I have the privilege of being invited to address many academic, nonprofit, and business groups. After doing this for a decade, and following some social media brooding on keynotes, I thought I’d put down some thoughts on how this works for me.
NB: for reasons of time I won’t cover the tactics of good speechmaking. Maybe that’s for another post.
Refresh some content It’s vital to keep trying out new content in each presentation. Some audiences will overlap across events, especially when talks occur in a related industry or the same geographical area. Digital media also gives us access to speakers, so it’s increasingly likely that audiences will have seen your earlier work. Avoid boredom by refreshing your material.
Keynoters are supposed to energize their people, to inspire and excite them. Wearying your audience is a fatal crime for keynoters to commit. Fatal for the audience, and lethal for the speaker.
It’s also intellectually sound to revise your stuff. If the topic is current, things may have changed since you last took the podium. Include that. If the topic is historical, attitudes and reception might have shifted, so you can address those.
For me, I connect my presentations to one of my research projects, Future Trends in Technology and Education (FTTE). I conduct FTTE research just about every day of every month. This yields all kinds of news stories, analyses, case studies, and other material which can find its way into my presentations. I don’t recommend that everyone maintain a regular report like this, but do commend continual reflection and inquiry, especially through social media.
Keep other content the same On the other hand, keynoters have to rely on some material. That’s partly because event organizers usually invite someone to speak because of a known quality, and expect to see that in play. It’s also because you can test out a content chunk, honing it over time, and take advantage of that. Representing familiar material can free a speaker up to improvise more, and to demonstrate confidence.
It can also save time, which matters a great deal.
Get intel on your audience This is rhetoric 101, but I’m constantly appalled by speaker who really have no idea of the people they address. A canned, decontextualized talk can be awful – or, actually, useful, but may as well be playing in YouTube.
So research the group ahead of time. Study the program guide to see what interests participants.
Look to other keynote and plenary speakers.
Check the event’s social media presence. Fire off social media communications on your own, using the hashtag, to stir the pot. Connect with key people through social media, too.
Make sure you interview the event’s organizers. They will have specific desiderata mentioned right away, but will reveal more desires under questioning.
Then get to the event as early as you can. Listen to presentations, and ask questions. Dive into hallway conversations.
Take the population’s temperature and identify key concerns. Work some of this into your presentation. Name people for their contributions.
The result? A tailored presentation, situated on the event’s own terrain. It also carries your main work.
What do you think? Do you use any of these approaches? What else do fine keynoters do?
As someone who has done a few keynotes and has taught public speaking for longer than I will admit today, I think you are right on track. In fact I going to link to this blog post so I can share with my students.
You are absolutely right it is about connecting with audience on all sorts of levels and you seem to list many excellent strategies, interviewing the organizers, looking at other speakers, even picking up on hallway talk.
Though you imply this in your preparation the idea of being flexible and able to change on the fly if need be should certainly be emphasized. A good speaker needs to be able to completely shift gears if circumstances dictate a change is need. I am thinking about a major news event or such which will have the audiences attention and require the speaker to deal with what is happening in the world.
Thank you, Jim. I’d like to hear what your students say.
I absolutely agree on being ready to change on the fly. Improv is a key speaker skill.
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