Selecting a Professional Speaker

Selecting a Professional Speaker

by Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE

Oh no — you’ve been put in charge of the program for your company’s next out-of-office meeting! Your mind flashes back to the meetings you’ve attended that were a disaster. You remember all too well that monotone speaker who bored everyone to tears, that other speaker who obviously didn’t know the first thing about what your company does, and, worst of all, the speaker who thought the audience would learn a valuable management lesson by standing on their chairs and crowing like roosters!

You know that your boss is counting on you to pull together an interesting and valuable program based on a dynamic speaker. And even though the meeting is still months away, you’re already losing sleep over it. To help ease your anxieties about finding the best speaker possible, consider the following four guidelines. These guidelines are the result of my 11 years as a professional speaker and more than 1,300 paid speeches and seminars. Further, I’ve spent lots of time talking to other speakers about how to work most effectively with meeting planners like you — to ensure that your meeting fulfills attendees’ expectations and gives them the most for their time (and monetary) investment.

1. Begin with a topic.

I’m amazed at how many meeting planners call to inquire about my speaking services who don’t know what they want me to talk about. Although my areas of expertise are fairly wide — I’m published in leadership, change, customer service, team building, and motivation — there are many topics I’m not qualified to address. In fact, I know of no speaker who can be all things to all people.

So identifying a topic for your speaker to address is the beginning point. From there, you can work with the speaker to refine the general topic into more specific areas that will provide listeners the most value. For instance, if a client wants to hire me to speak on customer service, my subsequent research might uncover the fact that getting attendees to utilize new technology is a barrier to providing leading-edge service. So, my resulting program would major in customer service and minor in change management.

2. Choose your objectives before you choose your speaker.

Second, determine what you want the speaker to accomplish. I always ask potential clients to identify their three most important objectives, in rank order.

Objectives are different than topics. Consider, for example, the topic of customer service. Your objectives for a presentation based on this topic might be: 1. to convince audience members of the importance of a customer service strategy, 2. to educate them on how to develop and deliver superior service, and 3. to motivate them to take action.

A different audience might already be committed to superior customer service and proficient in their ability to deliver it. So, your presentation objectives for that kind of audience might be: 1. to show attendees how to reach the next level of service success, 2. to offer examples of leading-edge service providers outside your industry, and 3. to provide humor to lighten up an education-intensive meeting.

As you can see, the same topic can generate diverse objectives. Think of your topic as a general direction to take, and then think of objectives as the specific destination to reach. You need to know where you want to end up with a speaker as well as which road will get you there.

A valuable question I ask prospective and current clients is: “At the end of my presentation, what do you want the audience to think, feel, and do?” This question helps me pinpoint objectives related to the audience’s intellect, emotions, and behaviors. I’ve found it an excellent way to identify key objectives.

Most professional speakers use a pre-program questionnaire to help them tailor presentations to clients’ needs. The type and amount of information they ask for is a good indication of how well they accomplish that task, so during your selection process, be sure to ask for a copy of the pre-program questionnaire of each speaker under consideration.

3. Review promotional material carefully.

When you review a speaker’s promotional materials, look for professionalism and for solid credentials and experience. Be careful of hype and unsubstantiated claims. Flashy marketing materials do not make a speaker great. Sometimes new and inexperienced speakers spend great sums of money on slick, hype-filled marketing materials to compensate for a lack of experience. Also, consider the overall style of the materials, which should reflect that of your group. For example, a buttoned-down, conservative audience will probably not be enthralled with a flamboyant speaker. Often, your first clue to a speaker’s style lies in his or her promotional materials.

Look for any professional credentials that the speaker might hold. The National Speakers Association has a professional credentials program by which a speaker can earn the Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation through a specified amount of experience, education, and client endorsement. Of course, a CSP designation doesn’t always mean that a particular speaker is the right fit for your audience, but it does carry with it a reliable indication of experience and professionalism. Likewise, there are many fine speakers in the marketplace who do not have the letters CSP after their names.

