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Event Planning: How to Hire the Best Keynote Speaker

Event planning: how to hire the best keynote speaker.Looking for that extra spark for your conference, annual meeting, or retreat? For event planning, here's how to hire the best keynote speaker.

How does an organization find a keynote speaker that will not only delight an event audience, but also bring new insights that will help the group learn and grow? 

That's one of the questions I recently asked Kirsten Singleton, Executive Director of H Speakers. H Speakers is the new speakers bureau of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, which was founded as part of MHA last year. I knew H Speakers represented an exciting concept—a bureau providing, as they put it, "Timely Workshops, Designed for Healthcare." (Full disclosure, I'm on H Speakers' roster of keynote speakers.)

We've all experienced the razzmatazz speakers who are more hat than cattle. Last week, I wrote about the other extreme: expert keynoters who, although sincere, haven't spent time learning how to speak as a leader. So I was curious about what goes into hiring not only an appropriate speaker, but also one who is truly the right fit for a company or group event. And I thought I had some questions that would be helpful from an event planner’s perspective to ask Kirsten.

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So here are my questions, and Kirsten Singleton of H Speakers' answers. Consider them in light of the concept that Kirsten herself offered: "Do you want a good talk or a great talk?" 

G. What are the challenges a new speakers bureau faces?

K. Being overly optimistic. Providing keynote speakers is a "red-ocean" industry. That means sharks are in the water and there's a lot of blood, i.e., the competition is intense. One speaker could be listed with 25 bureaus. H Speakers is trying to carve out our niche. We are one of the few speakers bureaus that can provide highly specialized healthcare experts. That's our sweet spot.

G. Is your healthcare specialty an asset or a liability? What I mean is, does having such a definite niche limit you in any way?

K. The work we do is a natural extension of our robust education initiatives, and I've worked personally with many of our speakers. So there's a personal and professional connection. That means we know that our speakers are genuinely great teachers and knowledgeable/ experienced in this industry.

G. You wrote recently that a speaker needs to "pierce the audience's executive body armor." How does a speaker get through in a way that goes beyond the sameness that conference attendees often experience? 

K. We coach our speakers so that they can best reach their audience. A great speaker will tailor their talk to the group and find out details about the audience that shows they have done their research. Storytelling can be an effective tool, as can humor. Each speaker has an authentic style they should stay with, but the key is to really know their audience. We focus on that with each speaker.

G. So it's kind of a benign benefit that the organization hosting the event doesn't see coming.

K. [Laughing] Yes, you could say that. Coming into most meetings, the group is serious and focused on their problems. Usually by the end of the conference they leave with a spring in their step and with a solution mindset. They have thought of new ways to tackle their challenges. 

Dr. Gary Genard lecturing in the U.S.-China Cultural Exchange Program at Harvard Law School.

Dr. Gary Genard lecturing in the U.S.-China Cultural Exchange Program at Harvard Law School

G. How does an organization judge whether a speaker they're considering for their event is inspirational or creative? What measurements should they go by?

K. That's an interesting question. You know, as H Speakers grows, we're reaching a point where we won't have seen all the speakers we're signing up. This is why it's so important for event planners to talk to speakers before booking them. If we help them narrow it down to, say, two speakers, they could have a call with both to see who is the best fit. Not all speakers and bureaus encourage prep calls. But as the customer, it's in your best interest to ask for one. We're very dedicated to that principle, which makes us a little different from other speakers bureaus. 

G. Which credentials are most important in choosing a speaker? Where does expertise have to give way to experience or an innovative approach?

K. Actually, this is where I probably have a different opinion from others in this industry. I'm not always swayed by top credentials or whether the person has letters after their name. The person and their experience/message is what matters.

G. It sounds like you're talking about authenticity, which is so important in my work as an executive speech coach, since I train keynote and motivational speakers. How do you determine whether a speaker is authentic?

K. I look under rocks, I look far and wide, and I read a lot of trade articles to find interesting speakers. Just the way someone says things in a print interview can be revealing. I sometimes don't even watch a speaker's marketing video. There are so many smart and talented people out there, that often, I'm able to find the "unsung people." We sometimes even ask our hospital workers to give talks, and some of them are amazing. We do a lot of informational programs, and some of our speakers are longstanding experts in training and facilitating as well as keynote speaking. I can sometimes find a diamond in the rough, and with some coaching I'll elevate them to our speakers bureau. Some of them didn't even consider that as a career move until I came along. I personally work with over 300 speakers a year so it's not difficult to find good speakers.


"Thank you very much for hosting the H Speakers Fall Speakers Series event featuring Dr. Gary Genard. The planning permitted attendees to "visit" while tasting amazing food and drink!"

                                       — Brenda Buckley, Safety Director, The Haartz Corporation

G. As a speech coach as well as a keynote speaker, I admit that I'm intrigued by H Speakers' inclusion of trainers and facilitators in your roster. 

K. Oh, yes. We offer programs in leadership, project management, and team training. A lot of hospitals and healthcare organizations are very busy. They can't always send their people out to be trained. So we provide someone to come to them and provide the training and education they need. 

G. Companies and organizations are often biased toward someone in their industry. Do you think it's more productive to look for someone well known in your sector, or an expert in another area who can show your group how to apply that expertise to your industry?

K. I would agree that bringing in someone from another industry from time to time can be extremely interesting, and often very productive. Aviation, for instance, is good for healthcare. Also the nuclear industry. Both of those sectors face the same challenges hospitals deal with concerning safety issues and the need for good teamwork. While hospitals are not very similar to high-tech, there is actually a lot they can learn from these types of innovative companies. 

G. Is it worthwhile to hire a celebrity or entertainer for an event, rather than a keynote speaker who knows the industry? Have you heard horror stories?

K. No, I haven't heard horror stories. But I'd say that you have to be very careful if you hire a celebrity, because you may not get what you pay for. Get feedback in the industry from recent experiences. Who hired this person, and how did it go? High-profile speakers may not want to go to any trouble to prepare for an event. And really, it's all about customization. The more you're paying, the more you should expect customization. Paying more does not necessarily mean you're getting a better speaker. 

I thought that that hard headed, realistic advice was a good place to wrap up our interview. Thank you, Kirsten Singleton, for these insights from H Speakers, the cutting-edge, niche, Boston-based speakers bureau! Event planners, I hope that's valuable guidance from the trenches on how to hire the best keynote speaker.

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