Keynote Sourcing: Unlocking the Secrets to a Successful Speaker

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Episode description

A great keynote can be a strong tool to ensure attendees leave your event with a memorable experience. You want your speaker to be someone your audience can resonate with while providing an engaging and thought-provoking panel. But sometimes, finding the right speaker and sourcing them in time for your event can be difficult. So, how should you get started?

In this episode, Kayla Sommers, Events Lead at Cvent, joins the show to give her insights on successfully navigating the keynote sourcing process. Kayla shares some of her favorite experiences working on Cvent Connect while also breaking down some challenges when landing that perfect keynote.

Listen as she details the importance of planning ahead. She explains that having an extra month to work on sourcing will help you avoid last-minute pitfalls. You’ll also learn how you can pitch your keynote ideas to your team in a way that gets everyone on the same page.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How you can get creative in your formal offer to maximize keynote marketing potential
  • What makes a good keynote
  • How you can navigate a bad keynote experience

Things to listen for:

[04:44] Making a keynote database
[06:43] Taking advantage of your planning timeline
[08:48] Pitching your keynote vision to your team
[14:13] Getting creative with your sourcing
[16:16] The thorns of the keynoting experience
[22:40] Favorite keynote experiences

Meet your host

Rachel Andrews, Senior Director of Global Meetings and Events, Cvent
Paulina Giusti, Senior Manager of Meetings and Events, Cvent

Episode Transcript

Rachel: I know panels can be really really painful especially if it's an hour and it's just like the most boring questions in the world but if it's like really well curated and you're asking some real questions and like people are giving real answers.

I was talking about this last night, when's the last time you saw like a planner and hotelier on a panel going at it? It's been a long time because people are so PC now, but like back in the day when they did that, I love those panels because people actually said real things.

And I feel like if you can do it right, it's done well, it can be really awesome.

Intro: Great events create great brands, and it takes a village to put on an event that engages, excites and connects audiences to your brand. And we're that village. I'm Alyssa. I'm Paulina. And I'm Rachel. And you're listening to Great Events, the podcast for all people interested in events and marketing.

Paulina: What's going on, party people? Welcome to this week's episode of Great Events. We've got a great lineup for you today in terms of what we're talking about. We've got a subject matter expert, Kayla Sommers, joining us. And this week's topic is all about keynote sourcing, best practices, budgets, anything that can help you with your main stage conference content, we're going to get into.

But before we do, I just wanted to take a second to reintroduce our listeners to Kayla and who she is to us and some of her specialties, as it relates to her planning experience. Kayla, will you just reintroduce yourself to our listeners?

Kayla: Hey party people, this is Kayla. I'm so happy to be here chatting through some best practices that we've learned, the best way and through our own personal experiences. But yes, I'm happy to be here, part of Paulina's event design team. And primarily my role, particularly at Cvent Connect, I am the production lead.

And with that comes, the responsibility of our keynote sourcing. So we've learned some really fun things along the way, owning the program for almost seven years now, at least supporting all the way up to now owning, the general session and all of those lovely responsibilities that fall in with it.

So we're excited to teach you all of our best learnings and chat through all of this today.

Paulina: Awesome. And of course we are joined by our amazing other co host of the podcast, Rachel Andrews. She's obviously been involved in conference keynote sourcing for a while now. She spearheaded the strategy. She taught Kayla and myself all the tricks of the trade. Rach. How you doing?

Rachel: Doing great. The veteran dinosaur of keynote sourcing here reporting for duty.

Kayla: That's right. Rachel, walked so we could run, right Paulina?

Rachel: Alright. trial and error, baby. I actually was telling a story last night to some, industry peeps about keynote horror stories. And we haven't, we had some good laughs about some past, fun ones. We'll have to save that maybe for the end is like a fun nugget.

Paulina: I love it. All right. Let's get into it. So just to frame up today's conversation, when we think about keynote sourcing and all of our main stage content, we obviously keep in mind the goals and objectives of the event, right? Those are the, what's, what are the North stars of the event?

And obviously those are our business objectives. Those are our conference or attendee objectives. And obviously the big one. Any kind of budget constraints or limitations. So keeping that in mind, as we think about our annual user conference, for example, where we typically see, where we typically host, I think it's six general sessions, six main stage sessions, and we think about how we can really creatively utilize our budget for the biggest bang for our buck, star power, relevancy for our attendees.

