How to choose a speaker for your next event (that members will want to hear)

We’ve all squirmed in our seats willing an event speaker to stop talking. But, how do you ensure your next booking is memorable for all the right reasons? Matthew Rock has been hosting, chairing and speaking at B2B events for years. Here he shares some of his trade secrets…

In short

  • Use your member network to connect with event speakers. That big name contact may be closer than you think.
  • Don’t always look for the star name. Star credentials are even better.
  • Aim for variety at events, with panel discussions and audience involvement.

I’ve worked with hundreds of speakers at events. The comedian Griff Rhys-Jones once teased me mercilessly on stage when we jointly hosted the CBI’s Growing Business Awards. Several times I’ve had to do live interviews because the speaker didn’t want to do a keynote; the genius restaurateur Alan Yau always used to prefer this format. And on one occasion, as a compere, I sat helpless as Bend it like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha went massively over her ten-minute allotted time.

Choosing the right speaker or host for your event will be among the most divisive decisions you’ll make. Everyone will have a view. “Who’s he? I’ve never heard of him,” your director will demand when you suggest a household-name businessman who’s known to everyone else in the room. “Oh, I don’t think members will want to listen to her”, someone will pipe up when an amazing, pioneering leader is put forward.

My most memorable experience with an event speaker was in 1999/2000 when I was launching the “Real Business Live” event series. We’d got a great venue – the old Atlantic Bar & Grill underneath Piccadilly – and a decent crowd of about 60.

What we hadn’t got was a speaker. Our star guest, a well-known entrepreneur and investor in the food and leisure business, just didn’t show up. No reply from his mobile. The drinks and chat were flowing nicely, but the panic was beginning to set in.

In the end we had to think on our feet, so I called a friend, the founder of Caffe Nero Gerry Ford.

I managed to get Gerry on the phone. “Oh hi Gerry, what are you up to?” He was just leaving his office in the West End and was heading home. “Erm, you wouldn’t mind just popping by to the Atlantic, would you?”

To his eternal credit, Gerry not only showed up but he sat on a bar stool in front of the crowd, took questions, talked about his business, and networked with guests afterwards. The evening was – just – a triumph, though I learned always to confirm, then double-confirm, then check in with the speaker’s PA or agent, then send through briefing notes with the date, venue and time, then triple-confirm on the day.

Working with speaker agencies can be effective, and there are some terrific ones out there, such as Performing Artistes and Specialist Speakers. They work with speakers constantly so even if you do have a last-minute drop-out, they’ll be able to drum up a replacement. That reassurance is worth a lot.

The downsides are that you’ll pay more (the agent will want their cut), and agents can sometimes peddle the same old set of speakers that they have on their books. “Not Gyles Brandreth again…” And unless you’re prepared to pay top-drawer fees, they probably won’t get you the latest, hottest name. No, Emmanuel Macron won’t want to open your Annual Membership Conference this year.

Deciding on your star attraction speaker warrants a lot of time and thought. And I’d suggest that they don’t always need to be a star name. Instead, consider people with unique achievements and credentials in your industry (but make sure you communicate these clearly in your marketing campaigns).

If you’re after a particular big-name speaker, there may be someone in your organisation’s network who knows them and who can make a direct approach. In my experience, many excellent business leaders and speakers can be accessible and open to personal and relevant approaches. (We once sent an out-of-the-blue email to Shanghai Tang founder Sir David Tang about a UK-China conference, and he graciously spoke at two events for us. I even ended up being invited to his investiture party at Claridges after he was knighted.) This way, you might also get a bespoke speech rather than their standard spiel.

Personally, I don’t get excited by hearing a minor celebrity repeating their “inspirational story”. I’d prefer to hear a fresh name or watch a skilled interviewer extracting new insights from a well-known and qualified person who’s got lessons for that audience.

But you – I’m sure – have done your detailed audience research and will have evidence about their interests. For me, variety of format is the essence of rich event content – a tight, informative panel discussion; a keynote who leaves you wanting more; plenty of audience involvement. You won’t satisfy everyone with your speaker choices, but this mix will give you the best chance of keeping most of your delegates happy.

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