My name is Ben Newman and I am a KEYNOTE SPEAKER and PERFORMANCE COACH in sports, business, and financial services.
This article will dive under the hood to give you tips from my keynote speaking clients, which will hopefully make your decision process to hire a keynote speaker easier and better. Here’s what we’re going to cover:
I would love to be your next keynote speaker and introduce you to our team of speakers, but would first like to explain why we are fully qualified to help you.
You’re probably asking yourself: “Why did Ben write this article and how will it help me?”
That’s a great question.
I wrote this guide for business and corporate event planners with the responsibility for finding great speakers or coaches. Or, maybe the next big event just got dumped in your lap, and you have only a few weeks to find a speaker.
No matter how the event got to your desk, you have one common need:
A keynote speaker who can figuratively raise the roof and provide an immediate positive impact to your team.
The challenge—and the purpose of this article—is to not only help you determine the right keynote speaker for your event, but help you define what makes a good keynote speaker for your company.
From the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
I’ve walked a mile in your shoes!
My business has gotten amazing traction working with top companies and peak performers all over the world. And, I can attribute my success to one simple element: I have been in the shoes of my audience.
What I speak about is from experience, not theory. I have fought the same battles as you and failed many times over.
The path to today started when I was a financial advisor, arguably one of the scariest mental roller coasters you can ride! I was just another face in the crowd searching for my big break. It took four years of failure before I was able to reach my goal of being one of the top 2% of advisors in the world (all the while having my management team tell me my goals were too high!).
I spent almost a decade performing at the highest level and was developing a system built around mental toughness and the daily disciplines required to achieve peak performance.
I earned my way to tell my story and I would be happy to introduce you to any of my clients if you would like references.
My personal experience is my number one qualification when I stand in front of thousands of people each year. Every word I speak comes from personal experience, something that is missing with a lot of speakers, especially with the boom in “thought leadership” online.
Along the way I have met some amazing leaders and shared the stage with those I have looked up to my entire life. My career has taken me to some amazing places and I’ve learned more than I could ever imagined as a keynote speaker. I have been hired as a speaker and coach in many areas including:
• Keynote Speaker for Sales
• Keynote Speaker for Mental Toughness
• Keynote Speaker for Peak Performance
• Keynote Speaker for Innovation in Business
• Keynote Speaker for Change
• Keynote Speaker for Sports
• Keynote Speaker for Business
• Financial Advisor Coaching
• Performance Coaching in Professional Sports
Below are some of the highlights of my career.
I have worked with some of the biggest names in sports and business. Below are some examples and highlights.
Standing firmly on a foundation of mental toughness, I have been granted the amazing opportunity to share my stories and help thousands of lives through the organizations I continue to work with.
It’s incredibly important to me that every organization or individual I speak with have a strong understanding of my qualifications to bring an experience that is proven to drive results. By reading more I hope you’ll see the opportunity I bring and I look forward to connecting with you soon.
Consider this (IMHO):
• Good speakers—keynote or otherwise—are thoughtful and passionate. There are many of them.
• Great speakers are thoughtful, passionate and innovative. They help you see paths you didn’t know were there. And, they leave your head spinning wanting more.
So, what makes a good keynote speaker?
I recently shared the digital stage with Clemson University football coach Dabo Sweeney, Tony Robbins, and other great motivators/innovators at Jon Gordon’s Power of Positive Summit. All of Jon’s keynote speakers were able to crystallize their messages into simple actions the audience could, 1) understand, and 2) start that very day.
Let’s dive in!
Take a couple minutes and read the next section.
It’s a great story, but more importantly, it is a dramatic example of what a top keynote speaker should bring to YOUR stage.
November 19, 1863.
The Civil War was raging with no end in sight. On this day was the dedication ceremony for the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg.
On hand as keynote speaker was Edward Everett, one of the great orators of the time. His love for Greece history was a theme he would weave throughout the speech, drawing comparisons of how the ancient Greeks fought for their own independence and honored their fallen.
It was a good story that lasted more than two hours.
Next up was Abraham Lincoln, who was fighting for his pollical life at the time.
Most historians agree that Lincoln was invited to speak only out of courtesy because he was president.
For about two minutes, Lincoln spoke arguably the most famous words in U.S. history. His words—which he wrote—veered from the specifics of war, urging Americans to rise above civil conflict and focus on the ideals of the founding fathers. He left the stage dejected, thinking he had delivered a terrible speech.
The speech was 272 words (by most accounts).
Everett’s first sentence was 52 words.
