Picking the Perfect Professional Speaker for Your Event

Posted On: October 19

Hiring a professional speaker for your event is a big decision. Not only is the actual speaker expensive, but the overall costs that include all of the attendees, the hotel rooms, the food and drinks (especially the drinks!), the AV company, and everything else that goes into hosting a conference or corporate meeting can be wasted if the keynote speaker is a flop. So, after more than twenty years of attending and speaking at major conferences around the world, I have taken the time to provide my best advice on how to pick the right speaker for your event.

Determine the Type of Speaker

First, answer the question, “Why exactly are you hiring a professional speaker?” Typically, there are four different services that a speaker can deliver for your audience, so you must decide which one are you seeking.

  1. Motivate/Inspire: A speaker tasked with motivating and inspiring others gets your people pumped up. They tell amazing stories, and they challenge people to think bigger, to dream bold dreams, and to put a dent in the universe! After a talk from a speaker like this, your people will be energized and excited.
  2. Entertain: A speaker expected to entertain puts on a great show. Usually, an entertaining speaker could be a magician, hypnotist, artist, ventriloquist, or some sort of a musical act. Your people will enjoy the session, will be surprised and delighted, and will have fun.
  3. Inform/Persuade: For this service, you want the speaker to deliver critical information that will expand and direct the thinking of the audience. This speaker is an expert in your field, such as an economist or futurist, or a business leader from another industry. The goal here is to give your people new information and make them think in a fresh or different way.
  4. Teach/Instruct: This sort of keynote speaker is there to deliver ideas and information that your people can absorb and then implement in their jobs. The audience will learn new skills, tools, and techniques that they can apply while trying to improve their work, their careers, and the company. Teaching and instruction is often achieved through a main keynote speech accompanied by an additional breakout workshop.

It is extremely important that you be very clear on what sort of result you want from the speaker’s presentation. The question I always ask my clients to understand their needs is: “If you stopped one of your people in the hallway after the presentation and asked them what they took away from the speaker, what would be the four or five things you would want to hear come out of their mouth?” All four of the above outcomes are excellent: just make sure you know which one you want and hire a speaker that can provide it for you perfectly.

Determine the Level of Speaker

The next thing to figure out is the level of speaker you need for your event. To me, there are basically three levels of professional speakers that are delineated by their price structures.

  • Level 1:  This is typically someone who is new to the professional speaking business and has a fee range between free and $5,000. They have some experience at the podium and might have some very good content, but as the old saying goes: “You get what you pay for.” Although this advice applies to every level of speaker, it is especially critical for this level of speaker that you make sure to get a video of this person presenting and to check their references.

**Quick note about references: do not allow the speaker to simply give you a list of hand-picked references, as they will only give you the ones that were very happy with them or the ones that are their friends. Instead, ask for a list of references from the last five speeches they gave in date order so that you can check on how they have actually performed for recent clients. This information will also give you a good indication of how busy they are. If the last five speeches occurred over the last three weeks, the speaker is likely very good; if they are spread out over the last eight months, then the speaker is probably not so good.

  • Level 2:  This is a speaker with a good deal of experience and a fee range of between $10,000 and $30,000. This is a real professional speaker, someone who does it for a living and does it well. They should have an impressive website, a long list of notable clients, probably have written a book or two, and be considered an expert in the area you want them to speak about. A Level 2 speaker should have an extremely professional high-definition video of them speaking to large audiences. As you watch the video, you should find it compelling and exciting, and you should find that their style matches well with your target audience. Level 2 speakers usually have a professional staff that assists them, and you should expect that both the speaker and the speaker’s staff are easy to deal with and willing to be flexible in customizing a program to meet your needs exactly. If the speaker or their staff is difficult to deal with or seems uninterested in truly working closely with you to customize their presentation, you and your audience will likely be disappointed.

**Quick note about professional speaking credentials. Lots of speakers belong to an organization called the National Speakers Association (NSA). Many of the very best speakers in the world are members of this association…and many are not. It would be my recommendation to depend more heavily on the quality of the speaker’s website and video, the ease of working with them and their staff, and the references from their last five speeches. If they have a bunch of certifications and awards from the NSA, that is great, but it is not a guarantee that they will be great with your audience.

