Whether you are giving a talk to 10 people or 1000, giving a successful presentation requires you to use the power of influence to engage with your audience.
A keynote speaker goes beyond a regular presentation, because it requires not only tremendous influence, but also a strategy that creates results for the event’s organizers.
Keys to Creating a Good Keynote Speech
A keynote speech is the highlight of any conference. It sets the tone (as with an Opening Keynote) or leaves the audience with a powerful final thought (as with a Closing Keynote).
If you’ve been invited to give a keynote speech, or you’re in charge of an event that requires one, consider the overall strategy. Whenever I am invited to give a presentation, I always start with asking questions about the organizer’s purpose and expectations.
- How will the event’s core message be communicated through the speech?
- What do the organizers want the audience to come away with?
- What will happen before and after the speech?
- Why do they want you as a speaker? What do you provide that others cannot?
These questions are important for any speaking event, but especially with a keynote. Unlike other presentations, a keynote is the most visible and (hopefully) memorable moment in an event. It can tie together the entire event… or it could leave attendees with a sour taste in their mouths.
A keynote speaker has responsibilities that go far beyond just the presentation; she or he should be willing to:
- participate in helping to plan the event,
- understand and aid with overall strategy,
- help to promote the event and to connect with vendors, and
- communicate with attendees, vendors, sponsors, and others who benefit from the event.
A good keynote speaker will customize their talk to meet the specific goals of the organization. With a keynote, this is especially important, because every attendee will be listening.
With this in mind, here are my tips for engaging with an audience in a way that makes them want to participate more fully in any conference.
1. Network With the Right People
“It’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know.”
As a keynote speaker, you will be expected to be in communication with not just the planning committee, but also other speakers, presenters, vendors, and conference attendees.
Make sure to network well before you arrive on site. By connecting with people early, you will be able to get pre-conference feedback and ask questions from the audience. These insights are an invaluable way to craft a message that engages with attendees in a more personal and powerful way.
In each step in the Healthy Feedback Loop, you could collect valuable information that will improve your message and connect with attendees.
2. Become One With the Audience
You can’t reach someone unless you understand their point of view. When you agree to serve as a keynote, it is really helpful to spend time getting to know the people who will be coming to the conference.
Dedicate a few hours to researching your target industry. Find out the statistics and recent developments (these can be collected through a speaker questionnaire, if you use one; find links to mine at the bottom of my Media Kit). You can also read up on current trends, lingo, and anecdotes.
A lot of speakers make the mistake of sitting in their ivory tower, oblivious to what is actually happening on the ground. But if you refuse to spend time getting your hands dirty, you will miss the chance to get an accurate idea of what their experience is really like.
Rather than imagining their challenges, struggles, and perspectives, it really pays to see it first-hand. You could ask the planning committee to let you sit in on an industry meeting, or request a tour of an office, or even spend a few hours doing the work itself (which I describe in my Employee For a Day series).
3. Get Personal
We have all experienced moments of joy, of grief, of frustration. Your experiences are unique, and they can be powerful—but only if you can deliver a message that has the right context, with the right tone, and using the right application to the audience.
At some point, you probably endured a speaker who rambled on and on… and never made a memorable point. If a speaker can’t hold your interest, it feels like you’re wasting your time.
To get amazing reviews and satisfy the goals of the organization who hired you, make sure you design a message that captivates the attention of your audience. Rather than speaking TO them, use the notes from your research (points 1 and 2) to experience something WITH them.
Weave your personal story throughout your talk.
Find personal experiences that you share with them.
Appeal to their emotion.
Leave them wanting more.
To get a better idea of how to do this, consider the Needs, Fears, and Expectations of your audience.
4. Do Your Homework
As you prepare to give your keynote speech, you can learn from other great presenters. Watching the masters at work is one of the best ways to glean insights. As Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
When you study a popular presentation, pay attention to how the speaker influences the audience with their words, pauses, gestures, and storytelling. Take notes on what they are doing, and practice a few of their methods yourself.
