Words of wisdom

To ensure any conference or meeting is a success, one of the key elements is the quality of the speakers presenting. But a speaker’s calibre depends on a number of things: their knowledge; the appropriateness of their expertise and presentation to the event; the detail of their talk and their presentation skills.

For any organiser looking to put together a stellar line-up, there are several paths they can take to find the best speakers. While in some cases the speakers will be in-house, in others outside speakers will be needed as a worthwhile investment for additional insight.

The search for outside speakers

When should event organisers look to bring in outside speakers? According to Rajani Nair Deb, chief marketing officer at KW Conferences in India (who is now with Global Cynergies), they should be used when you need to draw attention to the event, improve the meeting content, or to add relevance to the theme. “For example, for the new business opportunities of the cement business in India, get a government official to talk about the five-year development plans of the country… this draws relevance to the opportunities in the industry,” he says.

Bringing in outside speakers can mean there is a depth to the meeting content that wouldn’t otherwise be there. For instance, an outside speaker might deliver insight into the economy, discuss new business strategies or impart academic insight and knowledge. For company events, outside speakers can stimulate staff and help them think differently, perhaps in a less corporate manner.

“A celebrity speaker is one of the best ways to attract more attendees; a great speaker can generate enthusiasm and buzz,” says Joseph Sun, chief executive of marketing communications agency e21 MagicMedia. “They can shape the way the audience thinks of the event. No matter how comfortable the venue is and how great the arrangement is, when people think of your event, it is all about the speaker.”

According to Angeline Lue, director of sales and marketing at Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, outside speakers contribute with “knowledge, insight and experience on a particular topic, which adds value and understanding to participants”. While Lue says they generally contact speakers directly, speakers bureaux can be a useful source.

Engaging a speakers bureau

“For clients who hear about the speakers bureau concept for the first time, I always joke that we are like a model agency, just that we represent speakers, not models,” says Priscilla Chan, founder of Speakers Connect. “In this day and age, event organisers can find thousands of speakers simply by Googling. There is too much choice, and it is very hard for clients to know who is really good and suitable for their event. This is where we come in – clients come to us for recommendations, to help them to choose and make decisions more efficiently.”

Instead of having to make lots of separate enquiries, organisers can contact a speakers bureau and they then handle everything:,from initial enquiry to negotiation, contractual arrangement and even travel arrangements. “Another reason why clients come to us is that we know the travel schedules of the speakers. We can help clients save costs by arranging speakers on en-route itineraries, for which event organisers share the travel expenses of the trip,” adds Chan.

Winston Broadbent, managing director of Saxton Speakers Bureau, says speakers bureaux are “a little like a marriage counsellor. It’s an intricate skill involving the matching of content, style, status, ability to inspire and to deliver a message. In addition, we organise all the logistics – set up the briefing between the client and the speaker, organise all the transport logistics and supply all the support materials such as an introduction, promotional copy and photographs,” he says.

However, depending on the market, sourcing good speakers can be difficult. “If we need local speakers we’ll contact them on our own. But if we need to invite some international/overseas speakers, we tend to do that through an agency,” says e21 MagicMedia’s Sun. He thinks this is still a relatively new industry in Asia. “Since most of our speakers are foreigners who are experts in their fields, our agency may need to invite them through foreign speakers bureaus. In other words, we need to go through a double handling process of both our employed agency and the outside speakers bureau, and this definitely increases the cost and time involved.”

Broadbent recommends three to six months as the necessary lead time to secure top speakers, although he says, “we have supplied speakers with as little as four hours’ notice and as far away as three years”. But Nair Deb of KW Conferences explains that when associations take a long time to decide on a speaker, it can leave the organisers with too tight a deadline to secure their services.

The cost of hiring an outside speaker can vary hugely, but Chan says those with Speakers Connect start at US$5,000 for a keynote speaker, up to six-digit figures for celebrities, and travel expenses would be additional. She says the speakers who are always in demand are: business/entrepreneurial speakers (especially with insight and inspiration); motivational speakers (unique life experiences, often sportspeople or those who’ve gone through a hardship); speakers with specific knowledge, and Asian/Chinese experts (especially experts on the economy, politics and Asian/Chinese business culture).

