How to choose a conference speaker

Essentially conference speakers fall into several distinct categories; and it’s important to know the difference in order to choose the right level of presenter for your next event…

Let’s examine the wide range of available speakers and the typical work they do in order to help you properly plan the agenda of your next conference; as presenters range from entry-level through to guru status – and there are marked differences in the way each works and operates:

Entry level speakers: Usually new to the circuit, this subset of speakers are the most inexpensive. Having emerged from organisations like Toastmasters or even Professional Speaker Associations, they’re often willing to work for a minimal fee or none at all as they haven’t yet established a positioning in the market or their own individual brand.

The danger with using such speakers at a business conference is that they are usually focused on themselves than the client or the audience and the ‘proof’ of their content remains largely untested. Often newly emerging speakers mimic or parrot content from external sources as well; being unable to create meaningful keynotes with unique insights or content owing to their overall lack of expertise. A good test of this is determine how much of their material is made up with non-proprietary video clips or images.

When given an opportunity to speak, and often appointed by colleagues or associates who ‘know them’ – the risks of failure or embarrassment to the conference organizer, and delegates themselves, are amplified. It’s the old ‘catch-22’ I’m afraid… as everyone needs a starting point… and it’s extremely difficult for entry-level speakers to establish a presence in the mainstream professional conference market.

Journeymen: One notch up from the entry level category in both experience and fee; journeymen have ‘cut their first teeth’ often from working at schools, charity functions and lower level or smaller business conferences.

Beginning to establish both their own content and positioning, the risk factors here still remain high for conference organizers and audiences alike; unless such speakers are chosen from within their own ‘industry’, which may mitigate some concerns.

The bulk of speakers in the marketplace are found at this level, and this sector is full of trainers and coaches who ‘want to keynote’… yet in truth are unable, or confident enough, to break into the higher levels of the speaker market. This sector of the marketplace often use keynotes opportunistically as a means to earn some income whilst attempting to upsell their own (hopeful additional income) training or intervention exercise materials.  Such veiled attempts tend to irritate audiences and conference delegates alike.

Professional speakers: Whilst there are no hard and fast rules to determine the professionalism of speakers in the speaker industry, a general rule should be applied into their qualification criteria; these are speakers who earn their full-time income from the conference circuit, working at least four times a month and deliver pure content (without a hint of other training or available up-selling courses in their portfolios).

Normally either industry or subject specialists, their CV’s should show at least a background of in excess of 100 large-scale events and their names should garner some category recognition, along with their CV’s carrying some well-weighted testimonials from larger organizations. This category represents approximately, in my experience, only one in 100 of the available speakers in the market.

As an acid test, most professional speakers will insist on a pre-event conference brief and are prepared to tailor-make their presentations in order to suit the theme, content, tone and style of the event for which they are booked. Good professional speakers also come at a daily rate, rather than a one-off keynote cost.  Keen to absorb themselves in the make-up and construct of every event, they will usually seek to add additional value in the form of being involved in a panel discussion or Q&A session, and at the very least avail themselves for mixing and mingling with delegates post-keynote.

Gurus: Whilst the title here speaks for itself, there are two ways in which speakers attain this moniker. Either their craft has eventually propelled them into the highly sought after category, or they have some trigger mechanism in the form of a best-selling book or track record in their field.

The acid test for determining whether a speaker is a guru or not is simply to type their names into Google and see what results come up related to them and their materials. (Whilst I’m a recognizable global speaker by the way – typing my name into your search engine isn’t always going to get me…hence my brand name of ‘the other Michael Jackson’.. so try that instead!)

Gurus charge slightly less than our next category of speaker – celebrities – but still quite handsomely. They’ve generally got upwards of five professional years under their belts in order to be deserving of this title, and will always have solid global, leading company references behind them.

Gurus are few and far between and as a general rule of thumb represent one in 500 ‘available’ speakers across the assorted categories. Worth their fee, they’ll energise and illuminate every event they address and the conference organizer will usually bask in later corporate glory for having sourced and hired them!

One aspect of speaker bookings in this category which strongly applies here, is that in the real world, CEO’s normally want a guru speaker who is a recognizable name for their event, whilst conference organisers seek those with great content. This category of speaker will meet both sets of these demands.

Celebrities: The cult of celebrity lives on long and hard in today’s conferencing arena. This category, although only 1 in 1 000 of available speakers) is filled with reality TV ‘stars’, multi-million copy selling authors and a wealth of politicians, actors and assorted business leaders.

By far and away the most expensive category, it needs to be remembered that the celebrity is usually hired for his or her own brand. Less concerned with the client, the conference or the audience – often spectacular conference failures occur here, and very expensively too – as celebrities tend to be surrounded by sycophants, come with extortionate demands, are very difficult to deal with or brief directly and often stick to a predetermined, chiseled in stone, performance’.

Whilst their name may be enough to carry them through the booking process… it needs to be remembered that best-selling authors are best-sellers because they write good books, are are not necessarily wonderful at speaking, and politicians are usually well-versed in reading scripts rather than delivering keynotes. Celebrities also tend to have their keynotes crafted for them, in the same way that ghost-writers have often created their books and other materials! “Caveat emptor” is a great phrase to keep in mind whilst considering this category…

Summary: Whilst there is both a place and space across the conferencing arena for all shapes and sizes of speakers – determining the rate of return from any speaker investment must remain top of mind for anyone booking an outside presenter.

Values and costs may vary but professionalism runs deep and true. A detailed critical look through a speaker’s website, plus a detailed conversation with a speaker bureau, should only be a starting point; thereafter, as every professional speaker knows and wants, a solid conversation with the shortlisted candidates is essential.

With the amount of investment into corporate eventing being as significant as it is today, and only one chance to get it right…never, ever short change the proper selection process.