Kayla and I have these and Rachel too, the whole team is actually involved in terms of our brainstorms. We're talking about trends that are happening in the industry, perhaps key players that are interesting or time relevant to what's going on.

And then obviously there are C suite leaders in the industry. And so we think about this sort of pool. And I think we've kind of aggregated our own little database, I think, over the years, ideas that the team has had, ideas that customers have shared with us, ideas that our colleagues have shared.

Kayla, if you were to summarize some of the personalities or people that are on that list, give us some examples or some trends that you've seen that come out of that database.

Kayla: For sure. So I think we definitely have a database as Paulina had mentioned. And there, I think a general idea that you have, you've got this 1 bucket of your celebrity. You've got your big celebrity keynote and then honestly, as we go year to year and something I wanted to present to you all today was on production strategy and production strategy, Paulina talked about conference goals, those conference goals funnel into the production strategy and then that production strategy lays that foundation of the keynote strategy. So what you'll see in that treasure trove is the accumulation of whatever those goals were of that conference.

So some years we would have thought leaders very C suite heavy. We wanted to have folks from head airline CEOs and head of hotels because we wanted to show event ecosystem and the power of partners within the industry other years. We might have been focused on creativity production. We see a lot of folks that are in that producer role, folks that have to get in front of a ton of leaders, just like we do every day and pitch concepts and pitch visions and do it confidently. And then I think another big key theme, just because 70 percent of our audience are female, and we are powerhouse women in our industry, there definitely is, a relative team of powerful women, whether in, any sort of facet.

It could be in any industry because we are amazing and compelling in every aspect. So that really is across the board. But that is a big thing is we always look for really transformational, persistent woman that have done incredible things and how we can learn from them.

Paulina: That is a beautiful representation of our database and how we seek inspiration for fulfilling our keynote sourcing at our big user conferences. I kind of wanna shift gears a little bit and get to some of the more tactical, conversational things here, like timelines. Talk us through what we see as we think about our large conferences, the timelines that we map against.

Kayla: For sure. And I think this is one of my favorite recent learning lessons and new strategies and workflows we put into place. We've all been there where we've had to source for a keynote within 30 days. It's so hard to be in that position, especially as a planner, and it got to the point where we're consistently working so fast.

I said, you know what I want these particular names. And I know in order for me to get those type of names, especially those C suites that have calendars book months in advance. I need to ask and put in that offer letter months in advance, which means I have to get my executives reviewed it, approved it and ready to go months in advance too.

As crazy as it sounds this year actually counted, we started our keynote conversations 7 months out from the event, but I have to tell you, going and doing all of that in advance had reaped so many benefits. Not only were we able to be aligned on the production strategy, this was huge for our promotion tactics.

We were able, our marketing folks, rather than them coming to us and say, Hey, when are we going to get that keynote? Instead, they had treasure troves of keynotes. They could drip it out whenever they wanted to. And we were able to work in some marketing videos as well. And then also that helped us give a little bit more time to brainstorm, give a little bit more dedicated time to what that stage looks like for each keynote. And I think it really showed and Connect this year. how that timeline and having that to our benefit really nailed those C suite or those folks that we otherwise might not have gotten because, if we had a more truncated timeline in place.

Paulina: Yeah, I think, you know what's also interesting, is the timeline, like you mentioned, to prepare and promote and plan, but then also thinking about buffering the sort of pitch timeline. Rach, you've pitched a number of keynotes to the executive team and give us like, what's your perspective when let's say the executive team doesn't agree with any of your suggestions.

Is it a matter of convincing? Do we go back to the drawing board? There's been a mix of both. But what has that experience been like?

Rachel: Yeah, there's a lot of different instances of getting keynotes, whether it's internal events or Cvent Connect. Or like in my previous role, like getting a training type person or a celebrity to come like sign and meet and greet. There's just a lot of moving parts before I talk about our management team and like the weighing in there, cause I feel like some of the challenges, and I don't want to name all of them, but some of them are around like relevance. And so we may be as a certain generation, aware of somebody, and maybe our management team isn't as aware.

