When Fame Fizzles: Why Event Planners Should Rethink Celebrity Speakers

New research reveals the types of keynote speakers that audiences prefer.


Empty seats aren’t a good look for event planners.  Indeed, one of the biggest stresses for individuals in those roles is making sure people are drawn to attend their conferences – particularly the general sessions and keynotes.

It can therefore be tempting for event planners to spend a big chunk of their conference budget hiring a celebrity speaker, under the premise that it’s a sure-fire way to fill seats.  New research, however, suggests that event planners should think twice before pursuing such a strategy.

Freeman, a leading event management company, recently released its Q1 2023 Trends Report.  They asked over 5,000 conference and event participants to weigh in on the types of keynote programs that were of most interest to them.

A whopping 1% chose celebrity keynotes.

What kinds of keynotes did people say they really wanted to see?  Ones with content that was more directly relevant to their role – with the top vote-getter (39%) being keynotes that help people think about their business in new and innovative ways.

Even inspirational and motivational keynotes (another favorite of event planners) were largely rejected by those surveyed, with only 12% preferring those types of programs.  Of far more interest (garnering three times as many votes) were keynotes delivered by industry leaders and professional experts.


“Credibility and relevance matter.  A lot.  People want to hear from an industry expert, not an alpine skier.”


The study’s authors summed up the results of their research quite elegantly with this observation:  “Credibility and relevance matter.  A lot.  Regardless of age, people want to hear from an industry expert, not an alpine skier.”

Freeman’s findings are striking, though not surprising to me.  With more than a decade of experience on the speaker circuit, what I’ve long realized is that the most important day of any conference is the day after it ends.  Because that’s the day when your audience returns to work and they have an opportunity to take action based on what they learned at the event:  To look at a business challenge through a new lens, to serve their customers in a new way, to engage their teams in a new fashion.

People don’t go to business events to be entertained; they go to be enriched.  They are looking for new tools to put into their toolbox – things they can carry away from the event that will tangibly change how they do their jobs.  And, as the Freeman report confirms, that’s just not something that most audience members get from a celebrity speaker.

While the allure of a celebrity keynote may be tempting, the true star in your audience’s eyes will be the expert speaker who gives them actionable insights they can use on the job.  When selecting headliners, instead of focusing on fame and name recognition, event planners should prioritize content and credibility.  By doing so, they can ensure that their event will resonate with attendees long after the applause fades.


Jon Picoult is most definitely not a celebrity — but he is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees.  Author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” Picoult is an acclaimed keynote speaker, as well as an advisor to some of world’s foremost brands.  Follow Jon on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram — or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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