How to select a keynote speaker who doesn't suck.

In today's events, keynote speakers are still a draw--though they can be looked at with a weary and skeptical eye.

"I just hate it when people try to rah-rah motivate me," I was talking with a friend who had experienced her share of bad keynote presentations, "I mean, they can be so fake. Then they're done and you're like...whatever."

Indifference and level of eloquence aside--she has a point. We can always tell when a keynote speaker is truly GOOD when the av crew is listening along. They've heard it all--many times--and it takes a unique talent to break through the jaded facade of the shadowy characters backstage.

Sitting backstage, I've also personally cringed as I've watched keynote speakers lose their audience. They had them one moment and then they slip away or, worse, turn against the speaker. A keynote speaker is a huge investment, and you want to make sure you get that return on your investment.

Here are some tips for selecting a keynote speaker (who doesn't suck):

Make sure they match your industry and audience.
We once listened to a keynote speaker make a lot of great points and analogies for how the audience could be successful at sales. It was truly inspiring!
...the audience was made up of public service workers who had zero interest or involvement in sales. In fact, not only was the heavy emphasis on sales irrelevant, but it also left a bad impression with the audience--whose values were not aligned with those of the keynote speaker.

Similarly, not all subjects translate across all fields. You wouldn't want a serious poet speaking at a tanning convention, as an extreme example. A lot of companies stumble here by picking sports figures as keynote speakers. While sports are universal and a relatively safe choice, they may be the wrong choice for a non-sports-oriented audience.

Willing to customize.
There may be times when you're willing to accept an out-of-the-box keynote speaker (if the wow-factor is just too high, maybe), but ideally, your speaker should be willing to spend ample time making sure their message fits your audience. There are always going to be recycled components in a keynote speech (gasp! You wouldn't expect them to start from scratch every time, after all), but there should be some customizable pieces as well. A good keynote speaker will have a variety of anecdotes and examples that they can change out for your audience; and it won't just sound like "insert company name here".

They should also be asking you for information about your audience, event, and company before their scheduled speaking engagement. If they don't, it's a red flag.

Just because they achieved something doesn't make them a good speaker.
Someone can be really famous, achieve a lot, be an impressive figure...and a crappy keynote speaker. Sometimes they don't know how to craft their story or present.

An internationally-famous Olympian sought our help in becoming a keynote speaker because his initial efforts had not been well-received. Instead of crafting a story the audience could relate to, his speech was basically: "I was really good at this sport. I practiced a lot and got better. I went to the Olympics and won. And you can do this in your life!"

Not only was it unrealistic, but it has no compelling challenge or call to action, and it only very loosely related to any obstacles your average audience member would face as a business person.
Your keynote speaker should have a relatable, compelling story with actual takeaways.

Conversely...

Your speaker doesn't have to be famous to be great.
Don't place too high a focus on name recognition. One of the greatest speakers we'd seen was an unknown college professor. Another was a salesman who had spent a significant amount of time in jail. The story and ability to connect with the audience and their goals is most important.

Which leads to the point...

Samples are good, anecdotes are better, in-person viewing is even better.
You can't always tell a good speaker from a mediocre speaker from their samples and clips. Video is a great start, but it generally does a poor job of capturing the energy of performance (kind of how fireworks are amazing in person and substantially less impressive in recorded form).

Whenever possible, see a performance in person, have a chat with the presenter on the phone, and gather anecdotes not only from attendees (who may not see very many speakers overall) but from unaffiliated event planners/production companies (and even av crews) who have seen it all.

Offer greater depth beyond the 60-90 minutes.
A presentation is only a moment in time. That may be all you want, and that's fine. However, you get more value out of speakers who have a broader range of capabilities. For instance, we've found that keynote speakers who can emcee an event can keep the energy high for a while day (or multiple days) and have the opportunity to build on their own principles/messages.

Some speakers also offer books and programs for post-event follow-up, however be wary of the quality of these materials. Just because a presenter can speak doesn't mean they're capable of writing a sustainable motivational program.

