HIRING A KEYNOTE SPEAKER: 5 QUESTIONS TO ASK
You’re organizing an event. You want to hire a top-notch keynote speaker to wow your audience, set the right tone, elevate the conversation, create buzz and excitement throughout the event…But there are so many speakers out there: What should you be looking for and what questions should you ask?
Here are Our Top 5 Questions to ask a Prospective Keynote Speaker
5) Are you a Brand Ambassador or Get Paid to Endorse Goods or Services?
Sometimes a speaker will appear highly qualified AND come in at a modest rate – fantastic, right? Maybe. Some speakers will accept lower speaking fees because they supplement their income with endorsement deals and/or brand ambassadorships: ultimately, you do get what you pay for, in this business. While this practice may or may not be bothersome to you (it can be fun – branded t-shirts for everyone!), it is important to know this beforehand, so you’re not caught unaware, or surprised by what they say on the speaker advocates once they are up there on the podium.
4) Do You Have a Book?
This is the best version of ‘selling from the podium’- it gives the speaker credibility and has potential to provide your audience with something great to take-away from the event. The downside? It may mean you pay less in speaking fees but more in book purchases or more of both. Either way, a speaker with a book will have much to talk about, and audiences aren’t put-off when a speaker talks about their latest works – it often sets them apart as experts and gives the audience something to look forward to. That said, some very successful – and interesting! – keynote speakers never write books. They might have climbed Everest, invested something, survived a rare disease, come through a war, established a following in the millions, know an obscure science no one else studies… a book is one medium in an expert’s arsenal toward connecting with your audience.
3) Do You Engage with the Audience?
Attention spans are at an all-time low (shout-out to Millennials with just 3 working seconds!), no one wants to ‘be talked down to’, and podium speeches are passé: mostly reserved for Politicians and Dignitaries. A Professional Keynote Speaker (PKS) must be willing and able to engage with the audience somehow. This gets increasingly challenging as the audience size grows, but there are many ways to do this: engaging through technology (e.g. scrolling hashtag on twitter), volunteer from the audience, asking questions, having them do short exercises, having them interact, games, walking into the audience, contests, prize-giving, polling etc. Beware the person who thinks themselves so interesting engagement tactics are unnecessary and short attention-spans aren’t a problem – this is a surefire way to ensure your audience sits passively, ingesting little, learning less, and gleaning even less in the way of memorable takeaways. Be sure to find a PKS who loves to listen and connect with people as much as they love to talk.
2) Do They Freely Express Personal Opinions, Have a Polarizing Political Bent, or Sit on a Social Soapbox?
This one isn’t a question you’ll necessarily be able to ask directly – and trying might not yield the most accurate answer. Here you might have to do a little digging: read a few blog posts, watch their uploaded videos, listen to their newscasts. While expressing opinion on the podium isn’t always a toxic activity – some people's personal stories, histories, and insights can be the most endearing, engaging content out there - there can be many downsides, especially if you are unaware before the speaker has reached the stage. Much like endorsing a brand or product, a speaker’s personal opinions and positions on things can drastically sway what and how they relay information as well as how they construct their presentation. Second, subjective opinions needn’t be grounded in facts, data, or real science – most aren’t – so you’ll want to watch for speakers without high standards of professional ethics and integrity. Third, personal opinions that can't be substantiated, social soapboxes, or political propositions can quickly tribalize, polarize, and irritate an audience – it’s a quick way to ensure factions, decrease group trust, increase tension, and shut-down openness and learning. As long as you know what you’re in for, and you like what you hear, all should be well.
1) Do You Customize Your Talks?
Finally, ask the PKS if they customize their talks, or if most of their speeches are ‘off the shelf’. While one school of thought would hold that PKS’s should stick to what they know best and have practiced, there is downside to a speaker who does little to customize their talk to your specific event, theme, purpose, and audience. Firstly, a speaker who isn’t willing to customize their talk isn’t demonstrating high levels of commitment to your specific event’s success. Second, in an era of social media, it’s highly likely that some members of your audience would have seen all or some of the ‘off the shelf’ speech already – decreasing its effect for your event. Third, even veteran PKS's should have a rigorous rehearsal process in place. If lack of customization stems from a fear of lowered practice, that speaker isn’t doing enough to rehearse for your specific event. Finally, customization creates excitement for everyone – the audience, you as the organizer, as well as the speaker themselves - the stayed old stories get sounding that way (even to the speaker!) after the speaker has repeated them too many times. Find a PKS who is energetic; eager to please; willing and able to comfortably customize every talk – including and especially the one for you.