And so it's I think it's a, Kayla does a good job of striking the balance of what our attendees want, not necessarily what our management team wants. And I know that's really hard and it's a really hard balance, like tightrope to walk at any company. I think that's probably one of the biggest challenges we have is just making sure that they're educated on who these people are, especially if it’s not a name that they know.

And a lot of agencies do really well on this that they have like clips on their website of past speaking engagements, but not all keynotes that are celebrity names have that. And so it's I'm sure we'll talk about this, but just the challenge of picking that name versus a good keynote is not always the same.

So like you could pick a famous person, but there may be not, that's like some of the lessons learned is like, they might not be great at keynoting. So that's, I think hard from my vantage point of talking to the execs on hey, you could throw out the biggest names in, in the celebrity scope, but that doesn't mean that they're going to be great at a corporate event.

So I think that's one of the challenges.

Kayla: Yeah, and just to echo that Rachel, I think that was something else we found this year. That was unique challenge was, I really wanted to prove that, yes, there is a place for celebrity keynotes. Don't get me wrong. There certainly is. They bring that star power. But I wanted to prove that if you hone in, and if you're really well in tune with your strategy and what your goals are for your attendee experience, and if you find those speakers that are going to speak exactly of what their needs are, it doesn't matter where they are if they're unique enough and they are able to tell just as compelling story and be just as compelling as that celebrity speaker and might even be a fraction of the price. So don't be afraid to push those people as long as you can really paint that vision. And I have actually a tip for you when it comes to those meetings, Rach, and what I've done over the years.

I've learned that gaining advocates prior to that big meeting at different band levels really helps. So I would not save the 1 big meeting to introduce those keynote speakers to all of those folks. Start with your core team, then bring in a senior manager, then bring in 1 of those directors of marketing, maybe even bring in your cheerleader VP, get them in the know.

So by the time you have that big meeting, 50 percent of that room already knows your vision and they're already advocating for you. So if you have someone like an executive that may not be convinced on your vision, they might really value the opinion of those other people in that room. And even if they might not see it, they'll say, you know what?

X, Y, and Z is onboard. I'm on board. And that helps push the needle there.

Rachel: Amen to that. I have one more comment on timelines cause I just thought of it. And I think Kayla's right. Like the sooner you can start the better, because what we've learned is basically if you think, Oh, I can get a keynote done in a month. You're wrong. There are so many red tape things, not just, I'm not even talking on our internal process of getting things approved, whether you're working with a speaker broker or an agency, which could be different there are different layers.

So that like speaker agency might not represent that speaker. And so then there's another middle person in the conversation where you have to go through the broker to go to the agency that goes directly to maybe their agency that represents them and then to the actual talent. And so I think that what I didn't account for when I first started doing keynote sourcing was like understanding all those layers of people that you have to go through to do this, it's like, can you just give us the name of the EA? So we can just coordinate with them directly. And that's the reason the speaker agencies exist. And we have some great people that we work with, but I didn't realize all of those layers.

So even from offer letter to contracting to getting a press release approved, all of those things just add a week for every single one of those things, because, think about if you're getting like Trevor Noah for your event. His people aren't going to respond right away. They might take a week to get back to you.

And if they come back with changes for your press release, or something on the social media, or they want to approve everything on your website, that also adds time to your announcement. So it's just like, all these layers that you don't think about when you're sourcing them, it's not just hey, we've sourced them, signed the contract, we're good to promote.

This thing takes time.

Kayla: And so like marketing scope creep

Paulina: Exactly. So shifting gears a little bit. In terms of the pitch to the agency, let's say, we've gotten creative with some of our asks and I feel like the biggest learning from that is if you don't ask, you don't know, or the answer is always going to be no. Kayla, this year we got really creative with some of our promotional tactics.

And in partnership with some of our keynotes, talk us through a little bit of that and the impetus of the idea there.

Kayla: Yeah, so I think everybody, anybody that is familiar with the process of a formal letter that you've got your traditional deliverables that you ask your speakers. And I wanted to push the envelope a little bit. You typically have them come. You'll have maybe a meet and greet. They'll obviously pre approve your marketing deliverables.

But I realized that. In other keynotes, I started to see other marketing things like they have a video or for example, maybe a sales force sends them one of their hoodies and says, hey, we want you to take a picture of this and I realized if you can sneak. And while I say sneak, of course, we made our counterparts aware of the asks that we're having.

