How to choose the right speaker for your event

It’s nearing the end of August—here comes conference season once again!

When it’s your role to choose the speakers for your next annual conference, company meeting, or special event, you wield significant power over its success. Choosing the right presenter can mean the difference between basking in the glory of a memorable event, or bearing the brunt of criticism for selecting an inappropriate speaker!

Choose one of your own industry presenters when:

  • The information and the message to convey is highly clinical and industry specific.
  • The speaker needs academic knowledge, specific background or education, to understand the nuances of your industry’s history, politics and corporate culture.
  • The event budget is intensely restricted, and it’s too difficult to justify “outside help” when you have passable people in your own backyard.

Choose a Guest Speaker when:

  • The themes and messages to convey are broad and universal. All industries care about leadership, team building, attitude and behaviour around dealing with change , inter-personal communications, conflict resolution, stress management, service excellence, etc. A fine quality guest speaker will research and customize their subject of expertise to specifically address your industry’s needs.
  • You suspect the audience will perceive the message to be more valuable and inspirational if delivered by an “outsider.” When internal representatives address touchy messages audiences may suspect hidden agendas, or wonder if the internal speaker has been coached by senior management. In such cases, a guest speaker is perceived as more objective. “Well if she says so… then it must be true!”
  • Potential staff presenters openly admit they are not the best choice for the topic in question.

When choosing a guest speaker, consider these 9 tips:

  1. Identify your meeting’s theme. “Why are these attendees coming together? What are our objectives? What do we want these people to walk away with?” Get clear about your meeting’s themes and objectives to help narrow down your guest speaker search.
  2. What kind of guest presentation will work best for your event? Project time frames for your agenda. A guest speaker works especially well to open or close your conference, or provide a change of pace over lunch. Audiences enjoy events that are framed with universal topics, which help bring the energy together, or point the way ahead with enthusiasm. A 60 minute keynote is very common for a guest speaker keynote. Depending on the total length of your conference, a breakout session, half or full day in-house workshop facilitation around a broad conference theme is also valuable.
  3. What type of speaker would work best for your needs? There’s a difference between a professional speaker and a celebrity speaker, a Canadian speaker and an American. Each brings their own magic to a conference. The way to ensure the best fit for your event is to ask, “What are the pros and cons of each type of speaker? What is best for our audience? What is our primary focus? Do we want this guest speaker to provide content or entertainment? Motivation and inspiration? Some of these aspects or all of them?”
  4. Make a list of the personality and character traits you’d like your speaker to demonstrate. Forthright and brass tax? Humorous? Content heavy? Inspirational and motivational? Consider the personality and chemistry of your own good group to ensure the right fit between audience and speaker.
  5. Identify your speaker budget. Research the market to get a realistic sense of what “things” cost–the variations in speakers’ fees. Research speaker fees by gathering information on two or three presenters. Fees may differ, and if they do, explore the deliverables for each. Find out exactly what the quoted fee includes, e.g., travel and accommodation expenses, printing costs, a supplementary breakout session, attendance at a pre or post-presentation on-site social event, etc. Will the speaker customize their presentation? Is there an additional fee for customization?
  6. Is your conference date etched in stone or is there flexibility? Do you need to find a guest speaker who can fit into your chosen date, or can you look for the right speaker for your event, and then choose a date that works for both?
  7. Word of mouth from a trusted colleague is one valuable method of exploring possibilities but, where that source isn’t available, consider reviewing the speaker’s website to get a greater sense of their subject matter expertise, years of service, credentials, clients, media coverage and testimonials. Are references available, if you’d like to go that far? Look for evidence of a diverse group of satisfied clients. Have they spoken in your industry? Are they published? Can you read a sampling of what they stand for, in print? Ask to hear a recording of one of their presentations or view the speaker’s work on their YouTube Channel (
  8. Do you have a pre-designed agreement for guest speaker bookings? If not, ask if the speaker works with a contract and specific terms, e.g., a clear list of what their fee does and does not include, percentage of retainer fee to hold the date, and the terms of the balance due, what happens if you must postpone/rescheduling terms, etc. Agreements work well for both parties because they clearly define all expectations and deliverables.
  9. Always insist on having the chance to talk directly with the speaker. The phone works just fine for this opportunity, but it must be the speaker you talk with, not merely their representative! At least some of your decision should be based on a visceral intuition that this person is the right speaker for your event. The best way to confirm that for yourself is some form of real time, direct contact.

There are times when one of your own will do, but remember this well-known phrase, “It’s hard to be a prophet in your own house.”

Like those wonderful “Magic Eye” 3D pictures that don’t make any sense until you pull back… a guest speaker helps the audience “get the picture” in a whole new way! All of a sudden, what was always there, but not seen, understood or accepted, becomes known to all! Have a great conference!

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