a speaker giving keynote at a conference

Image courtesy to Deb Nystrom

According to dictionary.com, the definition of keynote is “the note or tone on which a key or system of tones is founded; the tonic.” In other words, your event’s speakers, whether keynote, or breakout session, set the tone. They truly are the main attraction of the day as well as of your marketing materials. Because of this, we challenge you to make choosing your speakers central to planning your event.

This can be a challenge because of all that you have on your plate. An event organizer’s job is equal parts exciting and stressful. Not only do you have many details to nail down, you’ve got to choose speakers or run call for abstracts, possibly for an industry that you’re not familiar with.

This is quite the dilemma, but not impossible.

Before you jump in on speaker research, here are a few things to identify:

When and Where

Speakers who are in high demand will want to know the date and location of the event. Since they’re sought after, they’ll most likely have a jam-packed schedule with no room for ambiguous dates or locations. So lock this in first.

The Purpose of Your Event

What are you looking for from your event? Is the event to build momentum around a product launch, to spur an important conversation that needs to be held, to reconnect classmates, or to educate current employees?

Pinpointing the purpose of your event will help you land on the theme of your event. Themes can be tightly adhered to or loosely followed. The theme topic will be affected by several factors such as the purpose of your event, the industry your event is held for, and the audience insights you can rely on to grow your event.

The Reason People Attend

This will likely be different than what you or what any executives listed as the purpose of your event. The most common reasons people attend events are one of two things: networking (to advance career) and learning opportunities. Great! However, we encourage you to dig deeper. Why are they networking? Are they networking because they’re business owners looking for clients, because they’re employees looking for a new job, or because they’d like to make new friends? If they’re there to learn, what are they there to learn? For example, if your event is a technology conference, attendees could be there to learn about hardware, software, leading-edge tech, etc. If most of your attendees are there to learn about hardware, you might choose speakers differently than if your attendees are interested in learning about software.

If you don’t know why people attend your event, don’t feel shy about asking them. A great time to ask attendees this question is during the online registration process where you have their captive attention. You can also ask them over social media, which can be done at any time, the most ideal times being within a week or two after the event or between the initial event announcement and the start date. Event organizers can also use the Whova event mobile app to survey attendees on the reason why they attended the event as well as who they would like to see as a speaker next year. Keep track of the insights you receive from attendees and access this information while choosing the speakers.


A commonly held belief is that speakers will jump at the opportunity to speak for free in exchange for exposure. While this might be true for new speakers, seasoned speakers may not even think twice about saying no. While it’s true that many speakers have their popular speeches committed to memory, much more goes into preparing for a speech than what meets the eye. The best speakers will want to learn more about their future audience, what challenges they may be facing, and will change their speech to address those issues. This means extra time adjusting those slides and tailoring their message and story. And extra time means extra money. So keep the behind the scenes work in mind when creating a budget.

With that said, there are certain circumstances where seasoned speakers may accept a speaking gig with no pay: if the event is in support of a cause they care deeply about, or if the event is for their alma mater.

The Purpose of Each Speaker

Now that you know the goal and theme of your event, you’ll need to figure out what the purpose behind each speaking slot is. Will you need two subject matter experts, one inspirational speaker, and one comedian? Identifying the reason you’re seeking each speaker will be a powerful tool in identifying who is good fit for your event and who you should skip this year.

How Technology Can Help

Once you’ve gathered all the above information, you can start searching for speakers. If that last sentence took your breath away, don’t worry; we’ve got some powerful tips to help you find those star speakers.

If you’re a digital native, we probably don’t have to tell you this twice: the Internet is the best tool you have for researching and finding top quality speakers.

While there are online tools like eSpeakers and the NSA (not that NSA, but the National Speaker’s Association), we’ll let you in on a little secret: your quickest way to find quality speakers is to skip these tools. Don’t get us wrong, there are top quality speakers listed on those sites; there are also many speakers who are not industry leaders which can make searching through their catalogues overwhelming. Your best bet is to go social. Then, if you want to go back to those sites to book speakers, feel free. We suggest using the following sites and tools, in the order they appear:

  • Related Events – Keep a running list of speakers from events similar to yours, in size, industry, and maybe even location. This is a great and fast way to prequalify each speaker. However, be sure to mix this approach with the following three to keep things fresh for your attendees.
  • TED’s List of Speakers – If you’ve been involved with the event industry at any point in the past five years, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of TED or TED Talks. TED is an annual conference that began in Monterey, California where experts are invited to give prolific talks on their work, experience, and findings. In the past few years TEDx Talks have popped up in thousands of cities worldwide in the form of TEDx events. Each of these annual events features at least 10 powerful presentations by subject matter experts. TED keeps a running list of all TED and TEDx speakers which means that they’ve got a huge catalogue of leading edge speakers. If you only use one tool to help you find speakers, make it this one.
  • Youtube – If you don’t have any luck with searching through TED’s list of speakers, turn to the world’s second largest search engine: YouTube. Searching for your desired subject matter will bring up many thought-leaders in that industry. Before even visiting their website, you can see whether an individual is a candidate for speaking at your event by watching them discuss their work. If a speaker has any notoriety you’ll likely be able to view them in many aspects on YouTube: on stage (most importantly!), in professional interviews, and maybe even in the form of vlogs (video blogs).
  • Event App Survey – To take the guesswork out of choosing speakers that you think your future attendees will like, go straight to the source and ask them through the survey feature from event apps (e.g., Whova). We suggest asking the attendees during or shortly after the event, while their ideas are fresh in their mind.

Remember: speakers are central to your event, both in terms of attracting attendees as well as setting the tone of the day/session. Choose them wisely and you won’t regret it.


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