But what I realized is when you submit that offer letter, you're saying, hey, for this price, we would like this, right? And if you put in “We would like a 30 second video.” We snuck those into all of our formal offers and 2 out of 3 of our speakers had no problem with it. And it was at no additional cost.

So that is a perfect example of if you don't ask the answers always no, throw it in there. See what they say. And most of the time, if it doesn't take too much lift from their or for the, that keynote speaker to do it. They'll usually do it because they are looking at your offer and all of those little bullets that you're asking for as a part of that full offer that you were submitting.

So that's what we found this year. And we definitely reap the benefits of that. And our marketing team love to have those extra assets they could use.

Paulina: Yeah. it's just a great event marketing tactic, right? The more video, the more engagement, and repurposing it throughout other promotional or tactics like organic social or social shares that your sales teams can promote to their unique audience bases, I think that it just creates a whole new layer of engagement and creative asset that I think, like you said, Kayla lends itself to a much, much more productive marketing, and promotion experience. Okay, real talk. Let's talk about our favorite, rose and thorn, let's call it keynote experiences. Who wants to go first?

Rachel: I have so much PTSD from some of the thorns.

Kayla: What if we say our thorn all at the same time?

Rachel: I don't think we have the same one.

I'll just say that we've had some thorns in the past with comedians. And I love comedians, but they don't always follow scripts. to the point where we've offended people, offended attendees via the comedian.

But, let's just say this comedian was equal opportunity offender. And the other, one of the other comedians we got, we quite literally had to, what is the hook that they have in cartoons? We quite literally did that and had to pull them off stage. It was one of the most mortifying experiences, I think in it's up there, just mortified on behalf of someone else, but also for like our entire planning team, because we were the ones that had to do it.

Kayla: Yeah, I was in the same boat there. I think that, that kind of just goes to that learning lesson of, and the hard part of that, is when you have a keynote speaker and you spend a lot of money on them, and then their outcome isn't so great. It hurts us just a little bit more.

And then in some instances when you spend a lot of money and then it's really doesn't go your way, it hurts a lot. So I think that was the learning lesson. I took away from that similar experience was if you're going to spend your company money of certain figures that could be upwards of five or six figures, you need to be a hundred percent confident and that you are identifying the risks of that speaker as well. The speakers, obviously, they're going to be showing the best and the brightest and their speaker profile, but understanding who they are, what their typical personality is, understand what those risks might be, make sure you're planning for them.

Make sure that your legal team is super strong when it comes to the contracting and any of those cancellations, right? They might, they might be a serial canceller, you never know. These are things that you should just be aware of and you need to be ready to defend, right?

Defend your choices and defend everything. And I think that if you, one of our colleagues Aidan always says, if you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. And I just think that as long as you are prepared and you feel very, communicated with your keynotes. Hopefully they stay in line, and do what you ask them to do.

But of course, there's always that wild card and you just got to roll with the punches.

Rachel: I think that also helps when you're really close with your speaker agency, or they represent them directly. And they tell you, you need to ask, do they customize? Because if they are famous and they have a canned speech, they likely won't customize and speak to your audience. There's countless celebrities or keynotes we've worked with that we've handed a very well curated, call it a briefing, keynote briefing sheet that goes through what our audience is. Most of our audience is women. We have a very significant population of women in our audience. We name like what's out there for them. And hey, here's some things to hit on that are relevant to our audience. And if they don't, if they don't customize their speech, they're not going to, they're not going to.

Kayla: Yeah, and yeah, make sure you know that before the contracting happens because, those formal offer letters, they're binding. They're binding.

Paulina: We're talking keynote, but I feel like what we've been loosely talking about is main stage content, right?

Do you have a preference? Keynote, modified keynote, and Q&A, moderated Q&A session, fireside chat? Or panel, which one consistently hits for you.

Rachel: I know mine. One hundred percent. Mini keynote followed by questions. Like you get the best of both worlds and normally, so the famous people are more amenable to that because they don't want to speak for 45 minutes. I just love that. I love that format. Not only does it give you like a variation of what you're looking at, but it also just like it, I just feel like it's so informative because you get like their story and then you get, if you have a really good MC, like we do, shout out to Mark Jeffries, if you have that, you have an awesome interview with the real questions like okay, we heard what you had to say but tell us the real tea, and like I love that format.

