The Art of Speaker Selection. Who Does it Right?

Are you struggling with the magic sauce when it comes to speaker selection? These nine events can help give you some ideas on how to manage the process and how to make your ultimate selections that benefit you and your audience.

Speakers are often the entertainment for events. What they cover also facilitates conversations outside of your sessions so bringing in a dynamic, thought-provoking speaker can live beyond just their hour-long spot. They give attendees something to talk about and that helps them to make connections. Yes, speakers have a big role to fill, so selecting the right ones for your audience is very important to the success of your event.

But how do you know what speakers will work best for your event? These event planners and organizations have some suggestions based on their experience.

The Art of Speaker Selection. Who Does it Right?

3 Initial Things to Consider with Speaker Selection

When selecting speakers there are three basic elements to consider:

  1. Audience
  2. Budget
  3. Goals

1. Audience

Your audience is extremely important to the type of speaker you are looking for as some require a much more interactive approach than others. For instance, an event crowd made up predominantly of attendees under 30 will enjoy an interactive session. This could include a discussion format or teamwork as they are used to both in their formal education. They would most likely digest the content through some sort of electronic medium. Leaderboards for social participation or answering questions via Tweets would work well with this group.

However, an audience comprised of the Silent Generation (the predecessors of the Baby Boomers) are more used to a speaker imparting their wisdom and knowledge in one-way fashion. Classroom discussion is not needed or expected. That’s something they’ll do afterward, outside of the session.

Your audience content interests will also dictate the type of speaker you bring in. Are they looking to be entertained, inspired, or educated. Knowing what they expect from your event will also help you find the right speaker, someone they will enjoy and cause them to feel it was worth their time to attend.

2. Budget

Kevin Spacey is a wonderful keynote, as anyone who attended his session at the Content Marketing Institute could tell you, but he also commands a price. He’s a top headliner (not to mention President of the United States in the Netflix show House of Cards) so he’s not likely to give the keynote at your event for the cost of a hotel room stay. As much as we’d all love to have an award-winning actor give our keynote, his fee is simply out of the question for most event budgets.

Budget plays a significant role in selecting a speaker. Also, while you may have an incredible event for a worthwhile cause, it’s important to understand that these top names get approached often to donate their time. Professional speakers deserve to be paid. It had to be said.

Be practical about your budget in deciding who you can afford to speak at your conference. Some speakers would love to get in front of your audience and they’ll be willing to do it for less because they may get business opportunities from it. For speakers like Kevin Spacey and Mark Hamill, they probably won’t. Which brings us to…

3. Goals

Your goals for the sessions feed into how you select a speaker because they dictate the budget or portion of the budget that you’ll allocate for the speakers. For instance, if your goal is to get noticed bringing a top keynote in will draw a crowd the same way an opening band will bring with it a few fans. If, however, your goal is lively industry discussion a well-known Hollywood A-lister is not a necessity. You’d be better off with an industry thought leader. Decide what you’re trying to accomplish with your speakers and sessions before you work on that speaker budget.

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How Do You Find the Right Speakers for Your Event?

After you have considered your audience, budget, and goals, you’ll need to think about speaker selection, which brings in things like recruiting and diversity.

Speaker Selection

Audience, budget, and goals will help you begin to flesh out your speaker selection but we still need to address process. How do you narrow down the right speaker for your event? As mentioned above, audience preferences should play a major role in the type of speakers you look for. Why is your audience coming to your event? What do they expect? Here are a few questions to ask yourself to narrow down the options and find a speaker that is well-suited to your audience’s needs:

  • If your audience expects to be entertained, what types of entertainment do they respond to?
  • For audiences looking for inspiration, what types of stories will resonate with them?
  • If your audience wants to be educated, who do they respect most and what types of experts work best?

Let’s assume your audience comes to your event to learn something. Knowing the types of experts they want to see is important. Is your event for a medical society that wants to hear about the latest research from the person doing it or does your event attract a DIY crowd that wants hands-on learning?

As a marketer and event planner Gerri Fraser recruited speakers for a home and garden show. Her audience was looking for experts in very specific areas pertaining to homes such as “The Basement Guy” or the “Staging Expert.” But she was also looking for someone who could bring a fan base with them. She wanted someone who was a household name. (Pun intended.)  Getting this mixture right would help her draw the crowd she wanted.

Speaker Approaches for Events

Many organizations with recurring events follow a specific approach when recruiting speakers. Some use speakers that represent well-known brands (this is particularly true of large marketing conferences), others focus on storytelling and require their speakers to be adept storytellers, others are looking for long and meaty presentations, while other groups are searching for quick hits that pack an emotional punch. Here are a few examples of how different events are approaching their speaker selection.

Cross-Industry Speakers

Many organizations go completely outside of their industry for speakers. As mentioned earlier, past keynote speakers for the Content Marketing Institute were Kevin Spacey, Mark Hamill, and Jack Hannah. But these speakers all had one uniting component. They are masterful storytellers and that’s part of what CMI looks for.

The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) looks for keynotes with good name recognition that can bring their thought leadership in other areas and apply it to the association exec. This year’s meeting’s keynote speaker is Chef Jeff Henderson. He’s not only an award-winning chef for brands like Caesars and Bellagio, but he’s a New York Times bestselling author of the book Cooked as well as a Food Network star.

