How to choose the best marketing keynote speakers for your event

How to Choose the Best Marketing Keynote Speakers for Your Event

This article is to help conference organisers, event organisers, and agents to find the best marketing keynote speakers they can afford.

It isn’t my intention to self-promote myself – I don’t need to. There is enough biased information out there already. Which is actually the problem. People recommend their friends, agents put forward the ‘safest’ speaker, and event organisers choose the person with the slickest showreal (I’m sorry if this is you!). None of which is the best strategy for hiring the best marketing keynote speaker, as I’ll explain below.

I’ve seen dozens of marketing keynote speakers over the years, some great, but so many times I’ve sat in the audience and thought to myself – Wow. This person is definitely not a good fit for this event.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first started out keynoting I was also not that great – even with training and ‘exclusive’ status at Australia’s top entertainers agency, I was sometimes assigned to events that I knew I was not the right person for. I don’t envy the people whose job it is to hire event speakers – the risk of hiring the wrong person falls directly on them – they have a lot to lose.

So how do you find the best marketing keynote speakers for your event? Here’s what I’ve learned after a decade of keynoting, and how you can do better hiring the best speaker for the job.

Read on, I’ll let you in on a few secrets.

Why you need to be careful when hiring a marketing keynoter

When I first started keynoting, I was hired to speak at an event on viral marketing – my area of expertise. There was another guy who was speaking directly after me on the same topic – viral marketing. At that time (maybe even now), not many people knew too much about viral marketing, so the event organiser must have been under a lot of pressure to find people.

After my presentation, I stuck around to hear the other viral marketing speaker.

I squirmed in my seat. What he’d done was skim read someone else’s book – actually a colleague of mine in the US whose work I know well – and basically made out it was his own. No acknowledgement that it was someone else’s work at all – he had made it his own, and it was difficult to watch.

He might have gotten away with it, but he messed up. Turns out he didn’t read my colleague’s book carefully enough, or perhaps didn’t understand it. Much of what he was saying either fell flat or didn’t make sense. What he also didn’t realise is that a big portion of the audience had also read the book – it was an international best seller at the time. The audience was murmuring, and I could tell they were annoyed. I felt sorry for the event organiser.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen similar situations too many times. As an academic, it’s my job to read a lot, and know where ideas come from (plagiarism is a serious business in academia). It’s pretty obvious to me when someone has plagiarised ideas, or someone else’s presentation. It’s often also obvious to the audience – more than you think. It’s okay if the speaker acknowledges where they got their ideas from, but I suppose many speakers prefer to ‘fake it until they make it’ and are under pressure to sound better than they actually are.

I’ve seen keynoters pull other people’s ideas from YouTube, or worse copy slides from Slideshare countless times. I even remember my agent one time telling me it was common practice. But it’s not just an ethical issue, the audience are often not that naïve – they also watch YouTube and can sense when someone is full of it.

The delegates are there to hear something new and original, just as much as useful and actionable, we owe them that. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of keynoters out there who are desperate (or lazy) enough to copy other people’s work.

The Different Types of marketing keynote speakers

The first thing to understand is that there are different types of marketing keynote speakers. It’s critical you know the different types, so you know who is best for the situation. You don’t want a deep technical discussion when the delegates have just finished drinks, and you don’t want an excited-game-show-host when the delegates are there to learn actionable insights.

The Futurist

Futurist conference speakers are prophetic, and usually motivational. They offer insight into what’s to come, with messages about remaining competitive, preparing for catastrophe, becoming more innovative, or sometimes just to wow the audience with technology that no one has heard of yet.

Because they’re futurists, conference organisers sometimes make the mistake of assuming they know about marketing. They assume anyone who knows how to predict the future must also know a lot about how to sell online. Sounds ridiculous right? But it happens.

Futurists are excellent for events when you need to inspire and motivate the crowd. But don’t count on much in the way of useful actionable insights. As an academic I’m probably more critical than most – to me it all sounds like fluff (sometimes absurd rubbish – sorry to my futurist friends!). If you’re looking for a good futurist, try to get someone who already has a name for themselves. The audience is frequently more sophisticated than you think, and if their expectation is to actually learn something useful, after the hype has worn off they’ll probably feel let down.

The ‘Excited-Game-Show-Host’

There are a lot of these. These are keynoters who are almost pure entertainment, while trying to impart some deep new knowledge (i.e., fluff 😊 sorry again). Great for waking the crowd up in the afternoon, or getting people inspired, but again – you need to make sure it’s a good fit for what the audience is expecting.

Excited-game-show-hosts do things like make the audience stand up and dance, make them feel good (or embarrassed), and are generally quite a lot of fun. But beware – ask yourself would you really hire someone with purple hair who looks like a Gym instructor with an inspirational message on their t-shirt consult on your business? (This is accurate – sorry if this is you 😊).

If it’s an event where the delegates actually came to learn something, after the adrenaline wears off they’ll also leave disappointed. Excited-game-show-hosts are masters at making people feel inspired and empowered, which might be a good thing in some circumstances, like after drinks or dinner. But be prepared for anything from ridiculous fanciful absurd content to something that resembles an aerobics session (again, true story…).

The Practitioner

These are people who work in industry as marketers. They often do keynotes for free to promote their brand, or perhaps because they’re looking to become more professional at keynoting.

Practitioners are great at sharing real world practical advice on what they’ve done in their jobs, but they’re usually not as good as professional keynoters at presenting, and usually what they have to say is pretty run of the mill kind of stuff, not really anything new or inspiring.

