Ten Common Mistakes When Hiring a Keynote Speaker

Paul Rulkens is a personal and organizational development consultant and professional speaker. He helps improve business results by making people, teams and organizations more successful. Currently, he is responsible for building a high performance culture in DSM, a global material and life science company.

Paul recently shared an article with me that he wrote with me about keynote speakers. Trying to find the right keynote speaker for your event can be daunting. There are many variables to consider and the last thing you want is a speaker who is not a good fit for your event.

Paul Rulkens
Paul Rulkens

Paul has identified ten common mistakes that people make when hiring keynote speakers. By making you aware of these mistakes, Paul and I hope that you can avoid them, and that your audiences will remember something special from your event (besides  what was served for lunch).

Below is a summary of the ten common mistakes that Paul Rulkens has identified. To read the entire article, please click the image at the end of this post for the PDF file.

1. Not defining what a successful event will look like

Your business event has a purpose. Ask yourself (or the person responsible for the event) the following questions: What do you want your audience to know? What do you want your audience to feel? What do you want your audience to do? Once you have clear answers, you can start looking for a speaker who fits your needs.

2. Not being clear about the outcome of the speaker’s presentation

Different speakers have different strengths. Some are entertaining; some are organized; others are inspirational. Hiring an entertaining after-dinner speaker to give a mid-morning keynote address might not be a great fit.

3. Hiring an egocentric speaker

You can recognize egocentric speakers by their need to squeeze their story in, regardless of whether it will help you achieve the objectives of the event. A good keynote speaker thinks of the people in the audience first and leaves a lasting, positive impression on them.

4. Ignoring the role of the speaker in meeting the event organizers’ objectives

Professional speakers work with the event organizers to help them achieve their objectives.

5. Not having a follow-up strategy

For events where you want to bring about lasting change—for example, among a small group of co-workers—a one-time event rarely works. Professional speakers should be able to give you suggestions on ways to follow-up. For example, the speaker might offer one-on-one consulting, or he might know another speaker who has expertise in the area, or he might be able to recommend reading material or an on-line course.

6. Not asking for references

This one is so important. Contact people for whom the person has spoken before. Whatever else you ask, be sure to ask this question: “Would you hire this speaker again?”

7. Hiring the cheapest speaker

You get what you pay for. Once you have your budget, hire the best speaker you can afford.

8. Focusing on lowering the fee

A good speaker comes with a large fee. While it might be tempting to try to get the speaker to lower the fee, focus instead on increasing his or her value. Explore whether there are extra things that the speaker could do for his normal fee—for example, a some short one-on-one meetings with a couple of people in the audience—at the end of the event.

9. Getting the speaker in and out quickly

Involve your speakers in the programme. Have them attend previous sessions so that they can build on what has been said. Also have them be available afterwards as people love to talk to the keynote speaker.

10. Hiring a speaker when you need something else

Sometimes, you don’t need a big speaker; sometimes, other solutions will work. For example, you could have a panel discussion involving three or four key people from your company or trade association.

There are many things that you must think about when organizing an event. On some things, you might be able to cut corners. A keynote speaker is not one of those things. Avoiding the above-mentioned mistakes will help ensure that your hired speaker adds real value to your event.

10 mistakes when hiring a keynote speaker

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  1. John —
    All great suggestions. I believe that many of these fall into the category of ensure the vision, mission and goal is agreed to by all involved parties before proceeding.

  2. Excellent advice John. I have an immediate challenge of getting a best man up to speed on his speech by this Sat. I think I have retrieved the situation, but do you have any ideas or example speeches you could recommend. I like your style and as you know a lot of examples go over the top and try to be too clever without the balance. Cheers, Chris

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for the comment. Much appreciated. I have MC’d at two weddings (brother and sister) and been Best Man at another (a lifelong friend). While I can’t think of one speech that I’d recommend to watch, there are a number of decent ones on YouTube that are easily searchable.
      Having said that, I hunted around in my saved files and was able to resurrect this post from 2008 that I came across some time ago. It contains practical, commonsense advice for giving a great Best Man speech. I hope that you (and the Best Man) find it useful. Good luck to you both!

