May 08, 2014

Four Things You Should Expect (or Demand) From Keynote Speakers

renissance conference Four Things You Should Expect (or Demand) From Keynote Speakers

The author in full Renaissance garb (see point No. 4, below).


Jeff Havens is a keynote speaker and corporate trainer who addresses leadership, generational issues and other areas of professional development through a unique blend of content and entertainment. He has been a regular guest on Fox Business News and featured on CNBC, Businessweek and Bloomberg News. To read more from Jeff Havens, visit

I speak at 50 or 60 conferences every year, and every time I do I’m legitimately amazed that conferences exist at all.  There are just so many things you have to do in order to put one together.  Catering, room rentals, site visits, speaker line-ups–planning for a conference is essentially like putting on a wedding, except that you have to do it every year and you rarely get cake. 

As a keynote speaker, I think it is our job to make your job as easy as possible.  A lot of times conference organizers seem to think that keynote speakers are doing them a favor, when in reality it’s the other way around.  We only have a job because of you, and we owe you for that.  So here are four things your keynote speakers can and should do for you.  You don’t have to outright demand these things, but personally I think you’d be well within your rights to do so.

Speakers should…

1. Let You Know That They’ve Arrived

You have a million things to worry about, and whether or not your speakers have arrived should not be one of them.  Besides, it takes exactly 14 seconds for your keynote speaker to send you a text letting you know that they’ve arrived at the hotel and will be on time for the A/V check–plus I’m pretty sure your keynote speaker has a phone plan with unlimited texting.  If your keynote speakers can’t do you the courtesy of putting you at ease, then you should do them the courtesy of never hiring them again.

2. Spend Some Time With You and Your Attendees

Your keynote speaker might be phenomenal.  But if they arrive immediately before their time on stage, do their thing, and then immediately head out, you’ll probably be left feeling a little unsatisfied.  For myself, I’ve always found that spending some extra time with my clients (at dinner the night before, at breakfast, sumo wrestling in the parking lot, whatever) is a great way for me to learn more about the people I’m talking to than I can get even from a good conference call.  Sometimes your keynote speaker will be on a tight schedule, so this isn’t always possible, but it’s definitely something you can ask for.

3. Help You Increase Attendance

This one is easy to overlook, but one of the reasons that the keynote slot even exists is because great keynote speakers can actually help you drive attendance.  If people loved last year’s keynote speaker, they’ll be more inclined to sign up for this year’s conference.  But your keynote speaker can help you drive attendance before they arrive, too–for example, by writing an article for your newsletter in advance of the conference.  If you can think of some promotional activity they could do to help you, you should ask for it.  And if you can’t think of anything, ask me.  There are several things we do for our clients that have directly led to increased attendance–which means more money for you, which means you can finally afford that live-band karaoke act you’ve always wanted.  And every conference should have one of those.

4. Adhere To Your Dress Code 

You’re paying your keynote speaker a lot of money, and that earns you the right to expect them not to wear Bermuda shorts.  Unless that’s your theme, of course, in which case you should insist on it.  In the last year I’ve delivered keynote addresses while wearing full Renaissance garb, a baseball jersey, a football jersey, a tuxedo, a tie that was ceremonially cut off of my neck, and a giant blue mohawk.  I didn’t wear all those at the same time, but I totally would have if the people who hired me had wanted me to.  If your conference has a theme, then your keynote presenter can and should help you reinforce that theme.

Done right, a great keynote speaker can make your next event a wild success, and you deserve to ask for anything we can do that will help make that happen.  I hope this has been helpful.  And if you happen to have a cow-themed conference coming up, please keep me in mind.  I have a cow costume I got in college (long story) that I would love an excuse to wear again.

—Jeff Havens

3 Responses to “Four Things You Should Expect (or Demand) From Keynote Speakers”

  1. Kathy Jens says:

    Great article. I especially love: 1) Extending an invitation to attend something specific during the conference (they’d be great at…) before they speak. We invite our speakers to attend any/all of the conference, but figuring out the best place for that so it’s a win-win for attendees and the speaker is gold, and 2) Asking the speaker to write something for a pre-conference promotional piece – even after the conference to keep the message alive – what a concept! Thank you.

  2. Thank for the tips Jeff Havens! This is a great article.

    As a conference planner, I truly appreciate it.

    Warmest regards,
    Absolute Events By Corrine & Event Makers

  3. As a paid, public speaker, I heartily agree with all of these apt tips.
    And savvy meeting planners might adopt more ways to partner with speakers to collectively provide more meaning and value for attendees.

    Three examples:
    1. They might ask all speakers to submit two to three pithy tips they will cite in their talks, then send the collected list back to all speakers, requiring them to make at least one congruent reference, in their session, to a tips of a another presenter, thus creating a stronger, continuing story thread throughout the conference.

    2. As well, they might video at least some of the talks and they might invite all attendees, during breaks and meals to point their smart devices at each other and ask: What’s your name? What’s one of your favorite tips or insights that you have heard from a speaker or attendee? Then ask them to share those videos via their social channels, with the hashtag of the conference – plus send them to a designated meeting staffer to turn into a meeting souvenir, free to attendees, for fee to others: a video-embedded eBook, sold on all platforms. That way all parties get more value and visibility. Hint: a mutuality mindset can enable us to accomplish greater things together than we can on our own.

    3. They might email all attendees, in advance of the conference, asking them to respond with the name of one book that has helped them in their work, offering a Peek Preview, via email before the meeting, of what everyone submitted. That PDF email could have 3 alphabetical lists:
    – by name of book, followed by those who submitted that name
    - by name of submitter, followed by book title
    – Top Ten Most Popular Books
    Then tell the publishers of those books that you want to support the sale of them by receiving, say 50 copies. One of each will be displayed in a high traffic area of the conference, next to plexiglass stands that cite the names of the attendees who likely them. Plus a “Top Ten Books We Most Love” banner(s) will be hung on the wall. And the books will be given away to volunteers who helped at making the conference a success.



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