Event speakers: How to choose a winner?


It is claimed that the first things people remember about an event are the food, the venue and, finally, the speaker.

While the first two can be easily sorted out with a modicum of professionalism, the choice of the right speaker and the right topic is usually much more demanding. As a recent article on the subject asserts, drawing on a handful of industry experts with huge combined experience, the main lesson is to acknowledge that ‘properly sourcing, scouting, vetting and hiring keynote speakers…is more art than science. And there’s a lot riding on how artful you are…’

The key tips this panel propose are as follows:

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’.

‘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…’ Speaker and author Barry Maher says that ‘To be sure to look at his or her video, ideally one filmed in front of a real audience’. And he says that ‘if the speaker doesn’t have a reel…that should be a deal breaker…’

2. Look for speakers who research and prepare thoroughly

‘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…lodge meeting…you want a tailored presentation that will appeal to the specific audience attending your event…’

‘Gauging a speaker’s understanding of the topics, industry and audience in play at your event is a great starting point…you 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)’. And make sure you put all of this in writing in your contract with the speaker.

3. Ensure your speaker is willing to make an appearance before and after

To avoid a feeling of desertion or disregard by the audience, it is most important that the speaker is open to talking with the audience on a one-on-one basis or in small groups both before and after his talk. The speaker’s engagement with the audience, especially if he is a high profile figure, can make all the difference in how the audience rates the occasion.

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

Basically, you need to hire a speaker who knows the interests of your audience and has presented to some group akin to them before. And this is even more so for presentations or keynotes that deal with a specific subject matter or involve a technical field. In such cases, people have chosen to attend because they want to be informed by an expert, and having merely a generalist speak may leave them feeling slighted. Barry Maher puts it bluntly, ‘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’.

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

Every professional organizer knows how hard it can be to market an event, especially if it’s a new event or a one-off with no track record. One needs to exploit every potential marketing route, not least relationships with professional organizations, associations and anyone else with a membership or mailing list that hits your target audience. One avenue often overlooked is to have the speaker market the event to their mailing list (and some of the top speakers have lists larger than many professional organizations). If appropriate, negotiate this into the speaker’s contract and provide a consideration for each registration that materializes from the speaker’s list.

6. Beware the risks of high-priced, high-profile speakers

Celebrity speakers can always draw a large audience but they can also bust your budget if you’re not careful. And it doesn’t follow that just because they are very well known and are costing a fortune that they will satisfy your audience. Do they, for instance, know anything about what interests the audience and are they prepared to focus their mind sufficiently to attend to the content of the talk? In short, can they take their attention off themselves and direct it to what the audience wants to hear. If not, save your money and find a more appropriate speaker.

To conclude, if you want to be sure of a truly successful event – one that satisfies all of the above considerations – you have to do your homework. The payoff? Praise for months to come, the appreciation of the audience, a boost to your brand with some assurances for future events, and, not least, the satisfaction that you have pulled off a solid and professional achievement.

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