More Than a Stage Presence

In a study conducted several years ago by Velvet Chainsaw (consulting group), they found that 66% of respondents expected more than just a presentation from their speakers. Jeff Cobb, co-founder of Tagoras, which conducted the study with Velvet Chainsaw said, “Organizations are expecting speakers to publish articles, do interviews, and participate in different aspects of the event.”

Showcasing Diversity

One of the hottest topics out there and one of the areas with the largest amount of complaints is speaker diversity. There are some organizations that are actively looking to make their speaking rosters more diverse. Groups like Stanford’s Women in Data Science, the MLconf (Machine Learning Conference) and American Statistical Association’s Women in Statistics and Data Science are showcasing women in industries that have been traditionally staffed by men.  

At the MLconf, they actively recruit female speakers and their most recent machine learning event featured a speaker roster that was 35% female, a large percentage for that industry. Courtney Burton founder of MLconf told Forbes about their recruiting process.

  • Organizers select topics for the conference.
  • They research each topic, singling out papers, organizations and other resources they can use to identify qualified speaking candidates – male and female.
  • They reach out to these thought leaders and invite them to speak.

What makes the MLConf process different is that they also put out a call for speakers, and make it a point of doing so through groups such as Women in Machine Learning and Data Science.

Focussing on “Edutainment”

When we discussed laying out your event goals earlier so that you knew what you wanted from session speakers, education, inspiration, and entertainment were mentioned. Each of these things is important for any of your speakers or session leaders. The Outdoor Industry Association is requiring that its speakers “edutain” their attendees. As part of that, they must agree to be recorded for the association’s video library. They are focussed on subject matter experts in specialty retail, brands, trends, advocacy engagement, and sustainability.

Looking for the UnKnowns

Big name speakers are great for bringing in an audience but for many of them, if you’ve heard their keynote, you’ve heard their keynote. That’s why some organizations actively look for unknown presenters to add to their mix of session leaders. It keeps things fresh. Codemash.org is one of those groups that looks for talented local speakers, some national, and smart unknowns. Their call for speakers page is also a lot of fun.

Invitation Only

Many organizations have found that women are less likely to apply for speaker roles than men so inviting them to speak is an effective way to ensure greater participation. It’s also a good way to ensure you hand select the types of speakers your audience is interested in and those with the credentials you want. The National Retail Federation’s Shop.org 2017 focused on “…an invitation-only approach that features retailers and brands who will resonate best with the Shop.org community.”

At Hubspot’s INBOUND conference they split the call for speakers with an invite-only aspect. They offer over 300+ educational sessions and have a traditional call for speakers nearly a year before their program. However, their keynote and main stage sessions are by invitation only.

INBOUND also offers six breakout tracks. One of them is an executive track for C-level execs. In these sessions, only c-level experts are selected to lead.

Real-World Storytelling

Storytelling is one of the most effective communication methods out there and many organizations are embracing it and requiring it of their speakers. Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) asks that speakers have real-world “war stories” in sessions that “… encourage interactive audience participation.” Context and stories are one of the criteria that the speaker proposals are evaluated on in addition to being subject matter experts.

Speakers/Performers with a Cause

Some organizations that know their audience well understand that people want to be a part of something larger than themselves. Groups like this recruit speakers and performers that have both an act and a cause to stand behind. The Global Citizen Festival is one of those events. The festival organizers look for bands and entertainers who are doing more than performing. They are giving back in a meaningful way. They’re not looking for subject matter experts or mere entertainers. They want the full package because that’s what’s important to their audience. In 2016, Rihanna was there because of her work with her educational foundation, Demi Lovato advocated for bipolar awareness, and Kendrick Lamar was featured for his work with after-school programs for disadvantaged youth.

Access to One Another

Once you have the speakers’ attention, it’s important to give them a reason to present in front of your group. A good speaker has many options when it comes to speaking engagements. The All Things Open Conference provides speaker-only networking opportunities at their speaker-only lounge. This helps speakers exchange information and meet other thought leaders as part of the “largest open source/tech/web event on the East Coast of the United States.” The event also hosts speaker/sponsor networking opportunities for even greater exposure. They want their speakers to feel a good return on investment and their time as well.

In Conclusion

There’s a lot that goes into finding the right speaker and the speaker selection process. It’s important to keep in mind that many speakers book months in advance. Don’t wait until you start taking early-bird reservations to finalize the speaker list. They can be a major draw for your event so being able to market them as early as possible will also contribute to your event’s success.

Additional Reading on Speaker Selection

How to Save Money and Cut Costs on Speakers
Crowdsourcing Speakers
Turn Your Event Speakers onto Online Marketing Machines
Forget Speakers: 7 Alternatives for an Innovative Event
5 Must-Do’s for Your Conference Speakers
10 Signs You Are Hiring an Awesome Conference Speaker

About The Author
Christina Green
Christina R. Green is a digital storyteller and writer for associations and businesses, including journals such as the Midwestern Society of Association Executive's magazine and industry blogs. She's a voracious reader but has been known to stop reading if there are too many exclamation points used.
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Julius Solaris
Editor, Julius Solaris

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