Kayla: Yeah, I'd have to agree with Rachel and almost just add on to that. I think anything that engages the audience directly is huge because I think that's when people come away with a personal experience. And that's 1 thing that we obviously prioritize as leveraging Cvent technology. When we have our speakers, they're going to do that 15 minutes.

We want that Q and A, so the audience has a chance to submit those questions. And with the Cvent tech, we have the ability to display that question and even that person's name could pop up if they make it public or not. And that gives you a heck of a different experience, when it comes to your Q and A knowing, wow, my question just got answered in front of 6,000 people.

Wow. Thanks. Hannah Beachler, so that's pretty cool. And that makes it a different level of that experience. So anyway, I would say that and then interactive workshops. I love, cause again, your hands on your interactive with the audience, anything where the audience can really get hands on.

I love whether that's via tech or a prompt that they're working on.

Rachel: I will say like a really well curated panel. I know panels are, can be really painful especially if it's an hour and it's just like the most boring questions in the world but if it's like really well curated and like you're asking some real questions and like people are giving real answers.

I was talking about this last night with some folks. And it was like, when's the last time you saw like a planner and hotelier on a panel going at it? Like it's been a long time because people are so PC now, but like back in the day when they did that, I love those panels because people actually said real things.

And I feel like if you can do it right, it's done well, it can be like, really awesome. Especially if you have audience participation, and the moderators actually asking the questions that are outvoted versus hiding them and, and being that they need to be more transparent.

Paulina: We've got a couple minutes left and I want to make sure you guys share your either favorite keynote speaker, favorite keynote experience, someone that you've sourced or someone that you've seen. Tell our listeners, who and the why.

Kayla: I think I just because it's just so fresh, we've had some really great people, but I think I really just had such a wonderful experience with Hannah Beachler for folks that may not be familiar. Hannah Buechler is the production designer for Black Panthers Wakanda. She did Beyonce's visual album, Lemonade.

She is now currently on tour for the Wiz Broadway. Talk about multifaceted, but she is that perfect example that Rachel's talking about of candid transparency, right? That is what just made her session soar. I felt like I was on an Oprah show and it was her pouring her heart out and it was such a wonderful experience with Hannah because she just brought her true authentic self.

Now, did I know that from all the videos? Yes. But for the level of personalized stories that she brought us was just, unexpectedly wonderful surprise. And I think it's one of those lightning in a bottle moments, but she was just so flexible. She was open to anything. That's always wonderful as well is when your communication pre-event with that speaker is a good one.

It just makes you think, oh, this is going to be a good experience. And because we were able to offer comprehensive, briefings and give her a really, personalized hands on, experience on site. She had mentioned, Hey, I was able to do my thing up there that much better because I felt comfortable. And I felt like that was the best compliment I ever could have gotten because it meant that she performed even better because she felt welcomed and in a really wonderful environment.

And I think that's a part of the job too, is once your contract is done, you're not done, as that planner role, you want to make sure that, they have that great experience because it does impact the outcome and you have a say in that. so that's my takeaway there.

Rachel: Hands down, without a doubt, reigning champion. I can, there's a bunch of people that have been up there, but Jose Andres is still my number one. It's a really hard spot to get away, get out of my heart. He just won me over. I can't remember what year he spoke, but I full on ugly cry. Just so enthralled with him to the point where we went over in that keynote, I think 15 or 20 minutes, maybe it was even 30 minutes and nobody gave two s****.

Sorry for the cursing, but like literally people will be like, if we just sat here all night and listened to this man, hilarious man, by the way, we would be fine. And it was just, one of the biggest like outpouring of love and just like all the great things that he's done in the world with World Central Kitchen.

And, just his story coming up as an immigrant and just, and the way he loves his daughters. Like I just, every single thing that he talked about and did, and not to mention like he was just the most hilarious person just walking around owning the stage and it just was like everything I could have asked for.

Kayla: Oh, and mind you, he was the most humble person. The one thing that was on his rider, a cup of coffee. That was it. A cup of coffee. That’s all he wanted in his entire rider. I was like, this is the shortest rider we've ever received from a celebrity keynote.

