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The concept of the keynote speaker is familiar to anyone who has planned or attended a major industry or community event. A great keynote speaker can kick off or bring to an end an event in such a way that the audience leaves with something they didn’t have when they got there. Perhaps they learned an inspiring story about someone overcoming tremendous obstacles. Maybe they had the opportunity to look at their organization or community from a completely different point of view. Or perhaps they were entertained in such a way as to create a lasting, positive association between the event and the organization or community.

Choosing a keynote speaker is not something that can be done last-minute if there is any expectation of success. There are many keynote speakers available in just about any region, but they’re far from interchangeable. There will probably be a couple that seem particularly germane to your event, and you should learn as much as possible about the speakers on your “short list” so you’ll make the best choice. Having the right keynote speaker for the event, the audience, and the situation elevates an event from “just another industry meeting” or “just another Founder’s Day festival” to something that will genuinely affect attendees. Pick the right keynote speaker, and people will talk about it for years – in a positive manner!

What Is the Function of the Keynote Speaker?

A keynote speaker is not just “a speaker.” In fact, if you’re tasked with providing a speaker for an event, be certain you know what type of speaker is called for. Some company events, for example, need an industry or company insider to deliver information. Others, however, require the services of a keynote speaker – someone who may or may not be from the same industry, but who has wisdom, inspiration, or motivation to deliver, and who can bring a group of people together into a common experience for a half-hour or an hour.

The following table summarizes the main differences between a keynote speaker, a plenary speaker, and a master of ceremonies.

Keynote Speaker Plenary Speaker Master of Ceremonies
Where Do They Come From? Often from outside the organization, perhaps from a speakers’ bureau Typically from within the organization holding the event, or the   industry. Often a subject matter expert. Typically from within the organization holding the event
What Do They Do? Emphasize the underlying theme of the event, motivate the audience,   raise enthusiasm among audience members Deliver a speech or presentation that is relevant to the organization   or industry holding the event Introduce speakers or performers, announce agenda items, recognize   sponsors, and provide transitions between program elements
What Is Their Primary Purpose? Generally to kick off or cap off the event on a high note Add subject-relevant, “meaty” content to the event Keep the event on track for time and enjoyable for everyone

Keynote Speaking Diagram

Responsibilities of a keynote speaker, plenary speaker, and master of ceremonies may overlap, but generally they’re handled by different people.

How Do You Find the Right Keynote Speaker?

When searching for a keynote speaker, three primary considerations you should take into the selection process are the type of event, the budget, and the audience size. Many times, budget is a limiting factor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t book an outstanding speaker for your event. It may significantly reduce the geographical area from which you’re able to choose, however, so as to minimize travel costs.

Generally, the smaller your budget, the closer to home you’ll need to look, and the greater the likelihood you’ll need to call in a favor (like a local benefactor willing to kick in money for fees or travel costs). Your local Chamber of Commerce, or a local Toastmasters International group are two places to look for keynote speakers that are friendly to the reduced budget.

Before looking over potential speakers’ websites, determine whether you want your keynote speaker to be the opener or closer for your event. Also think about the tone you want to set, and the feelings you want the audience to take away from the event. You can find keynote speakers with a range of styles, from formal to informal, to humorous, or even those who incorporate unusual performance skills.

The farther a speaker will have to travel, and the more famous a speaker is, the more you have to budget for them, and the further in advance you’ll have to book them. It’s important to match the type of speaker to the type of event, regardless. For example, a community-wide event honoring the founder of your town will probably need a different speaker than an industry event honoring the legacy of a departed industry leader.

What Events Are Appropriate for a Keynote Speaker?

Keynote speakers can elevate any type of event, including:

  • Technical conferences
  • Company celebrations for landing a big client
  • Retirement parties for prominent leaders
  • Community celebrations
  • Trade conventions

For many of these events, the keynote speaker does not have to be directly associated with an industry or sub-industry. Or, the keynote speaker may be only tangentially associated with the topic at hand, but may have information that resonates with the audience. There may be more light-hearted events where the function of the keynote speaker is primarily to build enthusiasm and entertain. The more closely you match the keynote speaker and their skills to the tone of the event, the more successful your event will be.

