The smart way to choose the right guest speaker to make your event rock

It’s the season for many organisations to organise their end of year conferences and kick off events for the new year.

I’m not sure if I’ve seen it all but when it comes to speakers I’ve certainly seen the great, the good, the bad and the absolutely despicable.

It’s not always the speaker’s lack of talent that makes them poor speakers, sometimes organisers cut so many corners they don’t give the speaker a chance.

A little ground work can save you time, money, effort and probably most important… your reputation.

This is a guide is a starting point, to help you choose the right guest speaker for your next event.

Before you even think about approaching a speaker ask yourself…

What Do I Want This Event To Achieve?

Is this event being used to create good will with your clients and/or prospective clients?  Is this a public relations exercise?  Would you like to raise your company’s profile, or someone’s profile within the company?  Are you raising funds for charity?  Do you want to bring your people (staff, directors or both) together and foster team spirit?  Is this a networking event and for who?  Would a lunch, dinner or reception be appropriate?  Is it a conference to disseminate information and/or educate or do you just want to have a good time and celebrate with no underlying commercial agenda?

On which day of the week should the event be held and at what time of day?  If you hold the event at the ‘wrong’ time it could drastically reduce the numbers who attend.  At a conference a speaker after lunch will need to be energising as well as have practical content, to close a conference ideally a speaker with the ‘wow factor’ would be good.

What do you want your audience to feel at the event?  What would you like them to experience?  Is laughter appropriate?  Is any type of entertainment appropriate?  What would you like to happen AFTER the event?  That’s right after the event.  Is there an action you’d like the audience to take?

If you’d like to motivate your audience what exactly would like them to be motivated to do?  Increase sales? Work as a team? Communicate clearly with each other? What?

These questions will help determine the type of event you’d like to create, they will also help determine…

The Guest Speaker or Speakers

All speakers, just like every other profession you’d care to mention, are not created equally.  I know some highly paid speakers who have not done well at an event.  I also know of some inexpensive (how kind is that word ‘inexpensive’?) speakers who’s contribution made an event disastrous because they had very little experience to cope with minor glitches.  I’ve even seen some I would not touch with the paper a contract is written on, slay an audience and make an event a phenomenal success.

You see, just like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, it’s all about finding the right fit for what you want to achieve.

Always base your choice of speaker on the speaker’s talent and what they can contribute to your event and not on how much they’ll cost.  Obviously cost comes into the reckoning, all I’m saying is don’t make it THE ONLY criterion.  Sometimes spending a little more will give you a ton of return on your investment.

What kind of style or content would be suitable for the audience?  Funny, serious, semi-serious?  Technical, non-technical, motivational, inspirational, Olympian, business guru, comedian?

How Long Should The Speaker Speak For?  

DO NOT equate length of time with value for money.  After dinner I would say about 20 to 30 minutes, 40 minutes maximum.  Even if you have two or three speakers don’t let your audience sit for longer than an hour listening to speakers.

At a conference or away day they might speak for as little as 15 minutes or up to a couple of hours.  Thirty Minutes to an hour is about average.  You do not want the speaker to outstay their welcome on stage. Also, you might not just want them to speak, you might want them to include Q & A at the end of their presentation.

As for celebrities just because they’re famous does not mean they would be suitable for your event.  Just because they are good on the telly does not necessarily mean they’ll be good live or good at speaking.  Some are excellent, many are just living off the fact they are famous and they’ll charge you for it.  Check them out first, get testimonials and phone them up, speak to organisers who have used them.

The same applies to Olympians, brilliant at their sport but not necessarily good at speaking.

Of course there’s the kudos of having a celebrity or Olympian speaking at your event, if that’s what you want then hire them.

Often you can hire a relatively unknown name who will do a better job.  Once again, check them out first ALWAYS check out any speaker before you let them loose on your guests/delegates.  See if you can find any video of them speaking, social media would be one way of finding out, take a peep at their LinkedIn recommendations.  Ask around.  If it’s practical you might consider going to see them speak at an event.

How Do I Get The Most From ‘My’ Speaker And Help Them To Bloom?

The best guide here is to ask them, what exactly their requirements are.

Apart from the obvious ie ensure they can be seen and heard.

Think about what is happening before they speak/perform.  Let’s consider the after-dinner speaker.

Will there be a free bar?  If so, are the audience likely to get drunk?  Then no matter how good the speaker is the audience will not be interested.

Is it the night of the World Cup final?  A friend of mine spoke on such a night and the client decided to have televisions situated around the room.  He was due to go on as the second half was about to start and to ‘give him a chance’ they switched off all the televisions.  Could he hold their attention?  No!  There was just resentment from the fans who, understandably, wanted to watch the match.

Aim not to let your after dinner speaker do their bit after 10.30 pm.  There comes a point during the dinner when an audience just want to chat and/or dance.

I’ve seen this happen at a conference.  Don’t announce bad news before the speaker is due to go on and don’t hire a speaker to help you soften the bad news you’re about to break to everyone either.

Imagine the scene, a corporate conference with about 400 people in the room.  It’s time for the chief executive to introduce the speaker and the introduction goes something like this.

‘Well, as you know, we’ve had a very bad year so far and the future is not looking much better.  I’m afraid I’ve even more bad news for you.  Because we’ve been taken over by XYZ plc, half of you will be losing your jobs.  The directors will have to take a 30% cut in salary and lose their stock options.  Those of you who do remain, I’m afraid, we can’t promise how long you’ll have jobs for.  Knowing how you must feel I’d now like to introduce the motivational speaker.’


Scheduling Your Speak In the Right Slot

Where is your speaker going to fit in to your schedule? Are they going to open the event to set it off on the right tone? Are they going to speak after lunch? If so, are they energising enough to keep your audience away during the after-lunch slump? This is not called the graveyard slot for no reason. Or are they going to close your event and leave your audience on a high? This will have a baring on the style and content your speaker has to have.

Also, if you want to close your event on a high and you’ve chosen the right speaker to do that, finish your event at that point. You just need the emcee or host to spend a few minutes rounding off the event. Don’t have another speaker (or the emcee) with no impact speaking and ending the event on a low.

Always Give A Clear Brief To The Speaker – Be Totally Transparent

Do not think the speaker is a mind reader (even if you are hiring a mind reader to speak) and expect them to know exactly what is required of them.

Always let the speaker know if there are any sensitive issues to avoid.  Should they be aware of the language they use?  Who else is speaking at the event?  What will be the frame of mind of the audience?


And finally… this has by no means been an exhaustive guide, there is much more to take in to account when choosing a guest speaker but it’s a good start. And, baring my suggestions in mind can be the difference between you creating a good event or an event that rocks.

I hope that helps and may your speakers always help your event to shine.