Skip navigation

High-Profile Speakers: Can They Be Caught and Tamed?

Two show managers explain how they work to land compelling public figures—and then shape their presentations to satisfy the audience.

Most planners would be quite envious of a group that was able to book, in consecutive years, these celebrities for the keynote slot at their conference: Bill Clinton, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Amal Clooney, and Barack Obama. Ditto for an event that got Apollo 13 hero Gene Kranz and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to appear on different days at a single event. But would you be envious of the tremendous amount of work required to make all that happen? Definitely not.

For Rachel Motekaitis, senior show planner for Greenbuild International Conference & Expo, landing two former U.S. presidents, a social-equity activist with huge name recognition, and the most well-known astronomer on the planet came only after years of effort. Even with an event that’s focused on sustainable building—a particularly important issue in recent years—Motekaitis had to navigate her way through various speaker bureaus, with a success rate that’s lower than that of an average baseball hitter. Then again, all of her swings each year only need to produce one hit to win the day.

“You make an offer to a bureau and it is just a waiting game,” she says. “Sometimes you get lucky and they get back to you in a few weeks, but most times you wait three or more months to hear anything.” In fact, “you might have to start reaching out to other people,” such as those who are connected to an association’s industry and one or two degrees of separation from the person of interest. “You have to make sure you reach out to other possible speakers over that time as well,” Motekaitis adds. Once in a while, though, “someone at a bureau will finally call me and say, ‘Okay, here is the fee and the requirements, take it or leave it—and we need to know today.”

Once They’re Hooked, Prepare Them Well
AmalClooney.jpgWith any high-profile person that Motekaitis gets to speak or participate in a moderated discussion (, “I conduct a content call with the speaker’s rep about topics we’d like them to touch on. We always try to make it directly relevant to our business.” In 2018, some Greenbuild attendees did not initially understand why the keynote featured Amal Clooney (pictured here), “but our overall show theme for the year was ‘human by nature,’” Motekaitis says. “Social equity and human rights are central to that, and Amal is a human-rights attorney. For us, any speaker has to have a connection to a topic that is relevant to our audience—someone they will find compelling and inspiring, not simply a feel-good speaker.”

Carrie Johnson, senior director of education for the Professional Convention Management Association, employs a similar approach. For the association’s Convening Leaders event taking place in San Francisco in early January, she worked with reps for Gene Kranz and Condoleezza Rice to ensure that Kranz’s moderated discussion and Rice’s speech connected in some way to the meeting planners in attendance. “We try to have a call at least three weeks out to give them an overview of the theme and goals for the event, the audience segments
, and their pain points, plus the latest trends impacting our industry,” she says. “We strive to ensure there’s customization wherever possible, and our main-stage moderator plays the crucial role as ‘dot-connector’ to help draw out useful takeaways and highlight the best insights for the audience.”

KranzRice.pngThis year, PCMA tapped Holly Ransom, a frequent keynoter herself and CEO of Emergent, a millennial-marketing agency, to engage with each day’s keynote presenters (aside from Rice), asking them questions in various interview formats to enhance the presentation. As a result, Kranz will detail the story of what became an aborted mission to put a man on the moon and emphaisze the importance of communication, teamwork, and making difficult decisions in critical moments. As the closing keynoter, Rice will share her expertise on global affairs and leadership.
“Secretary Rice is one of the most recognized leaders in the world, and she understands how to operate in a global context,” said Sherrif Karamat, CAE, PCMA’s president and CEO. “She is the perfect mindset to bring to the PCMA community during a time of economic and social transformation.”

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.