And, so the Gettysburg Address was born.
So, what happened to turn that day upside down for the two speakers and the audience?
Lincoln told the crowd—thirsty for inspiration and hope—what time it was.
Everett told them how to build the watch.
The greatness of Lincoln’s words was not lost on Everett: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
This article will help you hire your “Lincoln” for your next keynote address.
Let’s get started!
How do you define a keynote speaker?
Your speaker needs to have the proven track record to set the tone for your event. Their goal is to bring an event’s theme to a crescendo, and then provide insight, inspiration and innovation for the audience to walk away to start driving results and impacting change.
In short: so goes the keynote speech, so goes the event.
While evaluating the perfect keynote speaker is a multi-faceted decision, I think the core decision can be made by your answers to the following questions:
1. Does the speaker have the background and/or experience my audience will embrace?
a. Do/did they work in your industry (or did they work in an industry that the experience is transferable to yours)?
b. Did they invent/create something unique?
c. Are they well known?
2. Can the speaker connect with my audience (e.g. style, values, etc.)?
a. Is their story compelling?
b. Does their style fit (or, if you’re feeling adventuresome, does it not fit)?
c. Do you like them?
d. Will your audience like them?
3. Do they have a point of view that could knock your event theme out of the park?
a. Can they drive home your theme through their message?
b. Do they believe in what you’re trying to do?
c. Are they passionate about their beliefs?
If your answer to all of these is “yes”, you’re 80% of the way toward a good decision.
Everyone has a list of what makes a good keynote speaker. Me included (we’ll get to that a little later).
If you’ve searched this topic on the internet you see a lot of the same advice: Find a motivated person with experience in your field. And, don’t forget they need to be entertaining, passionate and friendly.
However, before you can properly evaluate a speaker’s capabilities, the foundation for a what makes a good top keynote speaker starts with understanding the significant life experience(s) that got them started. Rather than ask them about their passion, let them describe it to you.
Find out what is truly under their hood.
For me, the significant life experience came at a young age, watching my mother bravely fight a terminal disease. Even when she was at home in her last days under 24-hour care, she found the energy most evenings to join the family for dinner. And, no matter how she felt, she would pepper my brother and I with questions about our day.
It was always about us; never about her.
One of my long-time clients and now good friend and colleague, NFL hall of famer Aeneas Williams, summed it up: “Your mother passed on her strength for you and your brother to carry on the story of her legacy.”
This was the fire that stoked me to leave a highly-successful career in insurance to start a business focused on motivating and inspiring people to do more than they think they can.
I was among the top 2% performing financial advisors in the world and I was making the decision to leave it all behind!
You want to hire a keynote speaker?
Think of it like building a house: there are hard and soft issues to consider.
Nailing the hard and soft issues (pun intended) will put you, as the event planner, in a great position to win.
Let’s deal with the hard issues first.
The hard issues center on the event:
1. Date and location. These will automatically reduce your pool of candidates. Hopefully, your event is far enough in the future (six months or more), that your ultimate candidate pool will be available.
2. Purpose of event and theme. This sounds silly, but don’t let the keynote speaker determine the event’s purpose. I know, who would do something so silly? Answer: far more than you might think. Whether you want to motivate/inspire your sales force, or communicate big corporate changes to your employees, developing a crystal-clear purpose is vital before you begin the process to hire a keynote speaker.
3. Expected attendance. You should hire the best person to deliver your message, but the skills to connect with a room of 25 people versus an auditorium of 2,500 are very different. The person who likes the up-close-and-personal event may not be as effective in a big space, and vice versa.
4. Goals for the speaker. What actions do you want to occur based on your speaker’s presentation?
a. Increase sales?
b. Generate donations?
c. Change behavior?
d. Make them laugh?
Often, especially with well-known speakers, clients will defer to the speaker rather than be specific about what they want.
5. Speaker budget. What does a keynote speaker cost? Don’t get caught in extremes. One extreme, which happens ALL the time, is the speaker’s budget being the last thing the client considers. By that point your budget is likely down to the nubs, yet your appetite for a speaker remains high. On the flip side, putting all your eggs into the speaker’s basket at the expense of other components of the event is risky as well.
This is the fun stuff… where you get to show the boss how you think (apologies if you are the boss).
What are “soft” issues? They’re about feel and, typically, there is no right or wrong answer. And, make no mistake, they are the issues that can make for very long event status meetings.
