The Key to Choosing the Right Keynote

Bonnie Stetz, CMP, of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® shares tips on choosing the right keynote speaker.

By Jorge Luis Rivera, CAE, IOM


The selection of a keynote speaker for a conference or event is a crucial decision that associations must carefully consider due to its weight and significance. What are some of the current trends in the industry? What factors should influence the choice of a speaker? What are some strategies for maximizing the (sometimes significant) investment made?

Bonnie Stetz, CMP

To gain insight into this subject, we conducted an interview with Bonnie Stetz, CMP, Director of Conference Experience Strategy at the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, to share her association’s key considerations for hiring a keynote speaker and how to effectively leverage their presence.

Who were some of your recent keynote speakers, and what strategies were used to draw an audience?

Recent keynote speakers have included Drew Brees, Adam Grant, Anthony Mackie, John Legend, Venus Williams, Billie Jean King, Scott Pelley, Rahm Emmanuel, Chris Christie, Punchbowl News, and even POTUS.

Keynote speakers are the cherry on top of what should already be a rich program. Depending on the conference, the keynote can serve different purposes: to motivate, inspire, provide industry insight, or highlight trends– but they should always be a storytelling device to underscore key themes of your overall program. Particularly since the pandemic, personal wellbeing and advocacy for self-care has been important to our members, so we were honored to host Simone Biles at our annual conference after the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Last year at our commercial real estate conference we chose Emmitt Smith, not only for his incredible success as an athlete, but for his post-NFL career in commercial real estate among other ventures, which was an exciting connection for the audience.

We always work to maximize our member experience with our keynotes. When we can negotiate a pre-interview with them, it allows us to pull quotes for promotions or publish a full article to give attendees an inside look at what they will hear at the conference. Bonus if we can get a video promo. This is great way to engage potential attendees who follow those speakers but are also part of your addressable audience. Articles and pre-quotes are great for speakers with name recognition; and for a lower-profile speaker, they can really pique the interest of potential attendees.

We asked Bonnie about the factors she takes into consideration when selecting a keynote, and she shared several, including:

  • Fit: How do they fit into the overall storytelling arc or theme of the program? Are they connected to the industry or are they an outsider? There are arguments to be made for both. My audience often enjoys hearing from a celebrity that has knowledge or involvement in our industry.  However, innovation often comes from using concepts and best practices from other industries.
  • Engagement Level: A lower-profile name may provide a more outstanding member experience than someone who is just checking the boxes.
  • Location: Hiring someone local can help with budget and personal attendee connection.
  • Current Events: A controversial speaker can often be an attraction, but often it’s not worth the trouble.
  • Budget

Have you noticed a recent trend of associations and non-profits hiring more high-profile keynote speakers? If so, what do you think is driving this trend? 

I don’t know that I’ve noticed a trend of more associations hiring high-profile keynotes, but I do think that more high-profile people are getting into the keynote business with the rise of the fireside chat – which requires very little prep on their part, and they aren’t required to develop a standalone keynote. This means there are higher-profile names in the market at a variety of price points, allowing conference producers to find someone recognizable within budget.

In addition to the keynote speech itself, how else can you leverage a keynote speaker’s presence at an event?

There are a few things you can do to leverage your keynote investment at no cost.

Maximize your promotions by requesting a pre-interview (via email is often a great substitute if schedules make a conversation unlikely), and then using that content to ramp up social posts, paid ads, and email marketing. You can also negotiate a social video promo to use within your own channels (or theirs, if it’s a marketing tactic with reach to your audience.)

Depending on the length of time needed, request a VIP meet and greet (30 min or less). This often doesn’t incur an additional cost, but the attendee experience is dramatically enhanced when you can provide this type of opportunity. Most speakers will also allow some level of live streaming and/or capture and playback. Negotiate with the speaker to include these options for your hybrid meetings, podcasts, or post-conference products, as they can boost sales as well.

There are also premium opportunities that may come at an additional cost, such as a private pre-or post-Q&A for a target group, bulk booking with a sponsor or exhibitor, general attendance photo ops, having the keynote during a meal or special event, or a book buy or book signing (depending on the speaker this can be no-cost).  

When hiring a high-profile keynote speaker, what are the potential pitfalls and challenges to consider?

The biggest risks are the character challenges that pop up unexpectedly. In this day and age, it’s hard to anticipate who may run into trouble between contract and appearance. You may be able to negotiate a cancellation clause that mitigates cancellation penalties for unethical or illegal behavior that would harm the sponsoring organization should they follow through on a contract, but defining this behavior can be tricky. Evaluating your speakers and taking calculated risks is part of the process and may be a good argument for hiring a content expert or thought leader, rather than a high-profile name.

In less dramatic instances, a busy, high-profile speaker could suddenly find themselves in high demand and they may cancel due to a lucrative offer. You would likely get your deposit back, but you will have to start the process over again.

Finally, there’s always a chance that high profile speakers won’t meet the engagement expectations of your members. My best is to build relationships with your speaker bureaus and have candid conversations about what you can expect based on their experience with the talent.

Here are some pro-tips to keep in mind:

 Pro-Tip: Include all requests in the timetable submitted in the contract, upfront. Include arrival time, requisite tech check, onstage time, all additional appearances, and expected departure time.

Pro-Tip: Include a pre-call with your keynote within 30 days of the appearance to help set the speaker up for success. Provide an audience profile and highlight why they were chosen. One item we never miss in my organization is reminding our speakers of the correct pronunciation of REAL-TOR. A mispronunciation could sink them out of the gate!

Pro-Tip: If you will be live streaming or capturing the performance for playback, include this in the contract. Start negotiations with your ideal length of time and work. Most keynotes expect hybrid or enduring education to be part of your program. Adding this to your original contract is always easier than seeking an addendum.

About the Author

Jorge is the director of membership development for the National Roofing Contractors Association and chair of Association Forum's 2023-24 Content Working Group.

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The Key to Choosing the Right Keynote

Bonnie Stetz, CMP, of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® shares tips on choosing the right...