  • Level 3:  This is a big name celebrity or political figure with a fee range of between $50,000 and $150,000 or more. You are not necessarily hiring this person for their expertise at the podium but rather for their Star Power. Typically, this is a very popular actor, big time sports star, recent Olympic gold medal winner, or top-tier politician. Many of them can deliver incredibly powerful presentations, and many of them are absolutely horrific public speakers. Watch some of their videos carefully and then decide if the name will be a big enough draw even if the quality of the presentation isn’t superb. They will definitely have a professional staff and will probably be difficult to deal with because of the unique demands of people at this level.

**Quick note about speaker fees. When you book a speaker, you can expect to pay their fee for the presentation, for any printed materials they might have for their presentation, and reasonable travel expenses (airfare, hotel, food, and transportation to and from the hotel and event) compared to the level of speaker you are hiring. For example:

  • Level 1 speaker = coach, cab, and economy hotel
  • Level 2 speaker = first-class, cab or limo, and business-class hotel.
  • Level 3 speaker = first-class or private jet for them and their entourage, limo, luxury hotel, full suite, and possibly a security detail as well.

**Quick note about speaker bureaus. Most Level 1 speakers handle their own bookings; Level 2 speakers handle a lot of their own bookings and also go through speaker bureaus; and Level 3 speakers almost always go exclusively through a speaker bureau. You will find that most speakers are represented by several different bureaus, but their pricing and contractual requirements are usually the same at every bureau. The real value of a speaker bureau is in giving you high quality options. If you can tell them exactly what kind of speaker you want, what kind of outcome you’re looking for, and what your price range is, they can give you several excellent options. Also, note that once you hire a speaker through a bureau, you should continue to go through the bureau if you ever want to bring them back. One of the main rules of the professional speaking business is that if you get a client through a bureau, you never book that client again without involving the bureau.

Determine the Specifications of the Speaker

What I have covered so far are the big questions about how to pick the right speaker for your event, but here are some other questions you might ask any potential speakers once you have narrowed your list down to a few:

  • Is your fee just for doing the one speech, or are you willing to do breakout sessions and other things for the same fee?
  • If you have books, will you sell them to us at a discount, or bring them yourself and do a book signing?
  • If we buy your books for everyone, will you hand sign them with a special salutation and our attendee’s names?
  • Do you have any follow-up videos or materials that we can send to the audience to reinforce what you taught them, and is there any fee for that?
  • If you arrive the day before or are leaving the next day, would you attend our cocktail party/dinner to mingle with our VIPs?
  • Will you give us a discount if we hired you for several events at once?
  • If your fee is too high for us, are you willing to split the fee if we can arrange for other paid speeches while you are in town?
  • If you are not available on the day we need you, can you recommend other excellent speakers that you feel could also deliver a superb presentation for our audience?

Here are a few more points to consider:

  • If you are holding your event at a ritzy resort, offering an extra day or two in the hotel as an incentive might be attractive for a Level 1 speaker, but most Level 2 and Level 3 speakers spend a good part of their life living in hotels, so this is not usually an attractive bonus to them!
  • If the speaker does not have a lot of repeat business, then they are probably not delivering great presentations. Superb professional speakers are typically hired again and again to come back and deliver more fantastic speeches for large client companies. So, ask them who some of their longest-standing clients are and how long they have been working for these clients.
  • If the speaker seems more focused on selling books from the back of the room and getting a copy of the attendee list, you will likely be disappointed, as they will focus more on themselves than on the audience.

Empower Yourself to Pick the Perfect Speaker

There is a lot more that I could say about how to pick the right professional speaker, but I know that if you start by using the advice I have shared with you here, then you will have a much greater chance of hiring just the right speaker who can deliver a world-class presentation for your audience, be easy to work with, and give you a fair and reasonable price for the quality and the value that they deliver.

I hope you found this helpful, and I welcome any additional comments. Thanks so much – John

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