The problem with practitioner speakers is that you’ll get a large proportion of the audience who are bored to tears, because the speaker is simply regurgitating what they already know. You will get some people in the audience who appreciate what the practitioner has to say, particularly trade style conferences where everyone is interested in what everyone else in their industry is up to. And of course, delegates who don’t know much at all. Also, practitioners are relatively cheap or free.

The Academic

Yawn. Sorry, that probably sounded a bit mean. And, Yes, I am an academic, and probably bored the crowd early in my career also. The problem with academics is obvious – they have deep knowledge on the subject, but they just don’t know how to implement in practice since they rarely have any practical experience. Or, worse, sometimes what they’re talking about has almost no relevance to practice – too theoretical, or just plain confusing.

Some academics are great keynoters. Just be careful they’re not too out of touch with what’s going on in the real world!

The Author

Many marketing keynote speakers have also written a book(s) – it seems to be a rite of passage nowadays to claim legitimacy and credibility as a keynoter. But it’s pretty easy to claim to be a ‘bestselling author’ – there are so many lists out there you’re sure to be bestselling on one of them, so you can take that claim with a grain of salt.

The best signal of how good the author is, is the publisher who published their book. It’s incredibly difficult getting your book published by a reputable international publisher. If the person has published with a mainstream international publisher, then it suggests their ideas are unique, insightful, and pretty good.

Many keynoters claim to be authors, when all they’ve done is self-published, which pretty much anyone can do. Getting published in Australia is also a lot easier than getting published internationally.

Authors (good ones) usually make excellent keynote speakers because they’ve had a lot of experience on stage promoting their book, and usually what they have to say is pretty good.

Perhaps no surprise, the best keynoters I’ve seen are also great authors.

The Celebrity

I don’t have much to say on this, other than I’ve never seen a celebrity who was terrible, which probably explains why they’re a celebrity. Obviously, you need a very big budget to afford celebrities, so if you have that budget go ahead. The other benefits of getting big names in is that they help to draw delegates and registrations.

The best celebrity speaker I’ve seen is Bill Clinton. That statement doesn’t help you much, unless you want to hire him, but just thought I’d get that out there 😊

How to choose the best keynoter

Use an Agency

Using an agency like ICMI or Saxton has advantages and disadvantages. I’ve been a member of both, and an exclusive for ICMI in the past.

The main advantage is the agent is going to recommend someone they know is low risk, since they’ve worked with them before and know how good they are.

The main disadvantage is that the person they recommend is sometimes not the best, since they tend to have a narrow pool they choose from. For example, they’ll push the motivational type keynoter into jobs that are more suited to educators, because it’s better to at least entertain the audience than it is to recommend someone untested who turns out to be a dud. They have to minimize their risk also.

The other obvious disadvantage is cost – agents charge around 30% on top of the keynoter’s fee. I have heard from senior people in the industry that some agents pump up the commission way higher than 30% since you and the keynoter are blind to the costs, but I can’t verify that. Most agents are completely legit.

Do an Internet Search for Marketing Keynote Speakers

The advantage of searching for a marketing keynote speaker yourself on the internet is that you get more variety – there are obviously a lot of public speakers and keynoters out there.

The disadvantage is that you don’t really know how good they are. They might have flashy websites and fancy showreels, but in my experience the terrible keynoters look just as good online as the best keynoters, so it’s hard to know.

There are a few “best keynoter” lists on the internet, but if you look carefully you’ll see the lists are produced by keynoters themselves. To be fair, some lists are legit, but frankly most I’ve looked at are either keynoters recommending their friends, or keynoters recommending people to position themselves by excluding the best.

It’s common practice in keynoting circles to band together in groups and recommend each other – if you’re not in their group then they don’t recommend you, no matter how good you are. Kind of a circle jerk where they all benefit each other.

Search for a Marketing Keynote Speaker on LinkedIn

Almost all marketing keynote speakers will have an active presence on LinkedIn. In my view this is the best way to find the right marketing keynote speakers for the job. Here’s a list of advantages:

  1. You get easy access to a wide variety of keynoter types
  2. By hiring direct you don’t have to pay a commission – most legitimate keynoters handle direct bookings, and it’s rare for them to have an exclusivity agreement with an agency
  3. You can verify them by seeing what content they post

Let me expand on this last point. Almost all marketing keynote speakers will have an active presence on LinkedIn. And they all post self-promotional type materials, so you can get a good sense of what their knowledge is, their charisma (marketing keynote speakers tend to post a lot of video), and what sort of engagement they get.

When you’re evaluating their content, look carefully at the types of things they post – if it’s fluffy pie in the sky oversimplifications of complex ideas, red flags should go up. Good marketing keynote speakers don’t post flaky video anecdotes about how the tide coming in is like your business cycles, or this giant chess game is like your competitors. Nor do they post obscure quotes from famous people.

The best marketing keynote speakers tend to post original insightful content that tends to get a high amount of engagement. This is a direct reflection of how good their presentations are on stage.

Keynoting is not for everyone, but everyone wants to be a keynoter. This makes it difficult to choose the best keynoter for your buck.

I hope my advice is useful. Good luck with your search!

1 reply
  1. Eli Richardson says:

    It’s great that you talked about how to find keynote speakers for an event. In my opinion, any business or school could benefit from a keynote speaker. If I were to host a business event, I’d like to motivate my employees or business partners with a speaker’s help. Thanks for the advice on how to search online for a speaker’s services.

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