How to Choose Your Next Event’s Keynote Speaker

The one secret that every marketing event organizer knows – a good keynote speaker can make or break your event.


Because your opening keynote sets the tone at the beginning from which the entire event will unfold. And your closing keynote keeps people engaged in your event until the very end. Yep, your keynotes are your conference’s “key” to success.

All the rest – the venue, the technology used to create a better experience, even your much-loved event giveaways – serve as supporting functions to the prime goal of your event. Which is, ultimately, to use content to inform, inspire and to leave the right impression on your attendees.

I use my approach to motivational speaking as “inspiration to action” and really try to balance all of those needs: keep the audience entertained, informed, educated, inspired to act as well as feeling like they know what they need to do when they return to the office.

Look at it this way. Event marketing is potentially your single most effective marketing channel – most event marketers believe it packs more punch than digital advertising, email marketing and digital content marketing.

91 percent of over-performing businesses are actively using live events to promote their brand, and, they put more emphasis on events than under-performing businesses or those that perform as expected. These over-performers also plan on increasing their event marketing budget in 2018, on average, by $4,500 more than the mediocre Joe brands and underperformers.

But, your live events are only as impactful as the content they provide. Which is why, if you want to harness the potential of this marketing channel, you’ve got to start with the perfect keynote.

Here’s a look at the advantages of choosing the right keynote speaker for your next event and how to make it happen.

The Marketing Advantage of a Good Keynote

The mistake some event organizers make is settling for ‘good enough’ when it comes to the keynote speaker. You can settle for good enough free coffee or good enough event lighting – but don’t make that error for the main event.

image source

Finding the right keynote speaker for your next event isn’t just about seeking out a known industry expert or influencer. It’s about finding someone who:

  • Is relevant to the theme, character, and intention of the event
  • Can attract the attendees you want to sign up to your event
  • Has the skill and experience in professional speaking that will allow them to engage your audience
  • Has the expertise  to be able to offer something unique, something with vision, which will leave your attendees feeling like they were standing on the shoulders of giants at your event

“There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured, such as poetry, music, painting, public speaking.”

-Jean de la Bruyere, 17th century French philosopher.

When you do pull off finding ‘the one,’ the advantages are enormous.

  • A good keynote will drive up the value of your event, making attendees feel as if the time and money they put into showing up was well worth it.
  • You’ll increase the buzz around your event. Here’s a good litmus test. When you announce your keynote speaker – will the choice be noteworthy enough to excite people or will it garner a shoulder shrug?
  • A good keynote takes a lot of pressure off the rest of the event. It’s true, if people are wowed at that first impression, they are more likely to forgive other hiccups like your 3D light show’s technical difficulties or another speaker who shows up a few minutes late.
  • And, you’ll boost the reputation of your live event. If your brand holds an annual conference, you want it to shine out as a worthwhile experience so more people will be interested in attending next year. Start your event with a bang and your attendees will be reminiscing about the fireworks.

The Distinction Between Good and Great Keynote Speeches

Look at the killer keynotes from the past. These are the speakers people go to digital marketing conferences for. These are the speeches and presentations attendees talk about long after the event. They spark conversation. They attract attention months and years later as a source of inspiration and invaluable information.

Like these movers and shakers:

Gary Vaynerchuk at ICON 2016

Kate Santore at Content Marketing World 2017

Futurist Patrick Dixon at a Google marketing event

What makes them stand out? All of these keynote speakers, whether their speech is fifteen minutes or an hour, do two key things:

  • Enthrall with their story
  • Offer something new

Not everyone can do that.

You know how much your event’s keynote speech matters. You know how challenging it is to find someone who truly has what it takes to set the tone for your event’s success.

So, how do you go about finding your speaker?

Laying the Groundwork for Your Keynote Search

Before you begin searching for the speaker you want to present at your next event, you need to first define precisely what it is you are looking for. You may not get your ideal, but when you know the characteristics, speaking style, industry specialty, reputation, and level of expertise you are looking for, you are more likely to get as close to what you want as possible.

image source

By exploring top speakers first, before knowing exactly what you are looking for, you could fall into the trap of choosing someone well-reputed and then revolving your event around your speaker, rather than the other way around.

This identification process is just as important as it is to understand other aspects of your marketing like your buyer personas and your brand story. Take the time to flesh out what you are looking for in a keynote speaker and what qualities are important for finding someone who can best express the theme and messaging of your live event.

Use this checklist to help you clarify what you want, aside from speaking skill and industry knowledge:

1. What is the primary objective of the event?

Reveal your intentions and I know who you are. The same goes for your conference. The goal and intent defines what the event is – and will help you narrow down who may be a good fit as your keynote speaker.

For example, if the intent is to provoke conversation or innovation in your industry, then your keynote should be a provocative innovator, ideally someone who has already pushed boundaries with some degree of success.

2. What personality will align with your event?

The character of your speaker matters. Do you want engaging but professional, or someone who may have a very personal, even edgy style – ‘telling it like it is’ to get people’s attention. You want the personality of your speaker to be able to mesh well with your audience. Think about who will be listening – what energy will they resonate with the most?

3. What is the goal of the keynote speech?

Are you looking for someone to start off the event entertaining your audience? Should they break the ice with lighthearted energy or captivate with a revolutionary idea or a new perspective? Do you want them to set the tone with inspirational content? A good story?

4. What presentation style are you looking for?

This is something you want to figure out before you start vetting and interviewing speakers. A common mistake event marketers make is to choose a speaker and then later determine their schedule and layout – which is when they find out their ‘perfect’ speaker’s 90 plus minute presentation style isn’t going to work for your 20-minute keynote time limit.

