Landing a big fish

A different kettle (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Conferences and symposiums live and die by the quality and wow-factor of their keynote speakers.

I’ve seen keynote line-ups that have me frantically searching for how to register, without caring how much it might cost. I felt I just had to be there to see that specific constellation of academic brains.

Securing keynote speakers is a process that isn’t particularly well covered in any career development material because it can be a niche concern.

For anyone who’s convened an event, though, it is the element that keeps you staring at ceilings until 4am in the morning, or has you tearing your hair out at your desk at 9pm at night.

Sometimes, securing keynotes can be ridiculously easy. One of the convening committee may know the perfect people – and I mean ‘know’ in the academic sense of having worked directly with them (e.g. as mentor/thesis examiner, co-editor, co-investigator).

This connected person just drops their high-flying buddies an email and – voila! – you have one or two stellar drawcards for your conference.

More often, however, you may have to take the more traditional and insecure route of a cold (occasionally tepid) approach, and invite Big Names with no ‘insider’ connections.

Here are my top five strategies for getting that Big Name to keynote at your event:

1. Approach potential keynotes about a year in advance.

Keynote-calibre academics are often in high demand and plan their commitments early. Particularly if you’re working in a different semester system (e.g. you’re in Australia and you want to invite a North American academic), you need to be very aware of academic availability and the feasibility of travel times. For example, keynotes I’ve secured early were able to schedule coming to Australia because they were heading for Hong Kong shortly after that. Similarly, they weren’t able to even consider the proposal because, while it was our mid-year holidays, they had to prep for their new academic year.

As well as an early approach, it pays to follow-up with them regularly after they’re on board. Don’t leave great swathes of time where they hear nothing about the conference and don’t know what’s going on with it. Keep them in the loop about conference websites being launched, CFPs sent out, draft programs available, other keynotes secured, etc. All these things add to the dynamism of an event and makes it feel like it’ll be worth their time.

When the time comes, ensure their travel and accommodation is booked efficiently and with the least effort for them. Be professional and responsive.

2. Try to have one convenor deal with them exclusively.

Ideally, keynotes need to have a go-to person should anything go wrong or they have a tricky question. Building that relationship with one person also means they usually feel more connected to the event; if they have to chase down someone to deal with travel or presentation issues, it’s not a good look for your event.

3. From the start, make it clear what the event is offering as part of its ‘keynote package’.

Usually, it includes some or all of: travel expenses (airfare – economy, business or first class?), accommodation, cab fares or airport transfer pick-ups, honorarium, and per diem.

To be able to do this, you will have already worked out your funding streams and conference budget, of course! At times, it can be a ‘chicken or egg’ situation: you’ll get better funding if you show you can secure excellent Big Names, but you may not get excellent Big Names until you can approach them with confident funding offers.

In your initial approach, it’s also savvy to indicate what the keynote’s responsibilities are. What exactly are you asking them to do? Give a keynote presentation, sure, but what about another institutional seminar while they’re in the country/city? Or to act as a facilitator for the postgraduate workshop that precedes the conference? You need to develop intellectual and professional momentum for their visit but not saturate their time with commitments.

4. Have someone interesting and significant chair their keynote.

‘Significant’ here could mean an academic of similar profile or seniority, or someone they have a (positive!) connection with already. It may be someone who’s not an academic, but still working on similar issues in industry or government. These combinations can often work very well. The key is to pick a chair or respondent who is engaging, social and willing to do the work of facilitating the keynote gig.

5. Have other events to which the keynotes are invited.

This could be a night-before-conference-starts fancy dinner with higher-ups at your institution (or whoever is footing most of the bill for the event). This works several ways because such a function respects and acknowledges who’s supporting the event, and it also gives the keynote a chance to be introduced to a few of the big-wigs at your university, their fellow keynoters, and some of the main people involved in the conference.


In doing all this groundwork, you set your event up to have the best chance of getting the right people and keeping them happy and engaged with your event.

Nothing, however, can guarantee that they won’t have to pull out of your event because of unforeseen circumstances. For the conferences I’ve convened, keynotes have pulled out at the eleventh hour because of the 9/11 attacks, illness, or a summons to front a federal government committee.

These developments can mean more 4am staring-at-the-ceiling moments, but the event will usually survive them. Unless, of course, you invited Sigourney Weaver.

If this post has made you wary, you might need to re-visit this post on 5 reasons why you should run a conference.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and also a research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to Landing a big fish

  1. onecoolcheek says:

    In reference to what you said about keynote speakers pulling out at the last moment because of unforeseen circumstances, what would you suggest an organiser do in this situation? Is it okay to have a backup keynote speaker and do you let him or her know that he/she is a backup?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I used tend to have a Plan B keynoter, usually an engaging prominent local (so you don’t have to worry about last-minute fly-in issues). Increasingly, however, in the later events I organised, I’d just let the slot slip into another kind of session – possibly a round-table or panel discussion about a key topic, which can be populated relatively easily with strong figures in the field who are (hopefully) already coming to the event.

      If you do go with a Plan B keynote, though, I’d advise you not to tell them they’re a ‘standby’, unless you’re good friends with them! ;)

  2. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Another option is just to work with really good people. Liddy Nevile, who has run an accessibility workshop in Melbourne for years, has had some stellar keynotes because she works with the best.

    Having watched her for some time, I think the secrets of her success are:

    • She does really interesting work.
    • She isn’t afraid. She’s happy to knock on the door of the MIT Lab for Computer Science (for example), if she thinks that there might be someone interesting inside.
    • The keynote is part of a longer relationship.
    • People have a good time when they come. The conference is small and friendly (and relevant). The evening dinners are full of interesting conversations. They get to see kangaroos. They get to go down the coast, if they have time.

    She also isn’t afraid to work her keynotes hard while they are here. They will present multiple times during the conference. Often there will be an intense bout of writing before or after the conference. Sometimes she will get a university or government department to pay for a workshop to defray some of the costs.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      There’s a lot to be said for going for A-class speakers – the worst they can do is say no (or say yes, then pull out at the last minute…but I’m getting therapy for those memories).

      I think getting the balance right for how hard you work the keynote is important, and it’s dependent a lot on the personality of the person in question, of course. It’s usually a plus to work them ‘hard’ if the activities feed the keynotes as well as participants (as with all events, I suppose).

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