9 Unshakable Tips for Choosing Conference and Event Speakers

Event Keynote Speaker Selection Tips

When most people think back on an event and the things that left the strongest impression on them – both positive and negative – the first things that come to mind are…

  1. The food
  2. The venue/setting
  3. The speakers, content and/or entertainment

As an event professional, it’s usually pretty straightforward to get an idea of the venue and if they will be able to accommodate your needs. And you can always survey your attendees ahead of time to assess their culinary preferences and schedule a tasting with a caterer so you know exactly what you will be getting.

But properly sourcing, scouting, vetting and hiring keynote speakers as well as session speakers … well, that’s more art than science. And there’s a lot riding on how artful you are at choosing a speaker for your next conference, meeting, seminar, symposium, fundraiser, networking / industry event or any other kind of shindig.

So we asked a handful of industry experts who have either scouted and hired countless speakers for events or are speakers themselves to see what best practices they employ when deciding on who takes the microphone and the laser pointer.

1. Watch your prospective speakers perform

Hiring an event speaker without seeing them in action is like buying a car sight-unseen … you just don’t do it unless you have an unquenchable thirst for tempting fate.

“What you see is what you get,” says Mazda Miles, President of Perfection Events . “The best way to asses a speaker’s ability to be relevant and engaging is seeing how they’ve done that successfully for other organizations. Before contracting a speaker, I require video at minimum, and most times try to see if their travel schedule aligns at all with somewhere that I or one of my staff members can be to experience them first-hand.”

When you see a speaker live, you get a close-up look at all the nuances of the speaker and the reactions of the crowd, and you get to watch both as they interact with each other. It’s this interaction with the audience and the ability to read their reactions and adapt on the fly that separates top-flight speakers from the rest.

“Be sure to look at his or her video, ideally one filmed in front of a real audience,” affirms speaker and author Barry Maher . “What you want to see are continuous stretches of material, full stories, entire segments, rather than a lot of quick cuts and one liners. You’re trying to determine whether or not the speaker can sustain the audience’s interest.”

And if the speaker doesn’t have a reel … for a keynote speaker, that should be a dealbreaker, and for a session or secondary speaker, that should raise a red flag.

2. Look for speakers who research and prepare thoroughly (and who include you in the preparation)

Every speaker has their canned speech or a series of templated talks that they can draw on in a pinch. But for your events you don’t want just any speaker with their regurgitated riff they offered up at last week’s Elks lodge meeting … you want a tailored presentation that will appeal to the specific audience attending your event, which means the speaker will need to put in time either creating a speech from scratch or repurposing an existing speech with your audience (and the topics they appreciate) in mind.

“I’m looking to specifically understand how they approach various industries, sectors, and levels of professionals and in turn tailor the talk to be equally relevant and actionable to their specific audience,” says Mazda Miles.

Gauging a speaker’s understanding of the topics, industry and audience in play at your event is a great starting place, and you need to follow this up by making sure that the speech they will be preparing for your event ticks off all the requirements. So you also need to do your homework and work with the speaker to formulate the topic; review the meat of the content; review the drafts; and even watch them rehearse it (often done via video or Skype).

Just make sure to put all this in writing in your contract with your speakers so that they know and understand you require input and progress updates all along the way.

3. Make sure your speakers are willing to make pre- and post-speech appearances

Ever been to an event where the keynote speaker finishes, answers a few questions and then makes a mad dash for the door? It kinda makes the whole audience feel like he’s in a hurry to leave them (and that they weren’t really that important) and that he had better things to do than stick around and mingle.

“Making sure that speakers are open to speaking to attendees one-on-one is one of the determining factors of hiring for our events,” says Michelle Colon-Johnson, founder of 2 Dream Productions, a book publicist company.

Look at it like this … Often one of the big draws of any event is the keynote speaker or the main entertainment (BTW, some of the tips for choosing a keynote speaker can also apply to choosing an entertainment vendor), and the more time the crowd can spend with that person, the more special the night becomes for them. This is especially true if the speaker is famous, has achieved something notable or is revered among audience members. Giving your audience members one-on-one time with the speaker before and after the speech only enriches the experience.

“At the end of the day, our clients want keynote speakers to engage the audience before, during and after the event — driving attendance, maintaining their engagement and continuing the conversation,” affirms Mazda Miles.

4. Inquire if they have worked with other organizations like yours

Would you hire a motivational speaker who has little experience speaking to an audience of electrical engineers? Or would you hire a prominent nuclear physicist to motivate a telecom sales force? Probably not on both counts, and mainly because each of these speakers is out of their element.

Instead, you want to hire a speaker who knows your audience and has presented to them or something akin to them before. And this goes double for presentations or keynotes that deal with a specific subject matter or technical information … in those cases, people are attending because they want to be informed by an expert, and having a generalist speak may leave them feeling slighted.

“I recently talked with a meeting planner in the financial services industry whose boss was getting a great deal on a motivational speaker who speaks on his success in the car wash business,” relates Barry Maher. “Maybe he’ll be able to make it relevant. Maybe he won’t. And motivational speakers who don’t motivate are overpriced even if they’re free because they’ve damaged your meeting, wasted people’s time and annoyed your attendees.”