The soft issues center on the speaker:
1. Speaker’s willingness to meet/talk in advance. All the video and testimonials on the speaker’s website should not be a surrogate for a face-to-face meeting. Think of it this way: if the speaker is hard to reach, thus hard to schedule, how could that impact how they might present themselves to your audience. Arrogant? Disorganized? Make it a priority to see and talk to them.
2. Knowledge about your business. The importance of this is directly related to the reason for the event and the goals you have for the speaker. You could hire a keynote speaker who is considered an expert in your business. Conversely, you could hire a speaker from an unrelated industry that has the skillset and experience to convey a relevant message to your audience.
My professional background started in financial services, but what I learned from serving clients and their money is transferable to so many other non-financial services industries. The key: the speaker should bring experience that directly relates to what you’re trying to accomplish, whether the experience comes from your specific industry or not.
3. Audience wants/needs. In the previous section you should have defined the purpose of the event. Don’t be fooled into thinking “your” purpose and what your audience wants/needs are aligned. Ideally, you should send a survey before the event. If you don’t have time, conduct a few focus groups. The nuances you will likely learn could be critical in how well your keynote speaker is received.
4. Online presence. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have been as important in decision to hire a keynote speaker. Today, however, how a keynote speaker—or, any business/business person for that matter—presents themselves online should be a component of your decision. Unless you’re specifically looking for someone who isn’t a savvy online contributor, here are a few things to consider:
a. Do they blog and, if so, how would you rate the quality of their content?
b. Is their website optimized for mobile (e.g. phones, tablets, etc.)?
c. What is their presence on social media (e.g. how do they comport themselves when interacting online with the public)?
5. What do you want the audience to think when they leave? If your goal is to raise money, you want them thinking where they left their checkbook. If you want to motivate employees, they should walk away thinking: “That was cool, and I’m super excited they invited me. I can see where some of what he/she said could help me improve.”
Bingo. Put yourself in the minds of your audience so the speaker has the best chance of hitting a home run FOR YOU!
All of this is a lot to consider, and it’s a lot of work. But, it can be incredibly satisfying when it all clicks.
I love a quote I ran across recently from Judy Urquhart, a well-known motivational speaker who has an awesome ability to make people laugh and boil things down to their most basic element:
“Some motivational speakers make it sound like they are the best thing that could happen to you. Let’s face it, it’s only a speech. They are not curing world hunger or ending war and poverty. It is a speech.”
— Jody Urquhart
Everyone has a list of what’s important when trying to hire a keynote speaker. I’ve seen some lists with up to 20 factors.
That’s way over-cooked.
There are five core attributes that define a top keynote speaker:
1. Team player. The speaker wants what you want. While they have a general message, they know will resonate in many different situations, they also know that message must be delivered in the context of your audience.
2. Keynote Speaker Credibility. They speak from experience; ideally, very compelling experience. They know what it’s like to be on their back and, more importantly, they know what it’s like to get up and fight the good fight. For example, Bill Gates may be on the back side of his career, but he’s a great example for credibility.
3. Provocative. They are not afraid to call out the elephant in the room. In fact, they thrive on straddling the line between simultaneously putting an arm around their audience and kicking it in the butt. The good ones will challenge you in your very first conversation… don’t let that scare you off.
4. Approachable. They love people. More importantly, they love helping people. They should be asking you as many questions as you ask them. If they aren’t interested enough to ask good questions, they probably aren’t a good fit for you.
5. Inspiring. Something or someone inspired them along the way, and it’s critical you believe they can do the same for your event. To determine this will take more than just watching videos.
The best way to evaluate a top keynote speaker is to meet them face to face. It only takes a day of your time to jump on a plane and go meet the speaker at one of their events.
There is no substitute for face to face!
What could go wrong in the process to hire a keynote speaker?
About a thousand things.
The mistakes most clients make are acts of omission, not commission. That said, a string of bad decisions can only end with you looking bad and your boss looking worse. Better you prepare now, rather than having to manufacture excuses when it’s too late.
The following factors are what I believe bring down great speaking events:
1. Not thinking strategically. You would be shocked how many keynote speakers are determined/hired before an event is fully planned. Doing this is the ultimate example of the tail wagging the dog. Your corporate keynote speaker should reflect the goals of your event and your organization, not the other way around. I love Chris Rock, but would he be a good match for the National Funeral Directors Association meeting?
2. Not asking enough questions. It’s amazing how often clients ignore this. The first question I would ask me as a corporate keynote speaker would be: “What Makes a Good Keynote Speaker?”
Most event planners spend less time working on great questions than they do ordering coffee at Starbuck’s.
