By Maura Keller

Walk into any meeting or event in the Midwest and you’re bound to see a diverse group of individuals, from suit-donning, gray-haired executives carrying leather-bound portfolios to sandal-wearing 20-somethings with iPads in hand to 40-year-old leaders lugging their laptops from session to session. You are also likely to see something else — professional speakers who are addressing these diverse audience groups, and delivering powerful messages that both motivate and excite. In fact, finding the ideal speaker is part art, part science, and it requires due diligence on the part of meeting and event planners.

Nearly every corporate event has some kind of reception, from small networking cocktails to themed casino nights or musical entertainment to jumpstart or close out the agenda. But what is even more important is finding the best, most engaging speakers who both inspire and delight.

The All American Speakers Bureau sees requests for speakers arrive in three primary ways. The first is through direct contact with a speaker or through a bureau that planners find through independent research, most often through online search. This is based purely on the external information available — what you see online by searching is typically all you know about the speaker.

“Requesting someone you’ve seen before, or getting a recommendation from another event organizer or coworker who has, is the second most popular method of how we see speakers being requested,” says Jennifer Best, vice president of marketing at the All American Speakers Bureau. “Again, this request might be directly sent to the speaker through their website or to a bureau. Referrals can bring some additional validation to the quality of a speaker, but can also be somewhat limited to a single person’s perspective and opinion. What is good for one audience might not be good for the next.”

The last, and in Best’s opinion, the most helpful, way to find a reputable speaker is to work with a trusted buyer-side bureau, one who recommends speakers to you based on past performances with similar organizations, internal client reviews and overall quality compared to others in their topic area. Buyer-side bureaus are only beholden to representing the client — in this case, that’s the talent buyer — and not to the speaker who is ultimately selected.

In addition, agencies that work with many speakers can present the widest variety of qualified options with a degree of certainty, as they’ve typically seen what’s worked well for organizations like yours.

According to Roger Wolkoff, president of the National Speakers Association of Wisconsin, in keeping with the metaphor, a “knock-out” speaker should have a fantastic one-two combination punch that draws an audience in and engages them, and leaves them with valuable takeaways. Their message, delivery and style must educate, entertain and engage.

“Speakers need to have poise and charisma (a presence!); professionalism because your audience needs to respect you, your organization and your people; an on-point message that resonates with your audience; and adaptability. Because stuff goes sideways sometimes, how willing and experienced are they in adapting to your needs?” asks Wolkoff.

Main speakers are still a large draw, and VIP experiences to meet and greet with speakers can be added to help entice your attendees to register early or pay an additional fee for intimate access.

Wolkoff points out that many planners choose to work with speaker bureaus, which vet speakers and can help meeting planners narrow down whom they want to work with based on their needs. Planners should also check out The site features speakers who belong to the National Speakers Association, an organization that prides itself on emphasizing professionalism and adhering to a code of ethics. Moreover, you can gather feedback from past events, or use resources such as the All American Speakers Bureau or TED Speakers Bureau. “You can also look for your local National Speakers Association chapter,” Wolkoff says. “Or ask colleagues at networking events who they’ve hired to speak at their events.”

Planners can also do a Google search based on the speaking topic they are interested in (such as emotional intelligence, leadership, conflict or change management). But keep in mind that speaker schedules can be difficult to contend with. In-demand speakers can take months (or sometimes even years) to book out, and having the time and the funds to put out ahead of ticket sales can sometimes prove problematic.

Another challenge with entertainment is making sure that it fits with the audience. Meeting and event planners want the audience to enjoy it or learn from it, not feel like it’s a distraction.


Best says that, before any speaking event, it’s important to define two things: Who is in the audience and what are your key performance indicators (KPIs) for the event?

Understanding and communicating who is in the audience is key to helping a speaker deliver a memorable speech. And remember that KPIs should be different for different events because, even for the same organization, the meeting or event may have different goals.

“Communicating your goals with your speaker in advance of the event is advised. Any survey that is done post-event should have these goals in mind,” Best advises. “Also, surveys are key to the speaker booking process. Getting audience feedback is a must in measuring a speaker’s success.”

Most event organizers that the All American Speakers Bureau works with survey their audiences after the event. Similarly, after every speaker event that the bureau books, it surveys clients both for their feedback on the speaker and their experience working with the organization. “Event organizers tell us that they’re looking for speakers who are engaging and resonate with an audience, so engagement and sentiment metrics are often prioritized, both about the speaker and the speech delivery style,” Best says.

And remember, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to choosing a speaker. As Best explains, each speaker can bring different qualities to an event. This starts with defining the must-have characteristics for your speaker and keeping that list reasonable. The more limited you are on this list, the harder it will be to find the right speaker. Then, add some nice-to- have qualities and communicate those as well.

When searching for the ideal speaker, the first stop many planners make is to visit the speaker’s website. Is their message clear? Do they have video of their work? Look at the quantity, quality and, if possible, the dates of their testimonials.

Wolkoff advises meeting and event planners to reach out to the speaker via email or phone. How fast do they respond? If that goes well, then engage them on the phone or in a video conference. “My clients tell me (and I agree) that we can figure out if we’re a match in our initial conversation. This gives the meeting planner a chance to determine if this is someone with whom they want to work and with whom their audience will engage,” Wolkoff says. “This conversation is essential to determining fit.”

Furthermore, evaluate your speakers’ experience with the topic at hand, how comfortable they are on stage, and if they are a fit for you, your clients and your organization.

So how should a planner determine if a speaker’s proverbial bang is worth the buck? Well, a standing ovation is always a good sign.

“What are people saying after the speakers finish? If they delivered their talks in the morning, is the audience still talking about them in the afternoon? If they delivered it on day one, are they still talking about it on day two?” asks Wolkoff, who always offers an audience survey at the end of his programs, compiles the data and comments, and delivers them to his planner within 24 hours of the event.

In addition, trusted speakers bureaus can help. They are aware of what the market rates should be for the speakers you’re considering and can negotiate favorable pricing for you.

“Where you might be working with one or two speakers annually, they are working with speakers daily, and understand the market demand and qualities to look for,” Best explains. “Having as much information as possible in advance is the best way to make the decision whether to move ahead with a speaker or not.”

In the end, planners want to hire a speaker who is cognizant of the fact that time is very valuable and, if people are giving the speaker an hour of their time, that speaker should be motivated to deliver something that will make them say, “There’s nowhere else I would rather be than in this room listening to this speech today.”

Based in Minneapolis, Maura Keller is a seasoned writer, editor and author, with more than 24 years of experience. She has written about business, meetings, event planning and design, marketing and health care for dozens of publications, as well as Fortune 50 companies.