This is a great point to remember, because even a free speaker may cost you thousands when your attendees hit the exits early and decline to sign up for next year’s event because this year’s speaker was a dud.

5. Speakers who co-promote the event get special consideration

It’s always hard to market an event and get the word out, especially if it’s a new event or a one-off event that has no track record or no prior audience. Every event professional knows this, which is why we seek out every potential marketing avenue possible, including relationships with professional organizations, associations and anyone else with a membership or mailing list that hits our target market.

But often one avenue we overlook is having the speaker also pitch in and market the event to their marketing list (and, yes, the best speakers often have lists larger than the one on your computer). You can and should (if possible) negotiate this into their contract, and you can also give then incentive to market the event directly to their followers by giving them a cut of any registrations that come from their site or list (by way of some kind of affiliate program/tracking).

6. Place a priority on speakers who interview you

When first talking with and screening a potential event speaker, pay close attention to how many questions they ask and how interested they are in your mission and your audience. You certainly don’t want a speaker who dominates the conversation and steamrolls over you, but you also don’t want a pure order-taker who just sees your event as another notch on their belt.

Unfortunately, lots of event professionals don’t think about seeking out a speaker who asks challenging questions and provokes dialogue regarding what the speech and presentation should say and inspire, and Marian Thier, speaker and partner at Listening Impact, knows this all too well.

“Too often event planners look at speakers as a slot to fill rather than as a thought-provoker that will be what the attendees remember about a conference or off-site,” says Thier. “When someone calls me to speak at an event and I ask for a profile of the audience, their learning criteria, and the purpose of the keynote, if the caller cannot provide intelligent and detailed responses, I refuse the request because it’s a clear sign their client wants an edutainer, which I am not. Or, the event planner and their client haven’t spent nearly enough time talking about the role and responsibilities of the keynote.”

So if you have a potential speaker who engages with you from the outset, you have found someone who should at least make it to the next stage of the selection process only because they care enough to ask tough questions and are showing the effort and diligence they will bring to the role of the keynote speaker for your event.

7. Beware of speakers looking to make extra money selling their wares

Event budgets are like any other budget these days in that you are usually forced to do more with less. And after spending money on food, venues, decor, transportation, etc., often you don’t have much money left over. This is why it is often very tempting to save money on a speaker by selecting either someone who is an amateur and will speak for the exposure or someone who will make their money back by promoting their own books, videos and other products.

Both come with their own caveats. The amateur will probably not be as polished and may not be able to read the audience if their presentation starts to nosedive with the audience. The professional who is promoting their new book or seminar may place too much emphasis on selling and not enough on educating and inspiring, which can make audience members angry, especially if they have paid a registration fee for the event. I know I have been peeved at events for which I have shelled out for a ticket only to hear a speaker blather on about their wares or their business. Because it should never be about the speaker … it should always be about the attendees.

Be even more wary of a paid speaker who still wants to promote their wares. “If someone is wanting to sell their product so they can make more, look for someone else,” says Dave Phillipson of CEO Space. “You can always get them to include their book in the speaking price, usually for just a small amount more.”

8. Understand the risks of high-priced, high-profile speakers

High-priced, high-profile motivational or celebrity speakers can certainly be a big draw, and if you have the budget for them it’s hard to turn down that kind of appeal that could sell out your event.

However, in the words of Barry Maher, “Remember there’s not necessarily a correlation between speaker quality and pricing.”

So even though they may bring lots of people through the doors, a high-profile celebrity or motivational speaker can still lay an egg when it comes to the content they provide (if it’s not relevant to the audience) or their connection to the audience (if, say, they mistakenly identify the audience as travel agents when in fact it is composed of corporate event managers in charge of travel budgets, which one motivational speaker actually did). In addition, they can suck up so much of your event budget that everything else on the program suffers, including your second- and third-tier speakers. The market may be willing to bear Bill Clinton’s $250K speaking fees, but your event may not be able to bear it if everything else suffers and attendees are left with a mixed experience.

“The question always is, do the high profile speakers generate enough interest and ultimately enough satisfaction to cover their costs?” says Maher. “Some at the very high end may well [deserve it]. The gray area are those high-priced second tier and third tier celebrities. I’d want to make absolutely sure they were also great speakers – and a number of them are – before paying a fee that could have been used to fill several hours with quality sessions or, for that matter, improve the quality of the lunch.”

9. Check unlisted references

Every event, meeting or convention speaker, even the most mediocre ones, have good references who will attest to their stellar abilities. So you need to dig deeper regarding references for your speakers. And it goes without saying that calling on references is a must.

The best way to do this is to research what events they have spoken at in the past and call the organizers of those events to get the real skinny. Remember that many people won’t want to dump on a conference or meeting speaker when they did a substandard job … why kick a guy (or speaker) when he’s down, right? If this is the case, listen for criticism couched in noncommittal phrases and kind excuses (like “it wasn’t really his fault” or “she was having a bad week”).