Rachel: Yeah, that's mine. I mean there are countless other ones that I could mention that are just amazing that like truly inspired me but I don't remember ugly crying as much as I did for this speech.

Paulina: And there was, like you said, there was like an informality to it. Like he sat in a chair with his like leg over the arm. It was just like he was in his own living room just totally opening up. I remember it clearly. Yeah, you're right. He touched on all of the emotions. I think for myself, so like you said, we've had so many amazing keynotes, so much inspiration, but Abby Wambach really stands out for me. It was the same event. They were like back to back keynotes. I don't know how lucky we got that year with budget and availability, but Abby Wambach, man, I just remember.

And candidly, I don't know anything about soccer, or football, soccer, whatever, it's a sport, but it's the emotion that she brings

Rachel: Football is life. Football is life.

Paulina: Now it's life after Abby Wambach's speech, but, there's something about it that she graced the stage. It didn't feel canned. She walked the stage. She looked, it looked like she really commanded the room. And hers was a traditional keynote and she was just talking about her amazing experience with the camaraderie that she created with her team, US women's national team, the immense success, the championships under her belt, but the biggest learning for her was taking ownership. And there was this moment in the keynote, where she said, take the ball, take the damn ball. And I remember just sitting there being like, I'm going to run through a brick wall now. Like it just fired me up. It was great. And it was just the simplicity of how she communicated her overall message. It was all about women empowerment. It was all about inclusion, right? Being brave, her story of coming out, being on the main stage, getting equal pay or better pay for women on such an unbelievable athletic level, like she just touched on a lot of talking points that I think every single person in the room left saying that resonated with me and to bring it full circle when it comes to that sourcing process, you've obviously got the business objectives, your attendee objectives, but it really is a matter of creating a memorable experience.

And I think so much of that lives in the people you put on stage. And whether it's the story they're telling the story of them echoing your story or your brand, they have a ton of immense impact. So we can't deny the unbelievable value that goes into sourcing keynotes, locking in fantastic speakers, and of course, aligning that with your overall brand.

Rachel: The empowerment just felt in the room from that. It was like we put on Shania Twain. We like, it's like we put on Shania Twain, let's go girls and everyone was just like ready, let's freaking go. That's how we all felt.

Paulina: I wish I hadn't said two, but I do feel like I have to sneak in the second one because I just saw it, saw him speak two weeks ago and I absolutely lost my mind. I think I texted everyone in my car, in my phone. John Mulaney was a, I don't even know, he was like a keynote. He was like an evening speaker on their main stage and he was like, backup, their primary keynote, comedian and his name is, escaping me right now, had something come, conflict happen. And John Mulaney is like, yeah, there's a writer's strike. I'm not busy. I'll speak at your event. He customized his bit, if you will. Obviously he's a comedian, right? He customized his bit to not only the brand of the conference, he brought in the founders of the company.

He brought in the marketer persona of all of the attendees there. He even went so far as to pull people out, random people in the audience and say, what do you do? And somehow wove it into his bit. Yes, he had a couple canned pieces that were from like his Netflix special that were absolutely hilarious.

But, man, if you're not tapping into the emotional appeal of your audience, you sure as hell better be making them laugh. And every single person in that room was roaring. And so that was super memorable for me. I, nothing's better than ending your day with connecting with people by laughing.

So those are my two favorites. Anything else we want to leave our listeners with in regards to keynotes, sourcing, best practices?

Rachel: We covered a lot. I think hit the key points here is just like timeline is key. Partnerships with your agency is key. Reach out to one of us if you have questions, we have been trial through the fire when it comes to all the different things that we've learned, trial and error.

We'd be happy to share more information with you. If you have questions, you can reach out to either any of us on LinkedIn. It's a confusing process. Like it just educate yourself and find an agency that you trust because not all agencies are the same. And, if you have a really great one, hold on to them because they're just such great partners.

Paulina: Awesome. that's a wrap. Thank you to our rockstar listeners, for joining this week's episode. As always, if you have ideas, guest speakers that you'd like to listen to, you can always send us a note on LinkedIn. You can send us a DM on Instagram or an email at greatevents@cvent.com. Thanks again, and we'll see you on the next one.