10 Qualities of an Epic Speaker

Meeting planners have no doubt heard it time and time again that minimizing risk is a key goal when choosing a speaker.  Of course, no one wants to look like a dummy with a poor choice.

Having selected speakers for my own industry conferences, I know that you rarely get 100 percent of it right, but here are some qualities to look for when selecting your keynote speakers. Coming from the speaking side of the world, I offer a little bit different perspective for seeking an epic speaker that can help create an epic event.

1. They make it about you.

The great ones are more interested in learning about you and your organization than talking about themselves. You know how some speakers “show up and throw up” all of their qualities onto you in the first 20 minutes of a call? An epic speaker interviews you and brings people from your audience into their presentations. They make them the heroes. Sure, they may have a strong personal story, but they turn it around and relate it directly back to your audience.

2. They have a phrase that pays.

Have you ever left a room after hearing a speaker that you really loved and tried to remember the key ideas? They were entertaining, yes, but it was difficult to retain the message. An epic speaker has a phrase that resonates (Doug Stevenson calls it a “phrase that pays”)─something they leave with you and language that takes on a life of its own. It might be an action oriented term such as Nike’s “Just Do It.” Perhaps it becomes the theme of your conference and months down the road your people are still using the speaker’s lingo. Long afterward, it’s producing a memory and inspiring an action.

3. They are funny.

At the beginning of a keynote, you are often holding your breathe right up until that first laugh occurs. And when it happens, you relax. And so does everybody in the room because the energy in the room has changed right down to the molecules. It’s the first signal to your audience that this is not going to be some boring waste of time. Speakers don’t have to be great joke tellers, some of are just goofy, or self-deprecating, some have effective body language or facial cues.

Even the most serious speakers can incorporate humor into their talks. I recently witnessed an amazing woman named Immaculee Ilibagiza talk about being trapped in closet for 90 days while her family was killed during the civil war in Rwanda. And guess what? She had the most gracious humor in her presentation. So unexpected, so memorable.

4. They balance teaching and storytelling.

Have you ever sat thru an entire speech that was basically someone telling you that you needed to do things differently? They were speaking at you, rather than having a conversation with you. When you attach stories to each point, you give people an opportunity to lock in the learning and relate to what you are saying. Mark Sanborn says that stories are the “mental coat pegs” upon which listeners hang ideas.

My client Ryan Estis is one of the hottest speakers on the circuit. He knows that in today’s market you must give loads of takeaway, but he wraps his ideas in relevant stories to drive home his key points.

5. They have killer current content.epic speaker

In today’s high-tech, high-touch, get information at the drop of a hat world, our speakers talking about things that happened years ago can be old news really fast. I typically steer speakers away from historic references and using companies like Enron as an example of what not to do in business. There is someone on the cover of the Wall Street Journal today who is going to be a better “ripped-from-the-headlines” example. If they are talking about business, they’d better be current.

6. They understand your vision.

This really goes hand in hand with point No. 1. When a speaker has asked you enough pertinent questions, they can help forward your message. This leads to a question…have you ever tried to plan an event that served too many masters? One of my speakers recently had a bad experience where the planner asked her to do a topic that they knew the big bosses (who would be onsite) would like. But guess what? The audience hated it, again serving too many masters. Maybe I’m naive, but I’d like to think that if the audience has their needs met, then the C Suites are happy, too.

When you have a clear vision of who your event is for, and what the outcomes are, your speaker can help you achieve that goal. By sharing the big picture with them early on, and again closer to the event, you’ll have a partner in the process.

7. They push the boundaries.

In the world of professional speakers, some of us have been given a set of rules: Don’t have too much interaction with your audience if you are doing a keynote; Women don’t wear a certain type of shoe. Baloney! I love to see someone do what feels right, not what the rules say─someone who challenges the audience by doing something unexpected. We’ve already seen squeaky clean, polished speakers who play by the rules. Show me something different.

8. They don’t pack too tight.

When putting together a presentation, think of it like packing a suitcase. You need a little room in there to breathe and to play with the audience.  When you see a speaker who has crammed too much into a program, it becomes more about getting it all in than being in the moment. Of course your goal is to finish on time, but it’s better to do it in a relaxed state.

9. They embrace technology.

There are so many fun tools out there that allow the audience to “play” with the speaker during a presentation. One of my clients, Scott Klososky, uses “Join Speaker” to throw questions straight from the audience’s cell phones up onto the screen during the presentation. There’s no reason to fight what is already going on. People have their handheld devices, so speakers might as well use them for good.

10. They show up as themselves.

One of my clients just posted a photo of Brene Brown from the stage of a large conference just last week. She was wearing a jean jacket. OMG, I love that! Someone who can be themselves, rather than some version of what others expect them to be is so refreshing. Being human, dropping your notes on stage once in a while or saying “um” is a sign of a normal person giving a talk. Isn’t that what we’re after…relatable?

An epic speaker is relevant, relatable and responsible to your vision and goals. And they also reduce the other R-word…risk.


Jane-AtkinsonJane Atkinson is the author of The Epic Keynote: Presentation Skills and Styles of Wealthy Speakers and The Wealthy Speaker 2.0. Her consulting company, Speaker Launcher, provides online training and private coaching to seasoned and emerging speakers. For information to speakerlauncher.com 

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