So you want to book a speaker for your event or conference.

Having been a professional speaker for the past 20 years I have had the privilege of travelling throughout the world speaking at and watching some brilliant speakers and some not so brilliant speakers. Several years ago I was asked to present to a group of HR Managers and recruiters at a conference in the United States. It was a very professionally organised event with the organisers at the top of their game. The conference, of which there were 2000 delegates in attendance, was meticulously planned to every last detail. Many, if not most, delegates attending that event where obliviously unaware of all the extensive planning that goes into putting on a great event: Staging, lighting, audio visual, venue, accommodation, catering, marketing & advertising, programming, tradeshows, ticketing and of course keynote speakers. 

Basically all the little subtleties and attention to detail is what can make the difference between a good conference and a great conference. My first point of contact was the event manager/coordinator for the conference. As a speaker who specialises in communications and body language my attention was quickly drawn to Suzie’s (not her real name) stress and frustration. She confided that one of the speakers that was presenting before my allotted time was demanding and complaining about a number of issues. To say she was flustered was an understatement. In all the years that I have been speaking I have had nothing but positive interactions with conference and event organisers. These are the professionals in the conference industry that create magic and are adept at dealing with the inevitable problems that surface from time to time but Suzie was the exception.  My immediate thought was that she was under extreme pressure and matters were further exacerbated by the recalcitrant speaker. 

Stress affects people differently and I felt for Suzie.  After some minor issues were fixed the speaker concerned finally stepped on stage. I was expecting an industry expert or a professional and engaging speaker but as this speaker commenced her presentation it was apparent she was neither. In fact she was a former reality television star that was out of her depth. In fact she was awful. She was off point, had no regard for the conference theme, her language was off colour and she talked for 60 minutes about her experiences on the show. If this wasn’t bad enough she made one of the biggest errors a speaker can make, she went over her allotted time. This is not only a grave error and inconsiderate but affects every speaker following and frustrates conference organisers to the extreme.

Her presentation lacked relevance, had no key take aways and had little entertainment or educational value. Her attempts at humour also fell flat. I, together with the audience, cringed as we watched this train wreck ramble on for what felt like an eternity. I glanced over in Suzie’s direction and noticed her constant head shaking as she sunk into her seat. Suzie’s head and shoulder slump indicated defeat and frustration. As everyone watched on in disbelief,  I couldn’t help but think why on earth was she booked to speak at this event. After the presentation I was present when Suzie was critically castigated and maligned for booking the television reality “celebrity”.

It took me back a couple of years prior to where I watched an actor/celebrity deliver a presentation to large and eager group of conference delegates in Las Vegas.  The actor was a household name but unfortunately a terrible speaker who rambled on for 50 minutes about everything from politics to the state of the economy totally oblivious to the reaction of the audience. It was excruciating.

It made me think what are the top things to look for, or to expect, when booking a high end speaker for an event. After many years in the industry and having dealt with many event managers these are the top 8 non-negotiables when booking a keynote speaker that need to be considered.

Can the speaker add value to your conference or event? 

Any speaker that you consider should be engaging, entertaining and relevant. These three factors are critical when booking any speaker.

Is the speaker an authority or expert on the subject?

I was once put forward by a bureau to speak about counterfeiting at a banking and finance conference. When the consultant rang me about my availability and asked if I could talk about the subject I told him that I didn’t  know the first thing about counterfeiting as it wasn’t my subject material. It reminds me of the saying you don’t get a plumber to re-wire your house!

Have you seen the speaker present or do they come highly recommended?

This is important. A good rule of thumb here is if a speaker is good at what they do organisers will book them and often re-book them. Secondly word or mouth travels quickly, very quickly, if a speaker is good or bad. View youtube videos, check who the speaker has delivered to in the past and ask for their feedback and opinions.

Is the speaker’s topic relevant

This is dependent on what you want to achieve. If the speaker/entertainer is to provide a light break in between other speakers such as a comedian/juggler or singer that’s fine. If you want to break up the conference with a little light relief or a break from heavy content this is a popular approach. If however you want the speaker to be on topic then a speaker with industry experience or relevance is the way to go.  

Is the speaker easy to work with?

Good speakers will often work directly with organisers. They care about the conference outcomes and want to deliver value to the client, delegates and audiences. Demanding and difficult speakers are often very early identified.

Has the speaker demonstrated to you during the briefing that they are a good fit for your conference theme?

I will always ask an organiser what the intended theme for the conference is. I want to know the following:

  • What is the theme?
  • What are the intended outcomes?
  • What is the message/s you want to get across to the audience?
  • Do you have anything in particular that you want to have addressed by the speaker?
  • Is the presentation instructional, educational, entertaining, inspirational, motivational?
  • Would you like the audience to be provided with a summary of the speaker’s presentation?

Have you asked the speaker what their key take aways are?

Sometimes speakers either provide too much material or not enough. Balance is the key here. It is far better to provide two or three key takeaways that the audience can remember and put into practice than a dozen they may forget. Research in neuro-science indicates that when a customer is faced with too many choices (information) they struggle to make decisions. I say to speakers that I have trained to keep it simple, effective with not too many takeaways unless you are going to supply them with a summary of some form.

Does the speaker you are considering offer you a good ROI (Return on Investment)

My speaker fee is high but it represents value. Several years ago I created and offered a 100% satisfaction guarantee approach. I don’t know of any professional speaker who offer this type of guarantee. If you are not 100% satisfied or happy with my presentation there is no speaker fee. Simple. I have never had a client demand a refund. This takes confidence from a speaker to offer but it provides relief to conference and event organisers. They can’t and won’t lose financially if the speaker is not up to scratch. It also provides accountability from the speaker to provide value. If I can’t offer or provide a measurable return on investment or valuable content to my clients then I shouldn’t be charging them for it.

Value for money is one of the biggest considerations to ponder when selecting a high end speaker. A return can be measured financially or via productivity or knowledge gains. When deciding on a speaker and considering their fee an organiser needs to take into account the following:

  • Will the speaker bring in an audience (bums on seats)?
  • Are they fun, engaging and entertaining
  • Does the speaker add value to the conference?
  • Is there a measurable return on investment for the client?

If any of the answers to the above questions is no then you should consider another speaker who can provide what you are looking for.

Steve is a keynote speaker who has delivered 600 plus keynotes around the world on body language, detecting deception, reading your customers and increasing profits. For more information visit