      1. Thanks John, you always come up with the goods. I would like to send you a copy of what I come up with for comment where would I send that? All the best and keep up the good work. Cheers, Chris

  3. John, good post. And as a regular speaker at all kinds of conferences, I’d suggest that the organisers make sure that there’s links made between the speakers and their content as part of the planning for the event – then in their planning, the speakers can look to link backwards and forwards in their speeches to previous speakers (and to the ‘company’ men and women who’ve spoken).
    Thus giving the impression (truthfully) that the whole event is a well planned and coordinated message, not simply lots of speakers thrown together.

  4. Just want to say fantastic article, as you know I’m organising a series of speaker events and a conference and this will really help me.

    1. Hi Alex,
      Thanks very much for the comment. Glad you liked the post. The credit goes to Paul Rulkens. And as for putting a link to my blog on your site, I’d be delighted. Thank you!

  5. Recently, a great friend was asked to speak at at gala as a motivational speaker. She was told she had 15-20 minutes. However, she was asked to cut it short when she went over the 15 minute time limit. She continued to speak for another 5-7 minutes after given a two-minute warning. What would have been the best thing for both parties involved and is going over when given a two minute warning a good way to complete your message?

    1. The first thing that I would say, based on what you have written, is that your friend and the organizer needed to coordinate better before she spoke. If she really had up to 20 minutes for her speech, I wonder why she was told to cut it short after 15 minutes. Now, if the gala was running late, the organizer should have asked her to cut the speech down to 15 minutes before she stood up to speak. Then, it would have been up to your friend to adjust her speech accordingly. See this post that I wrote on how to manage your time for ideas on this point.
      Going over time is almost never a good idea. (See the above-mentioned post.) However, in this case, it sounds as though your friend pretty much kept to her allotted time. The best thing is for both parties to be clear about how long the speaker should speak, and for the speaker to stay within that time.

  6. Hey John

    You posted Great information here about ten common mistakes when hiring keynote speaker. It’s really very common mistakes. Thanks for aware to us about that. I am impressed to read this information about it. I have also some knowledge about it. and I agree with it. I also want to visit here for knowing more about it. Can u posted more information about how to hiring the best keynote speaker?

    Thanks again.

  7. Thanks for explaining that we shouldn’t hire an egocentric speaker who tries to squeeze in their story regardless of your objectives. My workplace will be hosting a symposium later this year, and our focus right now is finding the right keynote speaker. I’m glad I read your article because I feel a lot more prepared to evaluate and choose a great keynote speaker!

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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

Karsta Goetze

TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

Andy Yen

CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

David Lindelöf

Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

After a morning of team building activities using improvisation as the conduit, John came on stage to close the staff event which was organised in Chamonix, France. His energy and presence were immediately felt by all the members of staff. The work put into the preparation of his speech was evident and by sharing some his own stories, he was able to conduct a closing inspirational speech which was relevant, powerful and impactful for all at IRU. The whole team left feeling engaged and motivated to tackle the 2019 objectives ahead. Thank you, John.

Umberto de Pretto

Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

Thuy Khoc-Bilon

World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

Sara Canna

HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

Thomas Scott

National Education Director, Association of Speakers Clubs UK

John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

Jon Lopez

General Manager Europe, Hayward Industries

Thank you very much for the excellent presentation skills session. The feedback I received was very positive. Everyone enjoyed the good mix of listening to your speech, co-developing a concrete take-away and the personal learning experience. We all feel more devoted to the task ahead, more able to succeed and an elevated team spirit. Delivering this in a short time, both in session and in preparation, is outstanding!

Henning Dehler

CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

Thanks to John’s excellent workshop, I have learned many important tips and techniques to become an effective public speaker. John is a fantastic speaker and teacher, with extensive knowledge of the field. His workshop was a great experience and has proven extremely useful for me in my professional and personal life.

Eric Thuillard

Senior Sales Manager, Sunrise Communications

John’s presentation skills training was a terrific investment of my time. I increased my skills in this important area and feel more comfortable when speaking to an audience. John provided the right mix between theory and practice.

Diego Brait

Director of the Jura Region, BKW Energie AG

Be BOLD. Those two words got stuck in my head and in the heads of all those ADP leaders and associates that had the privilege to see John on stage. He was our keynote speaker at our annual convention in Barcelona, and his message still remains! John puts his heart in every word. Few speakers are so credible, humble and yet super strong with large audiences!

Guadalupe Garcia

Senior Director and Talent Partner, ADP International