Here are a few examples (just to get your juices flowing):
a. What makes a good keynote speaker?
b. Describe when you turned down an event because it wasn’t a good fit.
c. Describe how you adjusted on the fly at a speaking event when you realized you had lost your audience.
d. Describe the biggest mistake you’ve made at an event, and how you handled it
e. Describe your ideal event.
f. Describe your favorite client and what makes them that? Least favorite client?
3. Believing the speaker’s marketing. Down deep, speakers are sales people; some sell perfume, some sell snake oil. Don’t let a flashy website with lots of video and testimonials be a surrogate for good evaluation. Rinse and repeat Steps 1 and 2 if necessary.
4. Penny wise, pound foolish. My antennae go up when budget is the first subject I discuss with a potential client. When that happens, most clients have put themselves in a budget bind by leaving speaker’s fees as one of the last budget items. Or, they are just foolish in thinking they can save their way to a great event. You get what you pay for.
5. Not squeezing every bit of water out of that rock. Find ways to merchandise your speaker before, during and after the event. You could create pre-event videos, emails and other promotions to generate interest. Or, on the day before/day of/day after have “meet the speaker” events with your key customers or employees.
6. Meeting your keynote speaker for the first time the day of the event. Not letting this happen could by itself be the difference in the success of your event. When you get down to your final two or three candidates you must find a way to see them live. Phone, email and texting are convenient for project management, but making a thoughtful decision on who to hire for your event can only be complete when you see them live.
Like pricing for any product, whether it’s green beans or private jets, the answer to the question—what does a keynote speaker cost—has several components.
The decision process—and subsequent keynote speaker costs—for different types of speakers is pretty simple. Following are common types of keynote speakers you can consider (these are not mutually exclusive):
1. Star. There are all kinds of stars. Movie stars. Sports stars. Political stars. Business stars, and on and on. Let’s say you’re enamored with the young CEO in the exploding world of cyber currency. His goal is getting awareness for his company; your goal is connecting with your audience. His or her experience in financial services—innovative financial services—would be useful across many industries. And, you can probably get them for $5,000.
Conversely, you might want to make a statement to your audience, so you chase a big, well-known star. Whether it’s Tom Hanks or Tom Brady, these stars have regular day jobs and you’re going to pay through the nose to get them (think six figures). But, hey, it may be the best six figures you’ll ever spend if they support your event goals.
2. Expert. There are two kinds of expert speakers: those related to your business and those not related. While financial services is where I started my career, what I learned about selling and serving clients with means has been invaluable in my ability to connect with audiences from many other industries. Depending on the speaker’s star power, you can find qualified people starting in the $5,000 – $10,000 range and, of course, beyond.
3. Entertainer. Comedians, for example. There are likely local comedians you can get for near to nothing. However, if you think you need Jerry Seinfeld or Ellen DeGeneres to get your point across, think six figures. But, keynote speaker costs for local and regional entertainers who aren’t stars or experts can be very reasonable, often less than $2,000.
As you can see, determining what a keynote speaker costs has several twists and turns.
Finding a corporate keynote speaker isn’t hard. Finding the one corporate keynote speaker for your event is another story.
1. Conduct a survey with your potential audience. A corporate event is no different than if you were introducing a new product. You wouldn’t go to market with a new product and have no input from the customer, so why would you put on an important business event without input from your potential audience? Ideally, you do this at least nine months in advance so you have ample options on potential corporate keynote speakers.
2. Go see your top candidates. There is no replacement for seeing keynote speakers up-close-and-personal. For your finalists, you should go see them in action. Your process likely already includes evaluation of their video and at least one interview, so top it off with seeing them under the lights. See how they interact with the crowd and vice versa. Oh, one last thing: if they don’t have video it should be a “no-go”.
3. Evaluate their engagement in the proposal process. Are they excited about the opportunity? How involved are they in the proposal process? Are they accessible… can you reach them easily for an interview? How many questions do they ask?
4. Get examples of how they have tailored their standard presentation to specific industries. This will also be a great way to tell how engaged they are in what the client (you) is trying to accomplish.
5. You should drive the focus of the content. I know, you’re hiring a corporate keynote speaker for THEIR content, but you must give them direction on both the opportunities and the potential pitfalls of their message. In the end, it might not ultimately have impact on what they present, but it will force them to pay attention.
6. Don’t be imprisoned by your industry. Your boss wants someone who is relevant to your industry, but that doesn’t mean he/she has to be FROM your industry. Be open to creative alternatives. For speakers you consider outside of your industry, ask them to tell you how they will adapt their message to your industry.