If you are in charge of organizing, say, a company event and no one has brought up the topic of having a keynote speaker, it’s worth your time to do so. Often, a keynote speaker can set the tone for the event and turn what would be a good event into an excellent and far more memorable one.

Characteristics of a Great Keynote Speaker

Inspire, Educate, Motivate & Entertain Diagram

A keynote speaker who can inspire, educate, motivate and entertain is a force to behold.

The characteristics that matter most in the keynote speaker you choose are the characteristics that make the most sense for your event. Some keynote speakers have outstanding talent for educating, while others excel at motivating or inspiring audiences. Still others do a fantastic job of promoting awareness, which can be especially apropos for large charitable events. And there are some keynote speakers whose primary job is to entertain. Know which characteristics make the most sense for your event so you’ll know which speakers belong on your short list.

Any speaker you consider booking should have a website with pertinent information like rates and ways to inquire about availability. You should also find plenty of videos of the speaker, so you can get an idea of their style and substance to determine if they’re a good fit for your occasion. Reviews are also helpful, and independent reviews may offer a more comprehensive view than testimonials you find on a speaker’s own website. With independent reviews, your wisest course of action is to ignore the very best and very worst reviews and take a mental “average” of all the others. Naturally, the more reviews you can read, the better an idea you’ll get as to a speaker’s professionalism and track record.

Lead-Up and Follow-Up to the Event

When you have booked your keynote speaker, it’s not time to sit back and forget about them until the day before the event. Much can be done in the lead-up to the event that will generate buzz and get your audience even more excited for the occasion. Some speakers will engage in an email or audio interview that you can put on your company social network. Or, barring that, you could inform attendees about your speaker: who they are, what their background is, and where they can watch videos of them in action.

On the day of the event, you can generate excitement by setting up a “social media wall” where attendees can “check in” on social media and take selfies and photos of others to share. This could be in front of a large piece of art, a blank white-board with markers available for people to sign in or draw on, or even a life-sized cardboard cut-out of your speaker if you can get one.

As for follow-up, it’s wise to find out up front if your speaker’s standard duties involve a question and answer session immediately following their speech. If so, inform attendees of this so they can be prepared to ask questions. If you plan to treat your speaker to a dinner or other celebratory occasion after their speech, plan well in advance in terms of place, time, and invited guests.

Maximizing Your Keynote Speaker ROI

Some keynote speakers are expensive, because their experience and ability to captivate an audience warrant high fees. Naturally, you want to ensure you get your money’s worth, however much you pay for your keynote speaker. The main ways you do this are with careful research and consideration when choosing your speaker, by making sure event attendees are familiar with the speaker and their style, and by taking care of every possible planning detail to ensure that everything happens as planned, on schedule.

Keynote Speaker Investment

The steps you take before, the day of, and after the event help maximize the return on your keynote speaker investment.

If your company has an internal blog or social network, writing a follow-up blog post or article about the event and the speaker to reiterate the tone and mood and help people remember the event is valuable. The only “bad” thing about maximizing the ROI for your keynote speaker is the fact that next time there is a major event, it may be hard to follow in this year’s footsteps!

Your Back-Up Plan

Successful keynote speakers don’t get that way by being late, or canceling at the last minute, so that probably won’t be your major worry. However, unexpected things do happen. Snowstorms close airports and cancel flights, people unexpectedly become ill or suffer accidents. It’s essential to have a back-up plan ready just in case. Depending on the event, your backup plan could include a local speaker who can be ready at a moment’s notice.

If it’s an informal event, you could see about booking a local dance troop, a high school or community college choir, or a local musician who would be willing to put on a half-hour set. It’s important to raise these possibilities in advance with the people in charge so you can work out a plan that can be set in place quickly, should there be a problem with your keynote speaker.

With an experienced keynote speaker, the chances you’ll have to employ your back-up plan are slim. However, you will be under far less stress in the days leading up to the event if you have one on the back burner, ready to go. Be certain to thank any potential back-up plan participants, even if they end up not being needed.

