Hiring a Headliner – How to Select a Star Performer for Your Keynote Presentation

Top Tips for How to Select a keynote Speaker

The centerpiece of any conference, company meeting, or special event is the keynote speaker. Selecting the right speaker can make the difference between a memorably successful event and one that is an embarrassment to the hosts. But don’t let that freak you out – we’ve got a cheat sheet to help you.

Start by defining the event rather than building it around a certain event. Your keynote speaker is one elements that supports the event objective. So even though securing a speaker is one of the longer lead-time tasks, the event strategy must be determined before selection. This includes the event theme, logistics, audience profile, event objectives, definition of expectations for the speaker and benchmarks for event and speaker success. The strategy will help you identify the right speaker profile.

There may be times when it makes sense to feature a company “insider” – the CEO, product leader, GM or divisional leader as the keynote speaker. Typically, this is the case when there is a great deal of industry or company-specific expertise required for the address. Times of great change – positive or negative – also cry out for a company insider to speak. There may have been a recent company merger or major acquisition, substantial industry or regulatory business shifts, or new product or policy changes that substantially impact the audience. These are times when the community – employees, customers, partners and investors – want to hear a strong message from leadership as to strategic direction and action forward. No one has more credibility than company leadership, so take advantage of your best resource, a high-level company leader.

Some organizations are fortunate enough to have a leader who has achieved celebrity status in their ecosystem so is the best person to address the audience. This was certainly the case with Steve Jobs at Apple, and is the case for chief evangelists within developer communities, and with the likes of Dr. Kathy Fields and Dr. Katie Rodan the brand “faces” of multi-level marketing company, Rodan+Fields. In these cases, go with your strength and showcase your leader.

There are practical considerations to take into account, too. High profile speakers can mean big budgets, so be sure to allocate enough for this line item. And know thyself. If your internal resources won’t represent your company well, no matter how much preparation and coaching, a guest speaker is absolutely required.

Still thinking a celebrity guest will be the showpiece of your event? You should choose this option when you need to:

  • Reinforce an event theme with broad appeal or universal themes
  • Support a specific agenda item for the event, so want a speaker that supports that agenda
  • Want to create buzz in your community and expand your attendee audience, so need the celebrity appeal

Plan, Plan, Plan

Now that your event strategy is in place, execution begins. Securing a speaker can be a project all on its own, so take advantage of the advice of industry experts like The Goodman Speakers Bureau, Inc. in Windsor, CT, who provide entertainers and professional high-profile speakers for corporate events. They have authored helpful resources, both a checklist and workbook, entitled Survive the Search, to help you identify and select the right speaker.

Audition Your Speaker

That’s right. Watch your prospective speakers in action. At best go see them live at an event so you can experience their ability to engage an audience first hand. At a minimum, watch a video filmed in front of a live audience. This isn’t the time for sound bites and quick quips.

“Be sure to look at his or her video, ideally one filmed in front of a real audience,” affirms motivational speaker 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.”

“A” for Effort

Look for a speaker who will work with you to customize their presentation to your event. Each speaker has their core message, which is part of the reason you’ve selected them. But skillfully weaving that message into the objective and messaging of your event takes preparation and interaction, and you’re looking for a speaker who is willing to make that investment in order to deliver a meaningful and relevant message to your audience, not a message they could have heard at any event.
This requires some work of you as well to evaluate what you want out of your speaker, how well they understand your industry and the issues that are important to your audience. If there is a Q&A or interactive section you will need to collaborate to write, review and rehearse that portion.

Which means you must . . .

Set Expectations Clearly

If you want your speaker to remain after the speaking session to interact with the audience, ensure you set that expectation and include this in the contract. If this is a large stage setting, this may not be a need, but don’t leave any detail like this to chance or assumption. This is particularly true because speakers need to ensure schedules will accommodate or security considerations may need to be made. If this is a high-profile politician, it is not uncommon to have a specific number of “with the celebrity” pictures negotiated into the contract.

Is your speaker a social media maven? Do you expect your speaker to promote their presence at your event? Often these speakers have extensive networks and event bigger followings, so can amplify the reach of your own marketing efforts. If their network makes sense for your event, spell out your expectations for co-promotion. It can benefit you both.

Buyer Beware

When selecting a speaker, you’re looking for “just right”, so it’s important to be careful not to underpay or overpay. The risk of getting a speaker at a “bargain” price is that you may have selected someone who wants the promotional exposure to sell their latest product, book, or other venture, or you have an amateur. You can usually filter out the amateur through your audition and other vetting processes, but the bargain price for the promotionally-minded speaker is harder. Again, setting expectations up front and in the contract can help mitigate this behavior.

The risk with the high-priced, high-profile speaker is one of hubris. They can most certainly be a big draw, but if they don’t provide content that’s relevant to the audience or take the time to prepare and understand and adapt their message to your audience and event theme, the keynote can fall flat. There is one recent remarkable example of a Hollywood actor and director who performed so badly at a business conference that by the time he completed his talk, the room was two-thirds empty and the corresponding Twitter backchannel was the most compelling story to be told. (The resultant “#420Friendly” isn’t really the hashtag most businesses want associated with their conference keynotes.) Needless to say, it was not a great experience.

Check references

Just like a regular hire, you will check references. And just like any candidate, every speaker will have good references who will sing the speaker’s praises. So just like you would when you hire a candidate, you’ll want to dig deep and check second or third level references. Ask the reference for a reference. Check their network. Ask who else has used them. Double check your network. See where they have spoken in the past and contact the event organizers – especially those who do not appear on their reference list.

When you do talk to references, be very specific about your requirements and ask about the specific types of things that the speaker did for the reference. Did they co-promote the event? Did they stay after their engagement and answer questions? Did they engage in interactive dialogue? Did they prepare well?

In the end, it’s about the audience and the experience you want to deliver to them through the keynote – how the audience reacts and the actions and atmosphere that is created for the rest of the event and for the following weeks and beyond – both at the event, through social media, and through the excitement and information that your attendees bring back to their colleagues. So follow these formal planning steps, but also your own good judgement, in selecting a stellar speaker for your next event.

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