5 Keys to Getting a Great Keynote Speaker Everyone Will Love

This is a guest post from a meeting planner who asked to remain anonymous so that they can fully disclose their insider info. We value her contribution contribution and respect the anonymity she requested.

Our annual event was in trouble.

It wasn’t an option to stop doing it- it’s important for our success in a lot of ways.

But it wasn’t a joy, it wasn’t exciting. It felt like trudging uphill. A scary hill.

We’d had a couple bad years in a row and there were some signs that this years attendance might be historically low. It was a tough time for me personally too because not did my dog pass away but also my mom was under care for Alzheimer’s and I’m a single mom.

So I was struggling to say the least.

I was running on empty emotionally.

I was afraid that any dip in event success or attendance was going to get blamed on me and I’d be out of a job.

I really felt like if this year’s conference didn’t go well then I was gone. And it would be tough to get another job without good references.

It takes a lot of money to support mom and my son’s college tuition… which is crazy high these days!!

So, I couldn’t afford another mediocre annual event due to having the wrong speaker.

I wanted them to liven up and kick off the conference right, create energy, get people’s minds and imaginations fired, get them motivated and make them glad they showed up.

I wanted to see my attendees smile, hear their compliments on the event, get great feedback forms, and of course get the positive feedback from my CEO and our board, and keep my job!

I absolutely had to figure out a process for ensuring I find great speakers my audience loves.

One thing everyone says is that I’m good at internet research, so I decided to go deeper.

I started looking beyond the two speaker bureaus we’ve used and the 10-20 speakers they were featuring. I did hundreds of google searches on various topics

And I discovered something interesting… there were two very different types of speaker videos.

One, which I decided to call a hype reel, was filled with music and voice overs and TV appearances but sometimes very little actual stage time.

The other type of speaker video, the live speaking video was only the speaker onstage.

I realized that the speakers we had hired recently were mainly using hype reels. And that hadn’t turned out well. Sometimes even our attendees were excited about the speaker, but they turned out to be duds.

I started to wonder if maybe they were only using hype reels because video of them on stage wasn’t exciting?

And maybe some of them hadn’t done much professional speaking?

So I took a deeper look at the live speaking videos.

I also started to note what speakers said they delivered. What their deliverables were. Information. Motivation. Stories. Lessons. Inspiration. Actionable takeaways. Things like that.

I thought about the speakers our audiences hadn’t liked, at the events where it seemed like there was less energy and evaluations were troublesome.

  • We’d had a pretty well known New York Times bestselling speaker.
  • We had a celebrity (well enough known from TV and film).
  • One year we tried doing only internal speakers.
  • We tried a few of the speakers that our bureaus loved… also turned out to be duds

What wasn’t working???

We had filmed most of our events, and I went back and watched the videos of the speakers, which was very enlightening, when compared to the speaker evaluation forms.

I realized that the bestselling authors sometimes were great writers but that doesnt make them great onstage. We’d talked to a number of them, and remembering back, I realized that some authors are bookworms, introverts or just of a critical mindset. Our bestselling author was snobby and turned our audience off. He was boring and didn’t connect with the attendees.

The celebrity seemed exciting and was somewhat entertaining but not as much as expected- and there were grumbles about how he wasn’t relevant and didn’t have relevant advice that would work for our niche. I could see that. The speaker that comes in and doesn’t know your industry or organization and doesn’t customize might not feel relevant.

Our internal speakers didn’t have a lot of credibility with the audience- they didn’t have much experience speaking so they were boring and not confident. They also presented content that was either too technical or too obvious. Whether they were from our organiazation or standout performers in the industry… They’re great people and great at what they do, but they’re not professional speakers.

We also had a speaker former executive who had worked at several well known companies. I was excited about his credentials and for him to share his experience and information. But again, he was boring and didn’t connect. Altogether, my bad speakers just didn’t seem like professional speakers to me.

The bureau speakers that didn’t work out- and don’t get me wrong- the bureaus are great, we have a great relationship with them, and some of the bureau speakers are good… but the duds relied too much on rather plain stories and trying to sound profound.

