Event Management

4 Ways to Keep Speakers On Topic

Skift Take

A rogue speaker can damage an event or company's reputation. There's no full-proof way to stop this, but there are ways to minimize the chances of this happening.

What do you do if your speaker goes off the rails? Let’s say the speaker goes off script and says things that don’t align with your company?  What questions do you ask of the speaker to prevent this from happening?

The speaker was very famous. Not Hollywood famous, but well-known in the corporate world as a much sought after keynote. But soon after the presentation began, he went off topic and didn’t follow his PowerPoint document. Instead, he began to plug his book and continued to do so for the rest of his time on stage.

Standing in the back of the hall was Jaki Baskow, owner of Las Vegas Speakers Bureau and Baskow Talent along with her client, the host organization, who had actually requested she book this speaker. “We were in shock,” Baskow recalled. “What do you do when someone on stage is supposed to be speaking about one thing and all the sudden they go into a self-promotion? There was really nothing anybody could do. All you can do is really not hire that person again.”

Sometimes the presenter is Hollywood famous. Think back to this year’s Oscars. Chris Rock was tasked with presenting the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. But before he got around to reading the teleprompter he decided to fire off a few quick jabs at the audience and, well, the rest is pop culture history.

But Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith weren’t the only attendees who took exception to Rock’s Oscar presentation. Joseph Patel, one of the producers of the Oscar-winning documentary Summer of Soul, harshly criticized Rock for announcing the winners as Questlove and “four white guys.”

In a since deleted Twitter post that was published in Variety, Patel wrote: “The reason that makes me SO SO VERY ANGRY is because I was so proud to be one of a handful of South Asians to have ever won an Oscar in the history of the award. I was ecstatic that I was the 3RD South Asian to win that night – after Riz [Ahmed] and Aneil Karia won earlier in the night for [best live action short winner] ‘The Long Goodbye.’ Three South Asians winning on the same night – that’s never happened before! And it’s meaningful! It’s history!”

Patel’s tweet also touched upon how the result of Rock going off script diminished the purpose of the event. “I think what Will did was selfish. “It robbed the category of its moment. It robbed the other excellent and amazing films of their moment to be acknowledged in what was a STRONG year for docs. And it robbed “Summer of Soul” and our team of our moment.

Nightmare scenarios? Absolutely, but there are a number of steps well-prepared event planners and speakers bureaus can take to minimize the possibility of having a speaker go rogue.

1. Clarify Why You Want To Hire a Keynote Speaker

Some common goals include: education, motivation, initiate change, raise funds, promote a cause or organization, and entertain.

2. See Them Speak

According to Baskow, one way to get a clearer idea of how a speaker presents themselves is to see them speak. “It’s rare when you can see a speaker live, but ask them for videos of complete presentations, not just clips,” she said. “Viewing one or two complete speeches will give you an accurate assessment of how a speaker presents themselves before a live audience and how their content comes across.”

3. Ask the Right Questions

Baskow suggests asking speaker references the following questions:

  • Would you hire this speaker again?
  • How did the speaker affect you when he was presenting?
  • What kind of feedback did you get from the attendees?

4. Interview the Speaker With the Main Stakeholders

Baskow also advises that when you interview a potential speaker to do it either in the presence of the main stake holders or on a conference call or zoom chat in which they are included. “Let the speaker know what the goals of the event are and make them commit to delivering content that is going align with those goals,” she said. “And let them know that there will be no self-promotion unless it’s okay with the client. Because at the end of the day, you want the person that’s up there to change those attendees’ lives or at least leave them with something that they can take home with them.”