The Key to a Great Keynote

Anyone can be a “speaker,” but not everyone is ready to step onto a keynote stage, at least not successfully. After all, while it is relatively easy for most professionals to identify something that they passionately want to share with the world, it takes much more than that to engage, entertain, and inspire an audience.

Whether you’re presenting to an internal team, an external group, or headlining an event on a keynote stage, the key to success is a combination of powerful content and powerful presentation. And being a compelling speaker isn’t easy. It requires understanding the nuances of delivery and knowing how to manage an audience.

Whether in-person or virtual, TED talks are a good example of how to engage with an audience since the speakers are typically polished and coached. You can really see this in the arc of their presentation. Moth storytelling is another great example of what it takes to be a compelling speaker, especially via podcasts. Holding audience attention through audio alone is a true skill.

The bottom line is that being compelling is a talent, one that you need self-awareness to develop. Here are some tips.

Do your homework: The best way to bomb on stage is to offer content that is not pertinent to the audience. Effective speakers authentically connect by being relevant, which is why they understand that a keynote that works for Gen Xers may not appeal to Millennials or Gen Zers. The same can be said about addressing engineers and pharmaceutical representatives.

Differences in audience matter. So, research demographics to understand your group’s industry, role, professional experience level, generation/cultural differences, etc.

Don’t leave people confused or overstay your welcome: Keynote addresses are often too long to hold the targeted audience’s interest or too short to get the job done.

Generally speaking, a keynote should be no longer than 90 minutes and no less than an hour. If your talk is inspirational or motivational (i.e., story/storytelling based) in nature, then 50–60 minutes is great. But if you’re taking on action-oriented keynotes like I do, where you need to educate an audience on specific content and help them absorb how to apply it, then a bit more time might be required to allow the audience to digest your talk in a meaningful way.

Be animated, compelling, and interactive: How many keynotes have seriously impressed you? Whatever the number there is a good chance that more have put you to sleep because most people are boring communicators, or at least not dynamic communicators.

We all know the old adage, it’s not just what you say; it is how you say it. That’s true because holding an audience’s attention is tough. In fact, the bigger the group, the harder it gets. So put your passion on display and be enigmatic. That is what gets an audience excited about taking the journey your talk is supposed to take them on.

Keep in mind that being a strong communicator doesn’t make you a compelling speaker. A strong communicator can concisely say what needs to be said in a way that people truly understand. But what they communicate isn’t necessarily compelling. A compelling speaker connects with the audience by telling short, relevant stories that evoke curiosity and leave lasting impressions.

Instead of simply reading slides during my keynotes, I go all in on interacting with my audience like a stand-up comedian playing off their fans. This helps the audience go all in with me, and the reciprocal energy makes the entire keynote experience more fun, authentic, meaningful, and dynamic.

In my experience, asking simple questions is a great way to immediately connect to an audience and immediately engage people in what I am on stage to talk about. One of my opening questions to every audience is, “Who woke up today wanting to be better?” By asking this question and requesting a show of hands, I set the tone for the rest of my talk by letting my audience know I care about elevating them somehow. I’m also letting them know I will engage them collectively, not individually.

Being interactive also allows me to gauge energy levels (see next point).

Be ready to pivot: Situational awareness and being present are crucial to reading your presentation in real time. If you are looking, the audience’s engagement, facial expressions, and body language can tell you everything you need to know about how you’re doing. And if you are not doing great, you need to adjust on the spot.

When you see or feel the room’s energy drop or die all together, you have to shake things up, and do it fast. Asking questions is also a quick go-to in this situation. In this situation you can deploy a rhetorical question that you are not expecting anybody to answer. The goal is simply to pique some interest or get a laugh that restores lost energy to the room.

Alternately, you could poll the audience, asking via applause or a show of hands who agrees or disagrees with what you are saying. Simply getting your audience to move can wake them up. My fail-safe question these days is “give me a thumbs up if you’re with me.”

A good keynote is a polished keynote, so don’t fool yourself and assume all will go well without practising.

You can also pick out one audience member and interact with them individually by asking them a question. But this isn’t easy because you never know what kind of response you’ll get. To keep your audience on your side, you must be able to pivot to any answer in a meaningful way. Talented comedians do this extremely well (check out Mark Rife for a good example). But great comedians have typically benefited from improv training and worked hard to develop timing. So, don’t try one-on-one interactions as a keynote speaker unless you have done the same.

Practise your talk: A good keynote is a polished keynote, so don’t fool yourself and assume all will go well without practising. Keep in mind that speakers don’t just need to memorize their talk—they need to internalize it, too. This means you have to be able to act out your presentation in a way that brings it to life on stage for your audience.

As a rule of thumb, once the appropriate content has been developed, you’ll need to practise your speech at least five to ten times from beginning to end.

Nobody gets great on their own, so don’t let ego get in the way. While developing your talk, seek feedback from others (credible peers, loved ones, mentors, etc.), and make sure your test audience understands who you are addressing and what you hope to accomplish.

When it comes to preparing to deliver a great keynote, coaches help enormously, which is why everyone should have at least one. Whether you can get away with an informal coach depends on your skills, the audience you plan to address, and the stage you’ll do it on. But if you want to succeed, don’t rely on an informal coach without personal experience addressing audiences. And if you are being paid to deliver a keynote, or simply presenting a talk with high career stakes (such as before a corporate board or investors group), you should seek professional help that can conduct a forensic deep dive and give you valuable feedback.

The best way to work with coaches and informal advisors is to tape practice runs conducted on a stage (or a mock stage with lighting), so you can review your performance and have it constructively critiqued. If you are giving more than one talk, have your coach watch you perform live in front of a real audience and offer advice on how to improve the next time.

An international financial institution recently hired me to work with their CEO on how to better engage audiences virtually and in person. Like other companies, this client recognized the importance of having key stakeholders elevate how they look and sound, both internally and externally, so they wanted the CEO to be professionally coached. The coaching roadmap involved an initial review of past presentations, which was used to provide extensive written feedback (three to five pages) prior to the start of in-person coaching. This process allows the in-person coaching to focus on refining, honing, and polishing presentation skills using taped practice runs. When it comes to taking things to the next level, this process can be incredibly impactful even for an already accomplished presenter.

In a world where thought leaders with something to say are a dime a dozen, it’s crucial to rise above the noise if you want to captivate, entertain, and inspire people as a keynote speaker. And to leave an indelible mark on an audience’s hearts and minds, you must be more than a good communicator, you must do the work that it takes to be compelling.

You’ll know the effort was worth it when someone from an audience says your talk was extraordinary.

About the Author

Paul Bramson has been described as a powerhouse on keynote stages and in training arenas. As CEO of The Paul Bramson Companies, he is recognized as one of the most effective speakers, trainers,….Read Paul Bramson's full bio

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