Interaction is key.
Again, for some purposes a speaker who talks at your audience for their allotted time is fine. Some have the storytelling skills to sustain this and some don't. However, you'll get a far more compelling keynote with a speaker who utilizes audience interaction. This is also the mark of a more agile speaker, as audience feedback can be unpredictable, and agility is more compelling than a tightly scripted recitation.
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Speaker's Corner: Asking questions to engage your audience.



We were recently asked, for the purpose of discussion: Should you ask your audience questions?

First off, there are a bunch of different types of questions in the context of the event: 


  • Letting them ask questions--where an audience can participate in a q&a session
  • Rhetorical questions--asking an audience questions that aren't intended to be answered
  • Questions to shape the presentation--where the answers to the questions you ask will you actually change your presentation
  • Knowledge questions--gauging what your audience knows about a topic
  • Competition questions--reviewing what you've told your audience to ensure comprehension
  • Questions to get demographics--finding out where your audience is at on a particular subject/topic.

Rhetorical Questions:
All questions have their place, of course, and they're a fantastic way to engage the audience. We naturally answer a question that's been asked within our heads--whether we do it consciously or not. That's why good speakers (I'm talking super-top-tier) will often pepper their speech with cues that get audience buy-in/engagement. Sometimes that's as simple as saying "right?" at the end of a point--at which time the audience will generally nod or make a physiological sign of agreement/engagement. It's not intended to be answered, and it's only effective if you know how to use the strategy. Too many rhetorical questions become a handicap to a good speech instead of an aid.

Q&A: Letting the audience ask questions: is a structured-unstructured process. I often find it more successful to let the audience write down questions and then have a specific, separate time to address them. This isn't to prevent the "flow" from being interrupted, but is, rather, another strategy for engagement. Lots of audience questions are very specific to a particular situation (that no one else in the audience might have) or are irrelevant to the topic. Or people ask questions seeking prominence and recognition with the speaker or their peer group. They can be really dull if not managed. (Not all of them--there are times when a good audience question session ends up really making the presentation great, but from what I've seen this is a rarity.)

Demographic and Shaping Questions: Asking the audience questions that are meant to be answered can certainly be a way of engaging them. Either you review knowledge by asking them rapid-fire questions about what you just covered, or you use the questions to gain datapoints/craft your presentation. The latter, of course, is only useful if you're willing to change things on the fly. There's nothing worse than being asked one's opinion only to have it thoroughly ignored--what's the point in that?

So if you're asking your audience how many of them have children to prove a point--and no one does have children--you should be prepared to shift your point instead of plowing forward. If the presentation needs to be tailored in reaction to a demographic question, be prepared to do so.

Knowledge and Competition Questions: Asking the audience questions as a review--either in competition context or just to self-test their knowledge--can be one of the most engaging tools in a speaker's toolbox. HOWEVER, this needs context within a presentation. One must prepare the audience to answer questions if they're not going to be in a structured game or competition. Prime the audience and give them permission to speak up--and let them know how to do so. If you have a multiple choice question on a powerpoint, are they supposed to shout out an answer? Vote? Raise their hands? Is it rhetorical or not? Clarifying this for your audience is key.

Competition questions can boost content retention--and presentation attention--exponentially. When the audience knows that they're going to be competing with their peers, they hyper-focus on the information at hand to gain the advantage and contribute to their team.

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To begin or to end: Where should you put your Keynote Speaker?

How you structure an event has, naturally, a huge impact on the audience experience.

Ideally, a event should build off excitement and end up on a higher note than it ended. There's nothing worse than being exhausted and unmotivated at the end of a three day conference.

When considering a keynote speaker, it's important to take the structure and flow of the entire event into account.

When clients are deciding on their agenda and we're not consulting in that capacity, they have different reasons for putting the keynote speaker in different places throughout the event:

Beginning: We wanted to kick off the event on a high note and put energy into that first morning. You know, set the tone!

Middle: We thought the energy would be lagging, so we wanted to put the keynote in the middle of the event to get everyone pumped up.