How much time should your keynote speaker take up? Are you expecting them to use screens, props and other visual aids?

5. What is your budget?

In the US, speakers can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $30,000, sometimes more, depending on how much clout they have. Major industry players, celebrities, and political figures for example, may cost well over $50,000.

How much budget your organization has set aside for your keynote speaker will, of course, impact your potential pool of candidates. When looking at the ROI of your speaker, think about who would attract more people to want to attend your event – and who will leave your attendees feeling like your event was worth it and they want to come back next year.

If you have a small budget, don’t feel like you can’t still land a great keynote. In order to grow their own brand as a thought leader, some people may be willing to present at your event, especially if your audience is perfect for their personal brand, for a negotiated fee.

Celebrity, Expert, Motivational Speaker or Influencer?

Another important question to answer is what type of speaker do you want? There is a huge difference in the impact, experience, and draw that your speaker will achieve depending on how they themselves are identified.


Celebrity keynote speakers will be your big-budget option. For example, Michelle Obama at Inbound 2017 in Boston was a brilliant marketing move. While not a marketing expert, her resume certainly speaks of expertise in communications and connecting with people. By choosing her as keynote, Inbound also positioned itself as more than a marketing conference, but rather as a platform for the overarching ideas that are currently impacting society. This gives Inbound a competitive edge, offering attendees a sense that they were a part of something special, simply by being there.

image source

Industry Thought Leaders

Thought leaders are ideal for B2B event marketing. Look for individuals who have a lot of clout within their industry – the influencers – and those who have experience speaking at events. These people are usually your industry innovators and are the ones that are able to leave your attendees feeling inspired about the field they work within when they leave.


These people may not work specifically in your industry, but their academic or intellectual background is what people are willing to pay to experience. Also, they are often professional speakers, which means they usually know how to work a crowd. They also can have higher fees as they can usually pick and choose what speaking fees they want.

Professional Speakers

This category includes motivational speakers and other professionals whose entire career is speaking engagements. These individuals can be excellent for drawing attention to your conference. They may be your TED talkers and futurists. They can be expensive as, like your professors and authors, they are often in high demand and can choose what events they want to speak at. But, they may or may not have the industry expertise you are looking for.

Doing Your Keynote Research

Once you know exactly what you want, it’s time to find your keynote speaker, narrow down your top picks, interview and then book the person who is going to launch your event with flying colors.

Start early

For in-demand speakers, they often have their engagements booked months ahead of time. You want to figure out who you’d like to present as your keynote speaker as early as possible. Figure out your date and time, as well as the logistics early on. It’s not abnormal for event organizers to have their keynote booked, accommodations arranged, and the details of the presentation sketched out six months to a year in advance.

Wait until three or four months ahead of time and you may have to go to your third or fourth choice simply because your top picks are already booked. And worse, planning your event will end up becoming a lot more stressful.

Watch your speaker in action

If you can, watch them speaking live at an event. This is the best way to get a clear idea of how they engage a crowd and if they would fit with the character and goals of your event. It’s also worthwhile to attend industry events in general when you can, even when you aren’t scoping out a potential speaker. The more you experience stellar public speaking, the better you can understand the impact a really good speaker can have.

Fortunately for event organizers, the digital age makes scouting multiple speakers a lot easier. You can watch speakers present on YouTube or other platforms. For your short list, you can also request a professional reel. Speakers who are keynote worthy should have a reel already prepared and edited.

Make sure they have experience with an event like yours

This is critical, especially if you are hiring a keynote speaker outside of your industry. Thought leaders will usually have specific experience with your events, as well as in-depth industry knowledge. If you are looking for a celebrity or motivational speaker, you need to do a little more digging to ensure they align with your conference.

If you find someone who isn’t necessarily in tune with your audience’s needs but may offer a good deal and a lot of promises, you may be doing more harm than you realize to your brand.

Find out if they are willing for pre and post event marketing

As the main feature of your event, you’ll squeeze a lot more orange juice out of your keynote speaker if they participate in the lead-up and the after effect. Someone who unleashes on the podium for half an hour before their grand exit isn’t going to make as positive of an impression as an individual who is 100 percent engaged.

The more time they can spend with your audience the better. Pre-event social posts and video interviews, answering questions at a special conference luncheon or networking dinner, doing a podcast interview after the event.

My good friend Andrew Davis is one of my favorite speakers (and this year’s keynote for Content Marketing World.)  He puts a lot of energy into his keynotes, engaging not just during the event, but before, after – he’s non-stop! And it pays off.

Check references

Contact the organizers of past events your keynote has spoken at. Were they easy to work with? Did they do enough research to create a spot-on presentation for the event? How did the collaboration process go for the speech – were the organizers left in the dark or was the content worked on together? How did the audience respond?

While your speaker may have a list of references to call, you may want to get in touch with unlisted references as well. Your organization is likely investing thousands of dollars into your keynote. Spending a little more time researching your candidate can give you peace of mind that you made a smart choice.

The Power of a Good Keynote

There’s something so much more impactful about watching a presentation from a skilled speaker than reading a book or blog post. Take advantage of the power of the spoken work with an incredible speaker at your next keynote event.

And with that, here’s a few clips of me having some fun on stages all around the world. I hope you enjoy. (And of course if you’re looking for a speaker, let me know.)

Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

2 thoughts on “How to Choose Your Next Event’s Keynote Speaker

  1. Michael–

    Thank you for breaking down choosing a keynote. It’s useful for conference producers and speakers as well as content marketers.

    At the end of the day, talks are live content marketing. To succeed you must engage your audience, hopefully with a story.

    Happy marketing,

    Heidi Cohen – Actionable Marketing Guide

Comments are closed.