Choosing The Right Event Speaker. 7 Key Influencers Weigh In: FULL BIOS.

read time

When your prospective corporate event guests are evaluating which events to attend, the destination and quality of networking certainly matter. But the single most important factor is the value of the education, the content you will deliver.

In making that judgment, attendees will look at your conference agenda, and even more importantly, at your speakers. The individuals you select to deliver your keynote, general session, and breakout session content play a huge role in attracting attendees, as well as delivering the kind of valuable, high quality experience that will result in positive word-of-mouth and bring people back the next year.

Given the critical importance of choosing the right speakers, we decided to ask a group of top event professionals how the corporate event planners they work with dochoose speakers, and how they shoulddo so. In other words, to compare the most common practices with the ideal approaches.

In terms of the typical methods event planners use to find speakers, our experts cited a number of different tactics, but these fairly clearly fall into three groups: very common, somewhat common, and less common:

Methods for Finding Event Speakers

Number of Experts Citing

Very common:


Speakers bureaus


Networking / referrals


Somewhat common:


Online search


Advice from outside event planner


Personal experience


Professional associations


Less common:


Word of mouth


Speaker showcases


Social media / social listening


In terms of how corporate marketers shouldselect speakers, the top answer was "online video." Most professional speakers have their own YouTube channels and may also showcase their presentations on their own websites, Vimeo, LinkedIn, and / or Facebook pages.

As Keith Johnston points out below, "Any speaker who makes it to the final round of selection should have plenty of videos out there showing them ply their craft. These give planners an idea of the speaker's style and their delivery. Are they upbeat, happy, snarky, sweary, etc.?"

These experts also recommended using speakers bureaus, past experience, guidance from a professional event planner, and social media as resources. Plus, they offered a number of suggestions about how to evaluate and choose speakers, regardless of the search method used to find them.

Here are our questions, and the experts' answers.

Based on your experience as a professional event planner, how do corporate event marketers typically find keynote and session speakers for their conferences?

Tracy+FullerTracy Fuller, President at InnovativEvents:"Most of my clients look to speakers bureaus for their keynote speakers, and to industry leaders for their large breakout sessions.

As event pros, we are always on the lookout for speakers who fit our clients' themes or strategic goals. We might see a great keynote speaker at one event who fits into the goals and themes for another client, or read a book or hear someone on a podcast that we think would be a good fit for their message and goals.

As a part of the event team year after year, we get to know our clients and their goals. This enables us to suggest effective keynote speaker options to best achieve those goals."

christy lamagnaChristy Lamagna, CEO of Strategic Meetings & Events:"Many event professionals work with speakers bureaus, as their depth of knowledge on not just presenter’s content but their style, presentation methodology, willingness to tailor content to the audience, and more is invaluable. The services are often free to the planner as the speaker pays a commission on the booking, making them a no-brainer when booking talent.

Word of mouth, speaker showcases, and first hand experience are also popular ways to source. Some people prefer to search the internet which, to me, seems an unnecessary risk when there are so many other ways to find the right presenter that come with first-hand testimony on their performance. Anyone can seem perfect on a website. What matters is who they are and how they behave when onsite."

Jill Downing, Director of Events, Conferences and Engagement:"In my experience, keynote and session speakers for conferences were consistently found through a networking basis by employees within the organization. They utilized their contacts from previous jobs, individuals they interfaced with at industry conferences, and business committees they served on in their communities.

In addition, speakers were recruited from companies in which the organization had developed a client relationship."

sarah michelSarah Michel, CSP, VP of Professional Connexity, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting:"Back in 2013, we complied a Speaker Report based on a survey we did with 175 planners representing 175 different organizations that hired speakers and held annual meetings with at least 500+ attendees.

As you will see from the report, 84% found their speakers from a trusted peer/colleague. I believe that is still true today. I’m sure Google search might be higher now that it was in 2013, but every planner I work with, ALWAYS vets a speakers with their trusted peers before hiring.

Speaker bureaus, which in 2013 were the 5th ranked way at 57.1%, are probably still the same today. The successful bureaus are the ones that work hard to develop 'trusted peer' relationships. I would refer you to Tim Mathy with Speak Inc. as a great example of someone who does that very well.

Last year, we officially launched Speaker Match Making service for our current or past clients that we have done consulting for. We did this because our clients kept asking us to recommend and help secure the right thought leaders for their conferences since we understood their audience/member pain points and the vision/mission of their organization.

We don’t do this like a bureau on commission, but instead, it’s a retained/flat fee service our client pays for and we source the right speakers, secure them and then coach them on how to customize their message to make their content relevant for the audience."

nick borelliNick Borelli, President, Borelli Strategies:"As an event professional who has sourced speakers for both corporate events and associations, it’s my experience that there is usually an education chair who uses a number of criteria to make decisions on who to have speak at conferences. It’s far more likely that they themselves have seen a prospective speaker deliver a session than relying on the advice of a speakers bureau.

That said, if the topic is broad (especially opening and closing keynotes), speaker bureaus can be invaluable. Breakout session speakers are often industry veterans who are active thought-leaders in their space and conference organizers can find them through online social listening. As a speaker myself, most of my leads come from those who have seen me speak or from recommendations."

jennafer rossJennafer Ross, CEO, JR Global Events:"Finding speakers is both an easy and daunting task at the exact same time.  It's an easy feat because the resources are abundant—speakers bureaus, professional associations etc. However, we rely heavy on referrals, from other planners, clients, and industry peers.

An unknown speaker can go either way: a session crusher or delightful surprise, but not one we are willing to risk our reputation nor the success of a program on. Sometimes we will attend a speakers session for another company or group, where able, and experience firsthand for ourselves that speaker or presentation." 

keith johnsonKeith Johnston, Managing Partner, i3 Events:"Unlike Association Planners, who have an entire industry of experts to choose from, many corporate planners need to do things a little differently.

For most of my corporate clients, we use the Google machine and their industry groups to find unique speakers who fit within the goals of the program. While I am not opposed to using speakers bureaus, I think that the timeframe from search to go can be a little longer; plus there is the mark-up you avoid by going direct.