Selecting A Speaker? Watch Out For These Surprising Red Flags

When searching for the best keynote speaker, your very own cognitive biases could be steering you in the wrong direction.


For meeting and event professionals, few decisions are as a consequential as who to select as a keynote speaker.  Yet, like so many decisions we make in our personal and professional lives, the selection of a speaker can be influenced by cognitive biases that lead us to make poor choices.

Indeed, the very nature of speaker selection – having to sort through a dizzying number of keynote candidates while relying on what is often imperfect information – makes the task highly susceptible to these (often unconscious) biases.  The way our brains our wired, we use cognitive shortcuts to make complex decisions easier.  That can lead us to discount (or completely overlook) important information, while instead fixating on less meaningful data points.

During my many years on the speaker circuit, I’ve had the opportunity to hear lots of event organizers and industry professionals muse on warning signs that, in hindsight, they wished they had paid more attention to before hiring a speaker who ultimately proved underwhelming.

As you conduct your speaker searches, here are four of these potential “red flags” to be on the lookout for (even if your brain is telling you to ignore them!):


1.  Speaker reels that are more sizzle and less steak.

Speaker preview reels have been the subject of something of an arms race in recent years.  These videos used to be pure compilations of footage of speakers engaging in their craft before a live audience.  More recently, however, an entire industry has cropped up around creating professionally-produced video reels for speakers that play more like 60 Minutes profiles than demo tapes.

There’s nothing wrong with a slick, professionally produced speaker preview reel – unless it fails to provide a true preview of the speaker.

Think of it this way:  Reels that spend most of their time describing a speaker’s background and passion, via on-camera interviews and voiceover narrations, might be interesting and engaging – but they do nothing to show you how that speaker really performs onstage at an actual event.  And that, after all, is the most important thing that an event professional needs to evaluate when watching a speaker reel.

Don’t let yourself get smitten with the sizzle of a reel without proper regard for the steak that is the speaker’s content and delivery.  If a reel is light on actual keynote footage, consider why that might be, and then proceed with caution.


2.  “Synthetic” footage that misrepresents a speaker’s onstage experience.

So, to follow on from the lessons of Point #1 – if you view a speaker reel that has a lot of impressive, onstage keynote footage, then you can be assured that the speaker is the real deal… right?  Not exactly.

There is some sleight of hand at play in the speaker industry, and many event professionals are unaware of it.  That video reel footage of your potential speaker keynoting on the mainstage of a large event?  It might be nothing of the sort.

These days, speakers can hire companies that rent out large ballrooms and auditoriums, fill them with “pretend” audiences, and then film the speaker presenting onstage.  It’s not authentic footage in front of a true conference audience.  Rather, it’s synthetic footage – manufactured in a carefully controlled environment to make it appear as though the speaker has large-event experience.

Admittedly, this is a clever solution to an age-old speaker problem:  How do you land big events if you don’t have any big event footage that gives event professionals the confidence to hire you?  But while synthetic onstage footage may be a blessing to speakers, it can be a bust for event organizers – because it doesn’t really show you how the speaker performs in real life.  Everybody looks great in a synthetic speaker reel, because it only captures the best soundbites, polished and honed over multiple takes, and presented in front of a hired audience whose job it is to look enthralled.

To spot synthetic conference footage, pay close attention to the signage posted on the stage or podium.  If it says something generic, like “Annual Conference,” then it might very well not be real.  Conversely, if you see the name or logo of an actual company (or a conference title that you can find through a Google search), then you can be more assured that the footage is genuine.

All because a keynoter has synthetic footage in their reel doesn’t mean they’re a bad speaker.  But it may mean that they have limited (or no) experience speaking at major events, which is something you’d want to be clear-eyed about before contracting with them.


3.  Speakers who won’t accommodate an exploratory call.

No matter how “steak-filled” and genuine a speaker reel is, it still might not provide enough information for an event professional to confidently move forward with contracting the speaker.  That’s not unusual nor surprising.  As previously noted, the selection of an event speaker is a consequential decision, and one that benefits from a more synchronous exchange of information than is possible via speaker reels and websites.

That’s where the “exploratory call” comes in – an opportunity for event organizers to open a dialogue with the speaker, pepper them with questions, and make an informed judgement as to whether the speaker is a good fit for their conference program.

After years of routinely accommodating these exploratory calls with my own potential clients, I was shocked to hear from meeting planners that quite a few speakers reject such calls outright.  They simply won’t do them.

Event professionals might try to put the best face on that, attributing it to the speaker being heavily booked, or perhaps just renowned in their discipline.  A meeting planner might even see some allure in a speaker who’s so busy or so elite that they don’t have time for an exploratory conversation.  But these are all rationalizations.  A speaker that refuses to participate in an exploratory call should be viewed with skepticism, because that refusal signals something deeply troubling – namely, that the speaker is insensitive to the needs of the meeting planner.  That’s a red flag not to be ignored.


4.  Speakers who do a huge number of events each year.

Isn’t it a positive sign if a speaker is heavily booked?  Absolutely, it can be.  But there are a couple of nuances to be aware of before drawing conclusions from the volume of a speaker’s bookings.

First, there are great speakers who simply must cap the number of events they do each year, by virtue of the other responsibilities they have.  Take business speakers, for example:  The ones with the best, freshest, and most actionable content are often those who are still actively engaged running or advising businesses.  That commitment, of course, limits the number of speaking engagements they can accommodate in any given year.  (Conversely, business speakers who have no such commitments, and are 100% focused on booking keynotes, might actually be somewhat detached from today’s business realities.)

Second, it’s important for meeting planners to understand that there can be a downside to hiring a speaker who does many dozens, if not over a hundred events each year.  With a schedule like that, how much time do you think the speaker will dedicate to learning about your event and your conference audience, so they can then tailor their keynote for your meeting?  If a speaker is doing one or more events per week on average, that might be an accomplishment that they crow about – but it’s also a potential red flag that should give event planners pause.


Selecting the best speaker for your event can be a complex exercise.  To navigate that (as well as any other type of complicated decision) our brains look for shortcuts, accentuating some data points while ignoring others.  Being aware of those shortcuts and their influence on one’s thinking is an important first step in mitigating their potential negative impact on decision-making.

So, the next time you’re evaluating keynoters for an event, refer back to this list of potential red flags, and make sure that your cognitive shortcuts aren’t short-circuiting your speaker selection.


Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth.  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 Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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