My career as a keynote speaker on performance and sales, and a performance coach was born well before I moved into the workforce. At a young age I watched my mother valiantly battle a terminal disease. We lost her at a young age, but she instilled in me and my brother the drive to never give up.
High performance is certainly more than simply not giving up, because you can be incredibly persistent and not be a high performer. However, learning how to channel that core value of persistence is critical to achieving high performance.
My keynote speeches that focus on high performance are based on more than 10 years’ experience with pro and college athletes as well as world-class sales people.
For me, the foundation of high performance is mental toughness. It is a subject I’ve spoken on for more than 15 years; everything from large audiences in arenas, tens of thousands online, and to small groups of high school athletes.
I had the honor to participate in Jon Gordon’s Power of Positive Summit, a digital experience that featured Clemson football coach Dabo Sweeney, Tony Robins, Andy Andrews, Lewis Howes, Tamika Catchings, Michael Hyatt, and many other great speakers.
My current coaching clients include:
• Hall of Fame NFL players, All-Pros & Super Bowl Champions
• National Championship NCAA Football Programs
• Division 1 NCAA Basketball Programs
• UFC World Champions
• Fortune 500 CEOs
• Top 1% Financial Advisors in the World
To say I love sales would be an understatement. It’s what gave me the opportunity to grow my career and impact thousands of lives as one of the top keynote speakers in the country. And, it doesn’t happen very often that you can hire a speaker that not only provides value to your audience but has the proven track record to back up every spoken word.
I love being invited to be a keynote speaker on sales. But, what I think I really love about sales is providing value that makes a difference for clients.
I spent a decade in financial services—insurance primarily—working my way through the Million Dollar Roundtable to consistently being one of the top 1% highest producing financial advisors in the world.
But, it wasn’t enough.
I believed there was a bigger calling and I found it almost a decade ago: personal performance coaching and keynote speaking. It only makes sense financial services would be one of my core strengths as it’s an area I have literally been through at every step from failure to wild success.
Life insurance not only put me through college, it propelled my professional career to the point I was performing in the top 1% of all financial advisors in the world. Along the way I began mentoring many of the advisors in my office and it rapidly expanded to a point I found myself flying all over the United States speaking and coaching for financial services companies.
Today, as a keynote speaker on sales, I help and speak to sales teams and individuals to understand how to overcome what seem to be insurmountable challenges. I teach them how to BELIEVE in themselves; teach being the operate word. They won’t overcome the challenges unless they BELIEVE they can.
Nowhere is belief more on stage than sports. Being mentally tough isn’t necessarily related to physical abilities. Your success—in sports, sales or any endeavor—centers on changing the way YOU think to become the person you are destined to be.
What has been a game-changer for me and my clients is the YOUR Mental Toughness Playbook and our Mental Toughness Academy. These are the foundation assets I use to drive sales effectiveness in teams and individuals.
A huge challenge for most people in sales is getting over what has already happened. I love the phrase coaches use for athletes who can almost instantly move on from a bad play. Coaches call it “short-term memory.” It’s one of the single biggest reasons people fail in sales, and it’s a critical part to building mental toughness.
To be honest, I haven’t written any requests for a proposal (RFP) to hire a keynote speaker.
HOWEVER, I have responded to piles and piles of RFPs over the last 15 years, and I have a strong sense of what clients should put in a proposal to hire a keynote speaker.
The overall success of your event will be directly correlated with how much elbow grease you put into vetting potential corporate keynote speakers. You need questions that force the speaker to think seriously about their accomplishments in the context of your goals.
If they can’t adequately answer these questions, they are probably not right for your event:
1. Provide three examples of how your presentations on the event’s subject/theme have driven your audiences to act on your recommendations/concepts. Require specificity… “an energized crowd” is not specific.
2. Describe what the hour following a typical presentation is like. You need to understand how the speaker affects an audience. If people aren’t tackling them at the door, then it should raise questions from you.
3. How many standing ovations have you had in the last 12 months and what were the subjects (please provide details on each subject)? I wouldn’t necessarily penalize a speaker if they haven’t had standing ovations, but it’s a way to quantify the speaker’s impact in the room.
4. How many of your speeches in the last 12 months were generated from audience participants in other speeches, and what were the subjects? FWIW, all of my speaking engagements today come from referrals.
5. How has audience feedback impacted your approach to keynote speeches? Will be curious how much the speaker listens and adapts to audience input.
If they nail these questions, you’re in great shape for the event!
We couldn’t have created this article without referencing the amazing resources that helped us.