Prepare for the unexpected

A vital part of getting the right speaker, and the right outcomes, whether a bureau is used or not, is implementing a clear brief. But unforeseen things can impact on proceedings.

“We have had a number of rather quirky technical/logistical issues,” Broadbent recalls. “I remember one speaker who relied heavily on PowerPoint; he was set up with his laptop ready to go… all was under control until he took one step backwards and trod on the cable connecting his computer to the screens. He was left apparently with no audio-visual support. He had however left a copy of his slides with the AV operator who, in one of the best examples of support I have ever seen, typed in the PowerPoint furiously as the speaker spoke, and the presentation ran seamlessly.”

A good speaker can also introduce an element of drama for the audience. Broadbent tells another tale about a speaker who talked on criminology; he did just this, but with an unexpected consequence on one occasion. “He would arrive dressed as a drug addict – khaki, torn clothes, matted hair, with large facial piercings and carrying a dishevelled bag. He would stand up to speak… everybody would be shocked but he would slowly remove the adornments to reveal an undercover operative.

“Now, we’re at the Melbourne Hyatt and 500 people are waiting for him to appear, but there is no sign of him. The conference organiser goes to look and finds him with the security guards, who had apprehended him and wouldn’t believe his story. Eventually he spoke, and he was a huge success.”

Chan’s final piece of advice to anyone looking to book a speaker is this: “People who look good on paper may not necessarily be a good speaker, and just because a person is knowledgeable does not guarantee that they can convey the message on stage. The longer I am in this industry, the more I find public speaking is more an art than a science.”



Speakers bureaux work hard to ensure the right speaker is chosen for a client’s event and many have a checklist that they use to clarify what’s required before making recommendations. But bureaux also need to be able to cope when briefs are less clear.

Priscilla Chan, founder of Speakers Connect, says she had one multinational corporation approach the bureau requesting a leadership speaker for their senior executive retreat, which consisted of their top 20 staff including the CEO. “Leadership is a pretty broad subject; experienced clients have come to us before requesting a leadership speaker, but when explored further they actually needed a speaker of a totally different category,” she explains. “I talked in depth with the training manager of the company to clarify why they needed a leadership speaker. The answer I got was that the top executives wanted some new insights on how to run the business even better, despite already being the market leader in the industry.”

Once Chan had determined that there wasn’t a specific business issue that a speaker had to address, and that the CEO and his executive team were all highly experienced and effective leaders, she decided a speaker covering leadership theory might not be the best course to take. Instead, she took a risk and suggested a futurist speaker. “[A person] who would challenge their thinking, which would be fruitful for their strategic planning,” Chan says.

“Luckily, they liked the idea and booked one of our best business trends speakers, Mike Walsh, for the retreat meeting.The company liked him so much that it has engaged him three times more since, to ensure that all the senior managers have learnt from his methodology.”



• Expenses vary depending on the agreement between the organiser and speaker. In some cases the speaker’s fee does not include their own travel expenses, while in others travel is the main expense and once onsite all daily expenses may be included. The following list highlights the main items for consideration:

• Speaking fee (which would include a bureau’s commission)

• Per diem

• Accommodation

• Food and drink expenses

• Flights/travel

• Visa arrangements

• Transport from airport to venue



Identifying the right speaker for your event is a lengthy process that involves a lot of thought. Take note of the following tips:

• Make sure the speaker has the right relevance to the event/meeting. Research their background and experience.

• Book in advance to avoid disappointment; at least 3-6 months (popular speakers may be booked up a year in advance).

• Check with previous organisers that they are as good as they say, and follow up referrals.

• Brief the speaker well in advance. Make sure you have a clear brief and know what the outcomes of the presentation should be.

• Check, check and recheck so there’s no last-minute cancellation; keep in touch with the speaker or their assistants leading up to the event.

Jane Bainbridge


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