End: We want to leave everyone on a high note and have them leave the event feeling pumped.

None of these places is inherently wrong--depending on what else you have planned for the event AND the messaging from the speaker--but here are some things to consider:
  • A keynote is a professional speaker--how will the speaker after him/her compare?
  • Will the rest of the event live up to the promise of the keynote?
  • Does this give the audience adequate time to absorb a really important message?
  • Will the audience forget the message by the end of the event?
  • Are you going to DO something with the keynote messaging throughout the rest of the event?
  • Will the audience be worn out by the time the keynote speaker comes around and/or skipping out on the event to handle neglected business?
So where do you put your keynote speaker? Unless the entire event is structured in a way to keep the audience totally, thoroughly engaged with no lag--we'll usually recommend putting the keynote speech at the end or toward the end of an event. 
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Presentation Pet-Peeves

Speakers--professional or internal, or even professionally internal--can be a tremendous asset to an event. They can inspire and motivate, convey information, give important goals, announcements and milestones, etc. They *can* have a lasting impact on their audience.

However, there are a few fairly frequent mistakes that speakers make that tend to negate the good will of their audience. After hearing a few hundred (probably closer to a few thousand) speakers--both internal and external--these are our biggest presentation pet-peeves.

1. Apologizing for their time.
"I know it's been a long day, try to stay awake..." or "I know I'm coming between you and lunch..." Sometimes this comes off well--with a strong speaker--as a lighthearted attempt at humor. More often it comes off as a reminder that I really want to check-out and a red-flag that this speaker doesn't consider him/herself important enough to listen to on their own merits.

Instead: Own your time. What you have to say is important. If it's not, don't be on that stage. The audiences' time is a gift; don't apologize for taking it--make them glad that they gave you their time because you're giving them something valuable in return.


2. Saying "in conclusion" and not really meaning it.
I once heard a speaker--no exaggeration--declare his conclusion a half-dozen times in his presentation. He may have meant to conclude single points among many in a fairly long speech, but there was no way for the audience to know that. He said, "In conclusion..." and everyone prepared for a summary statement and the end. The fact that he then went on another 5 minutes, then concluded again, then went on another 10 minutes, and then concluded again, and so on and so forth, sorely tried the patience and attention spans of the audience. By the time his real conclusion came about a more fidgety bunch of folks I have never seen.

Instead: Only conclude when it's time to end your speech. You have 30-60 seconds to wrap up after you make a conclusion statement. It's a great signal in a presentation to have the audience sit forward and take in your final point, but they don't appreciate being jerked around by multiple conclusions.

3. Using incorrect/outdated/inaccurate information.
We were listening to a speaker who was giving a professional, paid presentation on a very serious topic. To make a point via metaphor, she told a story about a military dog--Brutus--who protected his captured owners by killing their captors with a single silent signal. Something about the story wasn't jiving, so those of us with smartphones (a great majority by now) went on a little fact-finding mission at Snopes.com. The story turned out to be untrue and debunked. Not only did we spend time in her presentation checking this out instead of listening to her message--but she lost some amount of credibility in her actual message.

Instead: Use metaphors that you know to be true, and fact-check any anecdotes, datapoints or tidbits of information. If your aunt forwarded you the email that you got the story from, it's best not to just run with it in your public presentation.

4. Thinking your message is more important than it is. 
Being unable to see the relevance of their message in perspective to the audience's perception of its relevance is a huge stumbling block for a lot of presenters. Sure, you've spent 11 months in the trenches of marketing and the minutia of the new PR rollout is really fascinating for you and your team and you're really proud of it... but does your audience feel that way too?

It's like the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and Elaine go to visit their friends who just had a baby. Their friends, of course, think their child is the most beautiful thing in the world...but...it's an ugly baby. Your content is the baby. You may think it's beautiful but it might not be completely relevant to your audience.

Instead: Think about the perspective of your audience before crafting a presentation. Does it fit into what they immediately NEED to know? Does it fill in a "what's in it for them"? If not at all--or you can't think of a way to make it relevant/fit--then you may not be the right choice for a presentation at that event.

