The difference between a keynote speaker, facilitator and trainer – and why it matters

By Andrew Grant (TEDx, APEC CEO Summit, YPO Keynote speaker)

If you have a learning event coming up, it might be worth stopping and considering what you really need. Before jumping in and choosing a presenter, it’s worth asking the right questions to ensure you get the right fit. The biggest investment made is not the event cost, but the cost of everyone’s time in the room being wasted if the session does not deliver.

Learning events should be engaging and relevant, and they should have actionable outcomes. Plus, these days, one has to ask why pay too much or waste people’s time when the information is free on YouTube or available in a book? Professional speakers will need to deliver value more value than just a presentation, they now need to clearly link to results. The session must be a careful mix of intelligent evidence-based content with engaging methods that drive the outcomes needed.

So what do you want to achieve? Inspiration to motivate and engage people, to inspire them to do their best? OR do you want teach them some specific content, or better still, have them learn something in a way they will not forget it? Is it to help them process the information so they can action it personally in a way that it resonates with their specific situation? Or is it to help them discover, reflect and apply?

This article provides some guidelines on how to identify the real needs and deliver bottom line results.

What is the difference?

Here is a quick guide to some key terms to help you navigate the differences:

  • A keynote is like a light– it is designed to inspire, engage, and motivate. Keynotes are designed for larger groups with a known pre-booked speaker / topic. Keynote speakers have original material about an area of expertise or tell about significant achievements / research they have made in a particular field. They can present their material in an interesting, motivating, engaging and stimulating way, reaching cynics and interested people alike.  For this reason, keynote speakers’ fees are higher.
  • A workshop or simulation is more of a window to the world – it is designed to provide an outward perspective, to learn about best practices and new ideas. For smaller groups we suggest looking at our workshops sessions.
  • Experiential team learning and simulations are like a sandpit, as they are designed to use activity-based learning to create safe places or “practice fields” where people can self-discover & explore ideas and behaviours, using inductive style learning.
  • Executive business facilitation is like a mirror – allowing the group to reflect and strategically plan. An executive level facilitator can help people maintain ownership of the process and outcomes and promote dialogue, allowing people become observers of their own thinking.
  • Training is a funnel – trainers refer to existing material or tell you stories about other people, so they need to be good communicators and perhaps technical experts. Training is about developing a specific skill set, imparting knowledge, while education is about developing skills for ongoing learning and enquiry. Training uses more of a deductive method, telling people what or how to do something, often with little emphasis on why it is the case.

What is a good presenter worth?

A professional presenter can create a different conference dynamic to what an expert, academic, or even company sponsored speaker can bring. A professional speaker is there to deliver a relevant message to the audience. Their presentation time on stage is tiny compared to the amount of time they have invested in designing and then specially preparing. The presentation time on stage is minimal compared to the amount of time invested in designing and preparing. A good speaker will make the presentation look easy and the academic content simple, but don’t be fooled, this takes time & experience.

My 18 minute TEDx talk ( ) took longer to design and research than any other longer talk – even though I already had a 300-page book and 20 years’ worth of expertise presenting on the topic. The talk still had to have a creative opening, relevant content, personal story, humour, engagement, active learning and actionable outcomes. Despite technical difficulties with the mouse given to me, I was able to smoothly continue the delivery within 17 minutes and 59 seconds. It is only with 20 years of experience that I was able to continue the presentation without flinching or pausing.

Unlike a technical or academic expert who just presents facts or updates, it is the professional presenter’s responsibility to ensure a high level of interactivity and maintain engagement that can carry the more technical sessions. A professional presenter should be risk free, as they have delivered many times before, and they have developed the knowledge, experience and skills to understand the complex challenges and nuances of orating.

The best speakers do not fall into the trap of thinking that the audience is as passionate about the topic as they are, but instead they work hard to convince the audience that the topic is important for them. They should also be globally minded and culturally fluent, sensitive to everyone’s needs. For these reasons, the professional presenter should open the conference in a way that sets the rest of presenters and speakers up for success. 

So how much should a conference organiser pay?

How much is the audience and their time worth? How much will you spend on the whole conference and at what standard? How efficient and effective do you want this form of learning be? How engaging and actionable do you want the message to be?

A professional, full time, experienced speaker who can sustain their business and focuses on quality not quantity – will need to charge over $10K. New speakers trying to enter the market or who do this ‘on the side-’ may often offer cheap prices around $5K, whilst celebrities with a scarcity factor can charge $50K +. This may seem the best hourly rate ever but once design, preparation, travel time and meetings are factored in, it is quickly reduced to a more reasonable hourly rate.  There are many conferences these days that charge both the participants and the speakers to present. This to me creates a conflict of interest. The speaker is not chosen on their expertise but on their wallet and desire to self-promote.

Why experience matters

A professional speaker should have the following experience:

  • Strong communication skills with the ability to fully engage an audience.
  • Broad business operations experience that is both globally minded and culturally aware.
  • An authority on their topic, such as an author of a book published by a recognisable publisher, educated to post-graduate degree level in their topic of expertise, academic validation etc. Check out the presenter’s qualifications to talk on their specialist topic.
  • Able to design participant centric sessions that contain the latest academic research, made relevant through delivery methods that ensure full engagement with actionable takeaways
  • Able to respond in real time, reframing content in response to audience feedback, whether expressed or implied and go ‘off piste’ in regard to subject matter should the need arise.
  • The ability to talk with key stakeholders, and: Diagnose, Design, Develop, and Customise. Understand client business strategies, determine desired outcomes, link learning to needs and desired outcomes desired outcomes, develop content & delivery methods to reach outcomes.

How to get the best from a professional speaker

  • Give them the best time slot – mid morning. They are there to bring the energy to the conference.
  • Give them enough time to develop their content. Don’t fall for the trap of piling up 20 speakers in a day as the overall learning will be lost in the noise. Plan the day out fully, then choose the presenters and methods. Vary the conference so people have time to learn, reflect, & discuss. Ask first what the outcome of the whole conference, then ask all presenters to address this.  Design the conference in a way that is educationally creative in its approach, without gimmicks. 
  • Manage time during the day well & have buffer time slots to help. Once any speaker goes over their time slot, or there is a late start, it is like playing golf, you can never recover.
  • Ensure the setup is professional and take advantage of the speakers experience in this area.