Okay, I’ll admit, it may not be a “science”, but there is a proven system to choosing keynote speakers that can greatly increase your chance of making the perfect choice. For 30 years I have worked with a huge spectrum of speakers, from little-known rising stars to the biggest names on the planet, and I have seen both home-runs and strikeouts when it comes to choices for keynote presenters.
So here is my system, developed from the experience of thousands of event planners, speaker agents, and speakers. The system uses a set of continuums that allow you to adjust between two different points of view. Based upon the expectation of your attendees, the needs of your organization and sponsors, and your financial resources, you can use any or all of these continuums to help guide you in your selection of your speaker.:
Think or Feel – Do you want your audience to think a certain way about something or to feel a certain way. If you choose thinking, then credentialed experts who have skills in explaining a targeted area of thought is most important. For feeling, it is more important to identify speakers who can manipulate emotions and behavior. Most choices lie in a middle section, balancing expertise with motivational skills. But take the time to measure what will help best accomplish the goals of the event.
Issues or Solutions – You will find that some speakers are amazing at delving into the problems or issues impacting us, such as discussing the growth and threats of cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism to homes and organizations. Others are focused more on developing of solutions, such as specific strategies to protect your family or business from cyber-attacks. One talks about the problem, the other talks about how to act on these problems. Again, most choices float somewhere in the middle, balancing the need for awareness with some prescription for action.
Marquee or Bargain – We all want that huge name as out keynote, but with speaking fees sky-rocketing, most of us can’t afford the bigger names. Yet we don’t know if a lower priced speaker will deliver on the perceived value of the conference, match the brand value of the organization, and/or draw additional attendees to the event. The middle ground tends to balance apparent name-recognition with the discovery of a diamond in the rough, or at least someone who has a background with enough gravitas to impress a portion of attendees.
Tailored or Boilerplate – This seems like an obvious choice, but the truth is most speakers will boilerplate almost all of their speech content. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as most speaker spend years honing their presentations to be absolutely perfect upon delivery. Tailoring can work out great if done with care, but can hurt if done superficially. Balance the two sides based on the expectations of your audience and the needs of your event.
White Men or Anyone Else – Eight out of ten keynote speakers at major business conferences are white men. It is not a knock against white guys, but it is a reflection of American cultural norms. We base our “speaker shopping” based upon acceptable standards of great keynote speakers. And most of our prior experiences with keynote business speakers have been white men. On an almost purely subconscious level, we are comparing women, minorities and foreign nationals to our narrow perceptions of these great keynotes. I encourage you to shake up these norms and spend time broadening the pool of candidates, taking some chances on non-traditional choices.
Agent or Self – Not all agents are created equal…some are downright terrible. But a good number of speaker agents are amazing trusted resources, with deep product knowledge, extensive experiences working with events, and deep relationships with speakers…all of which can be invaluable to event organizers. Doing the leg work yourself can also be highly rewarding, yielding direct relationships with speakers and possible costs savings. But it can also take much more time and can lack some perspective. If you self-shop, build a network of other event organizers, go to events showcasing keynote speakers, and religiously follow YouTube and Vimeo for candidates.
And here are some of my own personal rules that help make for better keynote session:
- If possible, always choose speakers who move about the stage versus someone who is planted at the podium.
- Great stories are better than bullet points.
- Panel discussions are better on tall stools than in low cushioned seats.
- Questions from the audience are better sent thru Twitter.
- Pre-event calls with you and the speaker are critical, so spend more time exploring avenues of content and connection with the audience, and less time reviewing general event details (that can be gleaned from the contract anyway).