Keynote speakers and guest speakers, explained

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If you’ve started pursuing a speaking career, or perhaps if you’re looking at booking a speaker yourself, you may be confused about the terms used. Are you a workshop speaker or a guest speaker? Are you looking for a keynote speaker or a plenary speaker? To try to clear up some of these terms, let’s take a look at two: keynote speakers and guest speakers. What is a keynote speaker and why do they matter? How many types of keynote speakers are there? What is the difference between a keynote speaker and a guest speaker?

For answers to these questions and more, read on.

What is a keynote speaker and why do they matter?

What is a keynote speaker? Basically, the keynote speaker is the headline speaker for a conference or major event. Oftentimes this speaker will give the opening address on the first night of a weekend conference, or the closing speech at the end of a big event. Sometimes you will even see both! The thing to keep in mind is that this keynote speaker is typically the most well-known person on the event’s roster. They’re the big name that gets publicity for the event. So you will be most likely to have heard of them before! Athletes, actors and actresses, famous businessmen and more are all potential keynote speakers.

Furthermore, most keynote speakers talk about broad topics that most all the audience can connect with. Often this topic will be part of the theme of the conference or event they speak at. By contrast, a conference or event may have workshops or breakout sessions that are generally on more niche subjects that appeal to narrower groups of people. Also: As a general rule, keynote speakers are paid and workshop presenters are not (unless that presenter is a “name” in that space, then maybe).

In the corporation/association world, speakers generally get paid for things that tangibly affect the bottom line. If you can help improve sales, customer service or company morale, you can get paid. If you want to talk about how Quickbooks can make accounting more fun…good luck. As a result, keynote speeches often feature state-of-the-industry summaries, new trends or changes that the audience should know more about, or generally accessible tips and motivations.

What are types of keynote speakers?

As alluded to above, there are many different types of keynote speakers, but typically they are going to be the big-name headliners that draw attention to an event or conference. So they might be an entertainer, like a late night talk show host, who can give a shot of energy to the room with jokes and laughter. They might be a motivational speaker, who strives to help people move their lives where they want to go. Such a speaker might share a story about how they achieved something significant in the face of challenges and inspire the audience to do the same.

There are also industry experts who may have discovered a new product, trend, or idea that the audience might want to learn about. If they have a big enough name to be a keynote speaker, they will likely have spent a long time in their industry, or perhaps be a wunderkind with big new ideas.

Finally, a keynote speaker might include a famous celebrity. This speaker will likely give a talk somewhere in between those of the entertainer and motivational speaker. They may have less experience in the topic of the conference or event, but have clout based on how big of a name they have.

What is a guest speaker?

A guest speaker is simply someone who is invited to a conference or event to give a speech. Although a keynote speaker is technically a guest speaker, most guest speakers are workshop leaders or plenary speakers who give talks to a smaller subset of the audience at a conference or event. One way to think about this is to compare speakers to actors in a play: the keynote speaker plays the lead role, while guest speakers play supporting roles.

Guest speakers typically have specialized expertise in the topics being discussed at a conference and event, and will likely lead workshops or smaller audiences in deep dives on a particular topic within their scope. An example might be a lawyer with experience in financial regulations giving a talk about how cryptocurrencies will be taxed in the coming years, while a keynote speaker might be a celebrity proponent of buying crypto.

What is the difference between a Keynote Speaker and a Guest Speaker?

The main difference between a keynote speaker and a guest speaker is that a keynote speaker speaks for a longer period of time, generally speaks at the beginning or end of a conference or event, has a big enough name to be a major draw for attendees, and generally has a broader-themed message than the more specialized messages of guest speakers.

Want to be a keynote speaker?

If you want to be a keynote speaker, you don’t necessarily need to be a celebrity! But you do need to have a killer talk. One great way to do this is through honing a motivational speech. This motivational speech would simply be meant to get your audience to see or do something. (P.S. Many of the practices that you can do to prepare for a motivational speech apply to any other type of talk!) Based on your experiences and expertise, you probably have a really good niche that you can focus your talk on. Start there.

The best motivational speakers on the planet only have one or two talks they do and those talks are insanely good. Start by developing just one, really amazing talk that resonates deeply with your intended audience. The best marketing for your motivational speaking business is a great talk, so it is worth it to put in the hours for this part. Yes, even if your first speaking gig is a free talk at a community center.

