do if it happens to you or one of your company’s executives?

Don’t panic. You need to stay calm and figure out rational next steps. Two factors that make a difference in your response is 1) when the conference takes place and 2) the type of speaking engagement that is scheduled.

If you, or your executive speaker, must pull out of an opportunity within two weeks of an engagement, contact the conference organizer immediately. I always suggest that this outreach come from the speaker directly to demonstrate that they are truly sorry, understand the magnitude of the inconvenience they’ve caused and are not too busy to deal with it themselves. If the conference is still a month or more away, you should still contact the conference manager, but you may want to take a day or two to find a replacement speaker who is definitely available and appropriate.

When the speaker sends the apology note, they should include the reason they must pull out of the event. This is not necessary, but it shows the conference that they are not simply quitting the opportunity because they are unprepared or no longer feel like traveling. If that is the reason the speaker won’t be attending – you should remove them from your speaker roster. Conferences are a business and pulling a speaker from an event is the same as pulling a product off the shelf right before the holiday shopping season. The conference organizers can no longer deliver what they promised attendees. You would not want your suppliers or vendors to put you in that position.  

If the speaker’s session is a keynote, or a solo session, you should have a surrogate speaker in mind when you reach out to the conference organizers. Is there someone within your organization who can speak to the topic credibly and also has a title comparable to the originally scheduled keynoter? Perfect. If there is no one within your organization, can you offer a customer or partner? Someone you know who has a practiced speech fitting of the event theme? Even if you have not had time to confirm them, it may be helpful share ideas with the conference organizers. Sometimes the conference has a list of speakers who already expressed interest in speaking in the case of late cancellations. So, do not be surprised or offended if the event organizers won’t accept your substitute.

When speaker cancellations happen, it puts everyone in a difficult position. Remember that the way you deal with it can make the difference between being invited back to future conferences or being blacklisted. Empathy and resourcefulness are the two elements that can make the difference.