How to Hire an Amazing Keynote Speaker Without Using a Speakers Bureau

Why Using a Speakers Bureau To Hire a Keynote Speaker May Not Be the Best Option

Event planners, conference directors, human resources managers, and corporate executives alike seem to often be on the hunt for a great keynote or workshop speaker – not the same old, ”Rah, rah, you can do it!!!” type speaker who leaves the group fired up in the hallways after the talk but scratching their heads once they get back to the job.  Invariably, an easy option for finding one is reaching out to a trusted speakers bureau.  Yes, they can provide one stop shop simplicity for perusing dozens and dozens of high profile/celebrity type speakers, but that approach often comes with a hefty price tag (well, the bureau has to get their cut too, right?) and increased bureaucracy.  The introduction of this “middle man” means that instead of working directly with your potential speaker, you’re often working through the “agent” representing them.  Indeed, bureaus and agencies provide a more speaker driven model where they provide a catalog of faces and work to sell you the one they feel is the right fit for your event.  Instead, a client driven approach focuses more on what you want your participants to learn/feel/do as a result of this talk.

As an Atlanta based corporate trainer, I listed my company with a couple speakers bureaus many years ago, but I found it awkward to work through a third party and through the years I have much preferred working with clients directly.  In my humble opinion it’s a win win arrangement as it offers the clients lower fees while providing me direct access to the client to best understand their unique audience and event.  Working through a third party communication often becomes more complicated, protracted, and in some cases downright inaccurate.  A best kept secret for finding amazing keynote speakers is skipping the speakers bureau altogether and finding them yourself!  Admittedly, this approach may require a bit more effort initially, but if you’re budget constrained or even if you have an unlimited budget and just want to ensure you have complete control over communication with the speaker/customization for your event, consider contacting a keynote speaker directly.

Benefits of Finding Speakers Directly

If you do decide to cut out the middle man and reach out to work with speakers directly, there are HUGE benefits in my opinion:

  • Lower fees for the same product
  • Direct contact with the speaker throughout the process
  • Additional customization (since direct communication with the speaker is readily available they’re often willing to customize – even develop a one off talk that might not be one of their standard presentations)

Tips for Finding an Amazing Keynote Speaker Directly

Here are a few tips on how to find and best leverage an amazing keynote speaker directly:

  1. Use client need focused keywords to find your speaker. Typically, if you’re looking for a speaker, you might search the internet using keywords like “Corporate trainer Atlanta” to find someone.  While this makes sense, you’ll typically find colleges/universities or large training companies (with massive marketing budgets) returned as the first page of responses.  Yes, if you skip to page 3 or 4 in the search results, you’ll likely discover some great finds, but you might also consider a different search approach.  Instead, search for what you’re really looking for from a talk g. “How to build an innovative team? “How to manage a difficult boss?” “How to develop a culture of accountability?”  Instead of looking for what others are selling, think about what you really want to buy and look for subject matter experts in those areas.  If your management team has been struggling with organizational change, search for “How to effectively lead organizational change?”  True thought leaders will have content posted on the topic and you can ensure you’re getting someone with real expertise and value to share with your organization.

2. Prioritize steak over sizzle

One of my biggest pet peeves is having to sit through boring keynote talks where all I can think to myself is….”This is an hour of my life that I will never get back!”  Delivery is everything!  Yes, you want someone who is dynamic and engaging so “sizzle” is important, but I’ve found that “sizzle” without the steak can leave groups feeling lathered up in the moment but scratching their head the next day because they didn’t really leave with any practical take aways that they can implement in the workplace or it didn’t add to their intellectual toolbox in any meaningful way.  Furthermore, too much sizzle (without the real meat to go with it) can feel a bit cheesy and leave participants feeling like they just left a third rate comedy show (and want their money back).

When I talk to clients about their upcoming events, I ask them to complete this sentence…”I will consider this presentation a success if…” and while responses will vary by client, they often insist that they want participants to walk away with actionable takeaways.  In my mind that starts with finding a speaker with true substance, expertise, and experience in areas of value to you – not just a speaker with an impressive website filled with pictures of them telling jokes in large ballrooms.


  1. Watch the speaker in action

Admittedly, this one is a bit of a no brainer.  Hours of internet searches, bio reviews, etc. oftentimes aren’t as powerful as watching a few three minute videos showing a portion of a speaker’s actual talk – not just their speaker reel, but samples from real presentations.  A great way to do this (and focus on steak more than sizzle) is to search a preferred topic area along with your city name (e.g. “Top project management mistakes Atlanta” then click Videos to find content on that topic posted by speakers in your geographic area.  The key again is to look for content to find subject matter experts/potential speakers for your event instead of just looking for speakers, then considering their potential talks.  Of course, delivery is critical and watching video will provide insight into not just their style but also provide an opportunity to take note of other nuances that might make them more or less attractive to your audience.

Another great option is viewing highly rated webinars.  Many corporate ERGs, professional organizations will archive webinars on a wide range of topics.  If possible, sort them by ranking and watch the top ten or so.  Viewing a speaker’s webinar will give you a sense not just of their speaking tone/cadence, how they tell stories, whether they’re funny, etc. but also provide insight into their breadth of knowledge.

  1. Ask for sample evaluation scores (and more importantly attendee comments) from real events

Let’s be honest – once you reach out to a speakers bureau or a speaker directly, unless they’re obviously not a fit for the event, their job is to “sell” you on why they’re the best speaker ever!!!  Some likely are…others likely are not, but it’s nearly impossible to get an objective opinion from the speaker or their representative.  This is why I often offer prospective clients copies of actual evaluation summaries from previous events.  This way they can not only view evaluation scores from actual events but more importantly read verbatim attendee comments.  To me this is the most authentic, objective feedback an event planner can use to try to assess how their audience might respond to a particular speaker.  Along with the session evaluations consider requesting contact information for the client for that event in case you need to reach out to ask follow up questions.

  1. Avoid speakers who don’t ask lots of questions

As a speaker for nearly 15 years I know that the devil is in the details and the key to truly connecting with an audience is investing the time to really understand that specific audience, their needs, corporate culture, personality, interest areas, etc. so that you can customize your content to best suit them.  A speaker who doesn’t ask tons of questions may well be tempted to take the easy way out and just pull one of their boiler plate presentations off the shelf and give your group the exact same presentation they gave to a completely different group last month.  The volume and type of questions posed by the speaker can provide valuable insight into how much energy they’re putting into preparation for the event to make it truly spectacular.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant.  She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.  She can be reached at  Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.