What event planners look for in a keynote speaker

Relevant specialized knowledge

If you get asked what you speak about, the worst possible answer is, “What do you want me to speak about? I can speak about anything!” (insert eye roll). No you can’t. Just like you can’t speak to anyone, you also can’t speak about anything. While it may seem counterintuitive, oftentimes, the more specific and focused you are in what you speak about, the more gigs you will get. Event planners often want specialists and not generalists who think they can speak about anything. (for more on determining what to speak about, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast)

Good stage presence

Testimonials are incredibly valuable for speakers. They are the social proof that you are a good public speaker and have a good stage presence. Ideally, you want testimonials from event planners and decision makers so other future event planners and decision makers can feel validated when hiring you. But you can also get testimonials from audience members. You can never have to many testimonials.

Finally, if you want to get booked (and especially if you want to get paid), a demo video is a must. Think of a demo video like a movie trailer. It should be short enough to give people an overview but make them want to see more. If you post a video online of a 45-minute talk you gave, your mom will watch that 897235987 times, but no event planner will take the time to watch it. Good demo videos are usually between 2-4 minutes and just show the highlights of you speaking. (for more on demo videos, check out this episode of The Speaker Lab podcast)


Finally, event bookers will be looking for affordability – are you a speaker that they have enough money in the budget to book? If you’re interested in seeing what speaking fee you could charge, check out our speaker fee calculator here.

What makes a good keynote speech

Keep in mind: Your audience is always going to be asking two questions: “so what?” and “now what?” So what means, what does this have to do with me? Now what is what you want the audience to do as a result of your talk. Give them action steps to implement what you taught them. If they hear you speak but literally don’t do anything differently, what’s the point?

Giving a motivational speech is almost like mapping for a road trip. If you are going to go on a road trip, it’s easier to have a paper map or Google Maps to tell you where you’re going. But if you just get in the car and you start driving, and people are in the car asking you where we’re going, you’re in trouble! But by organizing and structuring your talk, you can lead the audience to your conclusions. And you can effectively answer those two questions: “so what?” and “now what?”

Want to be a guest speaker?

Most full time public speakers don’t start out as speakers. Most speakers start out as ordinary people with mundane day jobs who slowly find themselves taking on more and more speaking engagements. Maybe it started out as a way to make extra cash, but now you’re looking forward to that time on stage more and more each time. Or maybe you thought it was just a one-time thing, but your friend in the audience told you about the unmatched passion and enthusiasm they saw in your face. Maybe you had no idea full-time speaking was even an option.

Surprise! It totally is. And empowering professional full time public speakers is exactly what we specialize in at The Speaker Lab.

If you love picking up an occasional gig here and there but haven’t made the leap to full-time speaking, you might be a good fit for a guest speaker gig. Speaking on the side of your day job will make sense for a while. But eventually, if you’re consistently bringing value to audiences with your message, you’ll come to a crossroads and be able to go even farther.

Determine your genre and audience

The first step to becoming a guest speaker is to pick a target area of expertise. Pick an audience. The audience you want to speak to may change over time but start by picking an audience.

Your niche and your area of expertise should ideally be determined by something in your background that gives you an edge over others interested in that area, or at the very least a strong desire to learn and know more about your niche topic. (For more on finding your niche for a given audience, check out our podcast on just that.)

As you determine your niche, it may be helpful to go narrower than you think, while maintaining a balance of finding an area enough people are interested in. Jeff Rose, a certified financial planner, joined the Speaker Lab podcast to talk about how he positioned himself as an expert and became a regular contributor to Forbes.

According to Rose, who started out as a personal finance expert, he could have gained a lot more traction as an expert sooner if he had developed a more specific niche. Rose started out writing about numerous different niches within personal finance, from investing for newbies to social security to pensions. “I didn’t have a really clear strategy,” Rose said.

But as he developed his niche, Rose started to find success by honing in on a niche of life insurance. After publishing a couple hundred blog posts, a couple dozen YouTube videos, and a podcast on life insurance over 9 months, Rose found a lot more traction.

“It got more traction in probably one fifth a time,” Rose said. And “the revenue and the opportunities that came along with that came so much faster, because all I talked about was life insurance for about nine months straight.”


If you’re interested in learning more about keynote speakers and guest speakers, we have a great podcast with Grant Baldwin and Marcus Sheridan on how to give keynote speeches and teach workshops. In the podcast, Marcus talks about how he made the leap from workshop speaker to keynote speaker at Content Marketing World in one year.

So you’ve learned more about the differences between keynote speakers and guest speakers. Want to read more about speaking tips? Take a look at our 100 tips for motivational speaking for any speaking engagement! Happy speaking!

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