Whether you hire keynote speakers or aspire to be a keynote speaker yourself, today’s article is for you. We’ll explore what makes a keynote speaker (and speech) succeed or flop–and, by extension, what factors make event planners and attendees very, very happy or profoundly disappointed.
I’ll be joined by three indisputable experts on keynote speaking: Seth Godin, the immensely popular keynote speaker (and author, and blogger, and founder of AltMBA) best know for his keynote speeches on marketing, change, and, as he puts it, “making a ruckus” and the co-CEOs of Executive Speakers Bureau, Angela and Richard Schelp, whose Memphis-based bureau has long been one of the top national speakers bureaus. I’ll chime in as needed; I’m a customer service keynote speaker myself, as well as a keynote speaker on customer experience, leadership, company culture, and hospitality.
Micah Solomon, Forbes.com contributor and keynote speaker: What is the purpose of a keynote speech? And does that purpose vary by audience, event, or speaker? For example, should a keynote speech be attempting to convey data, inspire, entertain…
Seth Godin keynote speaker, author, marketer, blogger, founder of AltMBA: A keynote. speech exists to communicate emotion. To create tension. To bring change.
Richard Schelp, Co-owner and CEO, Executive Speakers Bureau: Since the keynote speech is going to set the tone for an entire event, the purpose of a keynote speech should be based on what the organization is wanting to accomplish with their conference. Some keynotes are meant to bring attention to a certain cause, others are meant to set the stage for the event or to inspire the audience. And the biggest success is when the keynote speech inspires the audience to leave different than they came in.
Micah Solomon: What are some ways that keynote speakers get this wrong–by mistakenly trying to accomplish the wrong thing or by failing to accomplish the right thing?
Seth Godin: The worst keynotes are “memos in disguise.” In the age of Google and instant information, keynotes don’t exist to communicate information. If the speaker or organization is simply trying to get across information, then it’s better to post a blog post or write a memo instead. Memos are very effective at communicating information. But a keynote exists to create change.
Angela Schelp, Founder and CEO, Executive Speakers Bureau: If the keynote speaker fails to get a true feel for the organization’s event requirements, they won’t be able to do their part in making the conference or meeting a success. Understanding the “personality” of the organization is key in making sure that the speaker avoids taking the wrong direction. This knowledge plus meeting the organization’s stated objectives are the most important factors in making sure the keynote will accomplish the “right thing.” Moving forward without full information is similar to an actor in a movie trying to play his/her part without having the script.
It’s also essential to stay on schedule and to be sensitive to the meeting planner’s time constraints. We’ve seen speakers go significantly over their time limit because they’re convinced that the audience needs to hear more of their message. This puts the meeting planner in a bind and leaves the audience frustrated. The best speakers will do whatever it takes to make the meeting planner look good–even if it means cutting time from their speech to keep the agenda on track.
Micah Solomon: Can you share suggestions for how speakers can best succeed in conveying what they’re trying to get across?
Seth Godin: First, use slides effectively. Don’t use the bulletpoint-heavy defaults of PowerPoint; in fact, don’t use bullets at all. Instead, use lots of slides: If you have five points to make, use at least five slides. And for every slide, ask yourself: “Who is the slide for, what does it say, and what effect—for example, tension or resolution–does it create?”
The best slides are ones that prompt a story, that get a story the speaker is sharing associated with the slide, now and in the memory of the audience. This is a simple technique, and very powerful. For example, I’ll post a slide of my friend who is a farmer in Kenya, and then tell the story of how she lifted herself up to become well-off while her neighbors, who have identical tracts of land, are still farming at a subsistence level.
Second, think about the overall arc of your persuasion. There are two methods here that work particularly well. One of the simplest is “If-Then-Else”: If we agree that X is the situation, then we need to do Y, or else Z will happen. Or, if we feel that we are this type of organization, then we need to do Y, or else Z will become true.” And so forth.
Free for readers: Seth Godin offers a video-based class, “Presenting to Persuade,” with more of his insights on speaking. I (Micah) have watched it from start to finish, and it’s excellent. Seth’s provided a 50% off link for Forbes readers here.
Richard Schelp: Once the speaker has done the important work of listening to the organization sponsoring the keynote, which Angela touched on above, another essential of a successful keynote is to use “stagecraft” to keep the audience interested throughout the entire speech. Keep it fresh, add stories and humor to the content and the audience will remember the message. Finally, show the audience how they can take the information you are sharing and apply it to their life and career. Show them how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. If you tell personal stories and earn the audience’s trust, they will listen. Keynote speakers are expected to know their topic, of course, but where they stand apart is on the little things. The best compliment is when someone from the audience says ,“how long have you worked with our company?” Now that is a keynote speaker who has done their homework!