My favorite place to find great speeches are Ted Talks. Here are the 25 most popular TedTalks of all time.
I also really enjoy Michael Port’s training and his book “Steal the Show.”
But beyond just understanding the mechanics of engaging an audience and telling your story, you also have to really know your stuff. It’s not enough to be entertaining; the topic you’re delivering also has to be crafted perfectly.
Speaking from experience, throwing some words together and expecting it to go well is never successful. The “fly by the seat of one’s pants” method can work… in certain situations. But seasoned speakers know that it takes a lot of time to come up with a solid outline, create good key points and applicable takeaways, add stories and interesting facts at the right moments, and make sure that the speaker’s initial promise is fulfilled for every attendee. (There’s nothing worse than getting feedback like “The speaker didn’t mention several things in the topic description.”)
I recommend using a Speaker One-Sheet, which lists your topics and contact information in one place. This document makes it easy for an organizer to decide whether you are the right fit for their event. You can see my Media Kit and Speaker One-Sheet here.
5. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse
A keynote speech doesn’t appear from thin air; it is carefully crafted after weeks, or even months, of practice and editing.
If you want to give a great keynote, make sure you take the time to do it well.
Write out your outline. Add all of the details from your research. Decide where your stories will fit.
You can do this visually on one large sheet of paper, or use several index cards, or an electronic file, or even describe it aloud in a recording, or to someone else. The method isn’t important, as long as you review every single thing you will be sharing with your audience.
As a Visual and Verbal learner, I find it helpful to speak through my entire presentation while recording it by audio or video. I then review the recording and take notes on what to improve. Sometimes, I will transcribe the recording and “recycle” the content as a single blog post, a series of posts, training materials for a workshop, or a product to sell.
No matter which way you do it, make sure to practice your material over and over… and over again… until it becomes second nature. I never regret going over a speech one more time; but I definitely regret presentations where I did not practice enough.
6. Provide Lots of Value
A keynote speaker is not just a presenter. She or he is also representing the sponsoring organization — which means that you should be prepared to influence the attendees who are coming before, during, and after the event.
Here are some ways to add more value as a keynote:
- Share the event with your social media followers, and encourage them to attend the event.
- Respond to posts, comments, and pictures on social media promptly and enthusiastically.
- Connect with key members of the association to find out more about them (see point #2 above).
- Offer to help out at the event wherever needed (also promptly and enthusiastically!)
- Initiate discussions, take pictures, use social media blasts and tags, and try other methods that engage attendees
- Represent the organization with decorum (greet attendees, other speakers, and vendors; remain neutral on hot-button topics; avoid compromising situations or photo ops, etc.)
7. Follow Up Promptly
So you gave a keynote speech, got a standing ovation, and the conference is over. Your job is done, right?
Well, not necessarily. Even after your speech is over, you have an opportunity to leverage your keynote speaking status in several ways.
- Thank the organizers and everyone who made it possible. This may seem obvious, but it is easy to forget to send simple thank-you notes or gifts to the folks in charge.
- Listen to feedback. If the event organizers have collected attendee feedback (which they should!), make sure you get a chance to read it. Although painful, listening to feedback is an extremely valuable way to adjust or change your content. It can also open the door for future speaking opportunities.
- Connect with attendees and organizers after the event. The latent energy after a conference is a great opportunity to keep conversations going over Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Many attendees are happy to share their experience and tag the event — so you could engage by asking them to tag you, and to speak with them more about other ways to benefit their organization.
There you have it: some practical suggestions to make a great impression as a keynote presenter.
Let me know which step is the most useful by commenting below.
Interested in hiring Grace as a speaker? Check out these great speaking topics!
Grace LaConte is a business consultant, writer, workplace equity strategist, and the founder of LaConte Consulting. Her risk management tools are used around the globe, and she has successfully reversed toxic work environments for clients in the healthcare and non-profit fields. Grace specializes in lactation law compliance & policy development, reducing staff turnover after maternity leave, and creating a participatory work culture.