5. Not rehearsing
You'd think that if someone were presenting in front of a group of thousands, they would at least rehearse their presentation, right? Wrong. And it shows. Sometimes this is as simple as not testing the technology--the video clips, the PowerPoint, the transitions, etc. Other times it's as simple as not practicing and being rough, unpolished and nervous. Still other times this manifests itself as speakers going way, way, way over time.


Instead: Even the best speakers in the world practice each presentation. Test your technology. Make sure your timing is right. However, do NOT rehearse by memorizing your speech. Be comfortable enough with your talking points to relax and simply talk TO your information instead of repeating back the information.

6. Having a very obvious "insert company here" message.
This is more for professional external speakers that make the rounds at big corporate events. A lot of speakers have a fairly canned message about how they accomplished X and Y and how it's relevant to you, as an employee of Z company, accomplishing A and B. Sometimes you can literally hear the pause for the "insert company here" line in their speech. Is it really relevant to that company? Does the speaker actually know anything about the situation? Not really. Yet they're trying to be motivational with a generic message.


Instead: Good keynote speakers take the time to get to know the situation in the company and customize their message accordingly. They may have a bank of several messages or key points they can draw from or put together depending on the needs of the audience in front of them.
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The Key to your Keynote Speaker

We're not in the business of brokering keynote speakers, generally. But after attending hundreds of events that use keynote speakers, we know what works and what doesn't, and can give some good recommendations. (In the events business, you know you have a great keynote speaker when the AV crew pays attention.)

The keynote speaker can be a critical piece of your event--they're there to motivate your audience, to tell a story and to inspire action. They should fit into your event plan seamlessly and strategically--becoming a part of your overall message instead of just a novelty.

The things that make a great keynote speaker can vary, but the things that make a bad keynote speaker are pretty much the same across the board.

Here are some things you should watch out for when looking at a keynote speaker:

1. Lack of Customization. This is the number one failing of keynote speakers. We've all heard speeches that sound practically like recordings with a space left blank to "insert company name here". Your keynote speaker should take the time to get to know YOUR message, your company's unique challenges and attributes--and be willing to tailor their speech accordingly. In the case of keynote speakers, one size does not fit all.

2. An Amazing Story...But Not Much Else. There are keynote speakers who have done genuinely amazing, awe-inspiring things...but that doesn't mean that it translates into a keynote speech. Be wary of stories that don't have a deeper message and take-away. The goal for your attendees will not be to climb Mount Everest (usually), but, rather, to overcome THEIR obstacles.

3. An Amazing Speech...But Not and Amazing Speaker. Believe it or not, there are great keynote stories and messages that get lost, quite literally, on the floor of your event. We once saw a keynote speaker who had a great message, but only his lapel got to hear it--he was just cutting his teeth on the keynote circuit, and didn't quite have the whole, you know, *speaking* thing down yet. It's critical that the keynote speaker be able to connect with your audience.

4. It's All About Them. We've seen many good speeches that have been polluted by the litter of the speaker's own ego. When every point at the end of the story or anecdote is, "You'll find this in my book," it gets tiresome for the audience. Additionally, great keynote speakers are all about the people in the room--not necessarily their own achievements. Their story should be a frame for their speech--not the entirety of the message.

5. Basic Presentation Mistakes. Most keynote speakers rank pretty highly on the professional-looking presentation spectrum compared to most internal presenters. However, they can still occasionally fall prey to mistakes like having too much on their PowerPoint (using them as speaking notes instead of visual aids, or making them hard to read). A lot of the time, companies won't proof or spend much energy on the keynote speaker's presentation--they just plug it into the master slide deck and go. That's when basic mistakes happen; a clip fails to play, the formatting becomes messed up, etc. Having rehearsal helps mitigate this, but we find that the keynote speaker doesn't always come in for rehearsal beforehand--either because they're too busy, or the company doesn't have the budget for the extra time.
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