A lot of our audience said in the evaluation forms that they wanted speakers to be funnier or more entertaining. I’d see them using their phones or checking email 10-15 minutes into the speaker’s talk.

When I looked at more speakers through google, I discovered some other things.

Some of the videos, I actually laughed out loud sitting by myself. How many times do you laugh by yourself at a comedy video? If it’s a stand up comedian, sure. Turned out some speakers had a real background in comedy.

And a few speakers of them can be funny but also have real content and great takeaway points.

I started loooking to see if they speaker seemed engaging from their live speaking videos. Were the audiences laughing? Are they also making valuable points? Because just being funny isn’t enough- but funny added on top of everything else, relevant topics, customization, solid takeaways, meant we would get better audience responses.

Long story short- I found better much speakers for the next three events.

Using their funny video in our communications to attendees got us a big response. We were able to hit our normal attendance level that first year, and attendance started climbing again after that.

With the best ones, they asked a TON of questions so that they could customize their talk to us. They talked to audience members ahead of time. They really got to know our audience, the business, the industry, the needs and our event goals.

Other speakers didn’t seem to care about us specifically. You could tell when they spoke that they didn’t know anything about our audience- one guy even said, “I don’t know much about your industry, but…”


Frankly that turned a lot of people off. I think he lost the crowd completely at that point.

My good speakers customize, grab attention, get people laughing, make great points teach us actionable info and pluck at your heart strings.

My evaluations were completely different. So many positive compliments!

Everyone was excited and talking about it. It changed the tone of our events.

Some people said just the speaker made the whole event worth it for them. Of course, that’s not the only good thing I did with the events! But it made a huge difference.

I also found I had to make sure our board members had seen the speaker videos and read about them. We had one board member had once seen a “humorous keynote speaker” who didn’t deliver any substance- so he’s always really thorough in the questions he asks speakers about their content and takeaways. It worked out. He talked to one keynoter for 15 minutes after their talk.

We had another stakeholder, the CEO, who wanted to bring in the author of a recent bestseller he was excited about, and we had a tough time convincing him, but that speaker’s videos were very serious. I was really concerned because we’d had bestselling author speaker duds who bore people to the point where half the audience is looking at their cellphones 10 minutes in. It took several meetings but we got him to be open minded… and he was so happy with the new choice after the event. He was one of the loudest laughers during the keynote, this keynote speaker actually joked with him during the talk and he loved it.

We have a whole crew in our audiences who have refused to accept the facts of life when it comes to the internet. It’s like they don’t even want to use computers. We’ve been trying to bring them into the 21st century. We got a funny speaker on adapting to modern business, and I knew we’d really made a great choice when these anti-computer people were telling me after the talk that the Internet and social media finally made sense to them and they were going to start investing in it. I about fell down when I heard that.

We wish we could have some of these funny business keynoters back every year. We know we need to rotate so we’ll probably have some of them back in 3 years, but from now on we’ll never hire another speaker whose video doesnt have live speaking and doesn’t have any laughter in it. It’s just too risky you’ll get a total dud. There’s no sense in paying thousands of dollars for someone to put your audience to sleep.

So, to sum up, my fellow event planners, if you’re having dull meetings and boring speakers, here’s how I turned my events around:

  • Look at video for live speaking and listen for audience response, specifically laughter.
  • Don’t just take the speakers that bureaus recommend- do your own searching.
  • Look at speakers’ own websites even if you use a bureau. Watch all their video.
  • Do all the other normal screening like looking for their experience, credibility, awards and media appearances. Don’t be too impressed by NSA certifications or “hall of fame speaker” designations. They turn out to be a lot of hot air.
  • If you have a call with the speaker, ask them about their content, takeaways and customization process. Don’t hire speakers who don’t customize. If they’re not asking about your audience, organization and obstacles and needs, they’re not going to connect with your audience.

That’s it! I sincerely hope that this helps other meeting planners have even better events. Thanks!