Selecting a Keynote Speaker – Go Controversial or Play it Safe?

Selecting  the ‘right’ Keynote Speaker for your conference can be a difficult and stressful task. It’s usually a pretty significant budget item and who you choose says a lot about your event and your brand.

The right choice can be the difference between resounding applause or a stomach turning tumble weed through your conference room.

There’s lots of advice available on how to choose the right Keynote speaker or topic, but what about the question ‘whether to go controversial or play it safe?’ when choosing your Keynote. Do you want to go for the headlines, be bold, and risk controversy or even upset in the conference room? Or, do you want to stick within your audience’s comfort zone and have someone they all love?  Here are two examples where EMS has asked itself this recently.

The first event programme was planned to open with a keynote debate discussing a hot global economic/political issue. The keynote panel was shaping-up to be an interesting and dynamic session with some great speakers. But, just before programme publication, we learned that a press story was going to be coming out during the following week that could negatively impact our session and the event. Should we keep the controversy in, as it was relevant, and risk being associated with bad press? Or, do we can it? The decision was made to pull the session on this occasion and to address the subject matter later in the conference agenda, so not avoiding the issue, but not placing it centre stage and risk negative associations. Better safe than sorry!

The second example focused on deliberately choosing a highly profile controversial Keynote speaker? A Keynote speaker should be someone who captures the essence of your conference theme. They maybe inspirational, motivational or an industry thought leader. But what about someone who has really shaken things up on the wider global stage? Will their ideas and opinions be too challenging for your audience, will you be seen as biased? Or, will they prove a great draw and will everyone relish the controversy?  In this case, the client’s theme was European uncertainty and the decision was made to be bold, to go with the controversy, liven up the debate and challenge the audience.  The key to the decision was that the client felt confident enough if their audience to know they would enjoy the controversy and we are all looking forward to a lively event! Confidence in the audience and in the reputation of the event were key decision criteria.

So, what’s our advice on controversy in your agenda?

  1. What do your attendees want and how established is your event in their calendar?  Will they come with you if you take a risk?
  2. What are your delegates going to get from this Keynote speaker and is that what they need?
  3. If some of your audience don’t agree with the keynote speaker, will they see the relevance of his contribution?
  4. Is the keynote value for money in terms of draw and profile?
  5. What would be the impact of a bit more press attention then you had actually wanted?

When you have thought about the above, we recommend you always seek testimonials, watch videos and understand if the keynote will tailor his/her comments for your audience, so that you know that your choice is the right choice!