If You Want to Become a Keynote Speaker

It’s not uncommon to see a rousing keynote speaker and think, “I wish I could do that!” Most people are content to go back to their regular lives, but a few may be sincerely interested in becoming a keynote speaker. It’s not easy, but it can be done. It starts with taking an honest inventory of your personal and experiential assets. Everyone has them, but the combination of experiences and choices that have brought you to where you are is unique to you. Know what you have to offer, whether that is an exceptional life story, a particular skill or talent, or natural affinity for public speaking.

Joining a group for public speaking (like Toastmasters) is a good way to start developing your public speaking skills. You’ll get to practice in a low-risk environment in front of people who genuinely want to help you improve. From here, you can make it known to your boss, local civic groups in which you participate, your place of worship, or other community groups that you’re available for speaking engagements. Tell them the topics you’re prepared to speak on.

You’ll probably start out speaking to small groups, or groups of people who already know you directly or indirectly. That’s OK, because it offers you the opportunity to practice speaking while building confidence. As you gain traction in speaking to local groups, you can expand your potential audience base in several ways:

  • Creating a dedicated newsletter for your “fans”
  • Promoting your services and events on social media
  • Creating and maintaining a blog on your speaking life, complete with a “contact me” button
  • Offering to speak to groups or write blog posts for organizations that may be interested in you

As you build your reputation, learn what you as a unique individual offer that makes your speeches memorable. One way to do this is to talk to people after a speech, because they’ll usually tell you! Use the utmost professionalism with every engagement, no matter how small, and be sure you’re always completely prepared. For smaller events, you can even stand at the entrance to greet attendees. In other words, go the extra mile so that eventually, your reputation precedes you.

Rare is the person who can make an entire career out of public speaking, but it’s not that uncommon for a person to have a thriving sideline as an in-demand speaker, even if it’s only in your local area. And it can be tremendously rewarding on a personal level. You may or may not choose to join a speakers’ bureau, depending on how much time you want to invest in the details involved in scheduling and promoting your services.

Different speakers bureaus

Different speakers bureaus offer different levels of services, so always inquire if you’re unsure what they will help you with.

If you have ever watched a truly gifted keynote speaker, you will probably remember it for years or even decades. It is not an understatement to say that the right keynote speaker can change the way their audience looks at an issue or a topic. In my work as a keynote speaker, I have been privileged to talk to audiences all over the world, and each and every one of them has made me more effective and more passionate about public speaking.

Glossary of Terms

  • Back-up planning – making plans and provisions for when something goes wrong. Whether it’s in planning out a speaking event, or just about anything else in life, having a workable back-up plan lets you sleep easier, and empowers you to “save the day” when things go wrong. You’re unlikely to have to use your back-up plan in regards to keynote speakers, but you should have one anyway.
  • Keynote speaker – a public speaker whose job is to establish a theme, build the enthusiasm of the audience, and deliver a core message to the assembled group
  • Master of ceremonies – a person who presides over an event such as a major meeting, formal dinner, ceremony, or other occasion. The master of ceremonies keeps the event moving, provides transitional information to the audience, introduces speakers, entertainers, and guests, and is the metaphorical “glue” that holds the event together.
  • Plenary speaker – a speaker who is a notable person in a given industry or field. This person may offer anything from a high-level overview of the state of an industry or scientific field to a highly specific talk on a niche topic.
  • Speaker fees – the fees a keynote or other public speaker charges to cover their expenses (travel, food, etc.). Professional speakers who give keynote speeches for a living charge fees that permit them to devote their time and effort to their vocation.
  • Speaker ROI – an often-informal evaluation of what the organization or audience “gets” from a speaker. For example, an audience may be emboldened to tackle a challenging project coming up, or may choose to re-dedicate themselves to their vocation after having listened to a particularly talented and engaging speaker.
  • Speakers bureau – an organization which operates to make it easier for clients to find the right type of speaker for their event. Such organizations may offer services like booking, arranging travel, and fee collection, though some are strictly committed to helping speakers showcase their talents and make potential clients aware of their services.

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