Home Professionalisms Avoid These Big Mistakes When Hiring Your Next Keynote Speaker

Avoid These Big Mistakes When Hiring Your Next Keynote Speaker


speaker on stage

No matter which way you lean politically, the 2012 Republican National Convention featured some disastrous public speaking. Keynote speaker Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, didn’t mention the nominee, Mitt Romney, until about two-thirds of the way through his speech. Two nights later, Clint Eastwood had a dialogue with an empty chair.

On paper, both Eastwood and Christie seemed like great choices for keynote speakers. In reality, what they delivered was not what Mitt Romney needed. Before you book keynote speakers for your next company event, learn some lessons from what the Romney campaign did wrong.

Avoid the Shameless Self-Promoter.

chris christie

In 2012, Chris Christie’s job was to promote Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. However, Christie had a separate agenda, which involved his own 2016 presidential ambitions. He mentioned himself a lot, but he only mentioned Governor Romney seven times. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace called it “the most curious keynote speech I have ever heard…For a moment, I forgot who was the nominee of the party.”

Just before Christie’s speech, the New York Post revealed that he’d refused to be Romney’s running mate because he expected Romney to lose. His speech, which barely referenced Romney, reinforced that rumor. Even though Romney’s campaign had a copy of the speech beforehand, they never asked Christie to improve it.

The speech embarrassed Governor Romney and created bad publicity for the convention.

How to Keep This from Happening at Your Event:

When you hire a top business keynote speaker, don’t shy away from someone who promotes his or her accomplishments. However, the speech should promote your agenda and support your company goals. To prevent yourself from hiring the Shameless Self-Promoter, contact a few of the speaker’s past clients before signing a contract. Ask whether the speaker supported the event’s agenda or focused mostly on self-promotion.

Rein in the Improviser.

Clint Eastwood

The crowd erupted in applause when legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood took the stage before Governor Romney’s speech. However, Eastwood brought a friend to the stage, and that friend was an empty chair. The chair was supposed to represent Governor Romney’s opponent, President Obama.

For several minutes, extending well beyond his allotted time, Eastwood had an improvised and awkward conversation with the chair. Romney’s senior strategist, Stuart Stevens, watched the speech unfold before going into another room and vomiting.

According to Variety, because Romney had been star-struck by Eastwood, his campaign hadn’t vetted Eastwood’s remarks. Eastwood damaged Romney’s brand with younger voters. As Slate writer Jamelle Bouie tweeted after Eastwood’s speech, “This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.”

How to Keep This from Happening at Your Event:

Even if you hire a living legend to speak at your event, you should review what the speaker plans to say beforehand. Top-notch speakers have a unique brand that you should respect, so avoid giving an outline or asking the speaker to fit slides into your event’s graphics template. However, call your speaker two weeks before the event, and ask for an overview of what the speaker plans to say. Consider making a substitution if you don’t get a clear answer.

A Few More Tips

To avoid hiring the wrong speaker, keep these additional ideas in mind:

  • Know what you want to accomplish. Decide whether you want your keynote speaker to inform, motivate, or inspire your audience. Then, find speakers who have successfully filled these roles in the past at events like yours, and communicate your needs to the speaker upfront.
  • Respect your audience demographics. Hiring a speaker who doesn’t fit your audience, the way Eastwood didn’t fit with young Republicans, can create cringe-worthy moments for both the speaker and your employees.
  • Align the speaker’s topic and style with your vision. Romney needed Christie to communicate a vision of an America under President Romney, but he focused on himself instead. Make sure that what your speaker says will support both you and your business decisions, not a separate hidden agenda.

Your event might not seem as high-stakes as a political party’s presidential nominating convention, but it matters a lot to you and the people who work for you. The best keynote speakers align their interests with yours to create a satisfying and motivating speech.


Image credits: Chris Christie image by Bob Jagendorf from Wikimedia Commons/Clint Eastwood image by U.S. Dept. of the Interior from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


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