Another professional credential to look for is the Council of Peers Award of Excellence (CPAE), also awarded by the National Speakers Association. This designation is an honor bestowed annually on speakers by a committee of peers. Of the 3,600 members of the Association, only three to five members receive this honor each year. Currently, there are fewer than 100 living CPAE recipients.

(Author’s Note: Although I hold both the CSP and CPAE credentials, I do not consider them the primary or most important selection criteria for a client. However, I do consider them exceptional indicators of professionalism and experience. I believed they were important credentials before I obtained them, and I would certainly acknowledge the importance of both if I held neither. For more information about either the CSP or CPAE, contact the National Speakers Association at 602-968-2552.)

Other items to look for in a speaker’s promotional materials include the following:

  • Client list: Has the speaker worked for others in your industry or a related industry?
  • Client testimonials: What do previous audiences say about him or her? Does their reputation lend credibility to their testimonials?
  • Areas of expertise: Does the speaker specialize by topic or industry? Has he or she published anything in your area of interest?

4. Remember, the proof is in the performance.

Areas of expertise, client lists and testimonials, credentials, and background are all important items to consider, but the most critical factor in selecting the right speaker for your group is presentation quality. You must see a speaker in action to make the best decision, because the bottom line is: How good are his or her content and speaking style.

Most often you can determine a potential speaker’s performance quality through a a preview video. Arranging to see a speaker live is another option, albeit too time-consuming and expensive for most meeting planners. However, most professional speakers and the bureaus that represent them will help you arrange to see a live presentation if you desire.

When you watch a speaker’s preview video, keep in mind that the most important parts of the video are those times when the speaker is addressing a real audience. Also, look for both short excerpts and longer excerpts. The shorter excerpts are sound bytes that demonstrate a speaker’s ability to quickly summarize or encapsulate important ideas. Longer excerpts show the speaker’s ability to maintain interest and hold an audience’s attention. Cutaway shots of the audience are also good if they demonstrate the audience’s attention level. Keep in mind, however, that cutaways are also the way presentations are edited to eliminate unnecessary and ineffective words, sentences, and sections. Too many cutaways may indicate a heavily edited tape.

While watching any preview video, ask yourself the following five questions:

  1. Does this speaker capture and hold the audience’s attention?
  2. Will our group find value in the speaker’s ideas?
  3. Will our group be comfortable with the speaker’s stage presence and style?
  4. Does the speaker demonstrate the ability to meet our objectives?
  5. Is there evidence that the speaker tailors his or her material to the audience?

A client recently shared with me the system she once used for selecting a speaker. First, she screened ten speakers’ preview videotapes and selected the top four. Next, she and her boss, who was responsible for the overall meeting, watched those four videos and rank ordered their preferences. (Rank ordering your top two to three choices is a good idea in case the top choice is unavailable for your meeting.) Then they asked someone who would be in the audience to watch the four videos and provide feedback. They found it beneficial to check an audience member’s opinion against their own.

Finally, keep in mind that selecting the right speaker for your next meeting is part science and part art. After going through the above four steps, you should do one more thing: Check your choice against your intuition. Ultimately, the speaker you select should feel like a good fit. It you aren’t comfortable with your choice, take your unease as a clear warning sign that you may not have selected the right person. Don’t underestimate or ignore your intuition.

In summary, professional speaking is a growing industry full of talented and effective speakers. In this field, you’ll find a wide variety of skill levels, experience, and areas of expertise. I doubt that anyone could objectively identify the very best speaker in the world. But it doesn’t matter. What you want to do is identify the best speaker for your group, and to do so, you must go through a stringent selection process. When you do, you can be confident that you’ll be a hero, not only to audience members, but also to those who entrusted you with this task.

Copyright 2006 by Mark Sanborn. Reprinted with permission. Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE is a professional speaker published in the areas of leadership, change management, customer service and teamwork. He works with business organizations who want to reach the next level of success and individuals who want to perform at their best. You can email him at, phone him at (800) 650-3343 or visit his Web site at