Making Your First Keynote Speech

by Speaking Tips | May 3, 2004

Many professionals enjoy sharing their expertise with audiences. Speaking can be both a positive experience as well as a gratifying adjunct to your vocation. Many people have advanced their careers by devoting the time and effort required to be a competent public speaker. As you fine tune your speaking skills and your reputation grows it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that you may be asked to deliver a keynote address.

Unless you have been actively seeking such an opportunity, your first invitation to be a keynote speaker may come as an overwhelming surprise.  It is common to find ourselves comparing our own abilities with popular professional speakers who have been on the circuit for years. Keep in mind that altough you may not be a professional speaker, you have already have the appropriate experience and skills and are perceived as being ready for a keynote speech. If this wasn't the case, you would not have received the invitation.

In order to give a successful keynote address, it is critical that you understand two things: (1) how a keynote address differs from other types of speeches, and (2) how to profile the audience, occasion and sponsoring organization.

How does a keynote speech differ from other types of presentations?

A keynote address usually serves a vaiety of purposes. It should be an inspirational speech designed to unify the audience and, when given properly, will set the mood and tone for an entire event, program or conference. It is an affirmation of the organization and its purposes and should highlight the organization's primary interests and goals.

Keynote addresses are a major program responsibility but, as we have already noted, you have already acquired the basic skills and experience necessary from your other speaking experiences.  In particular, you know how to prepare and organize your content, use a variety of delivery techniques to capture and keep an audience's attention, deal with both performance anxiety and the "adrenaline rush" at the opposite end of the spectrum, and cope with the unexpected.

How do you profile the audience, occasion and sponsoring organization?

All speeches require that you know something about your audience but the keynote speaker requires in-depth knowledge.  You need to find out about the program to follow and why these topics are of interest to the audience and organization. If you are a member of the sponsoring organization, this information may be already known to you but make sure what you know is current and complete.  More often keynote speakers are invited because they do not belong to the sponsoring organization and have expertise in a related or new field.  Some of the things you should make an effort to find out include:

  • Purpose of the organization sponsoring the event
  • Nature of this particular gathering
  • Theme of the event
  • Challenges facing the organization
  • Primary issues and concerns
  • Knowledge level of the audience on your topic
  • General point of view on your topic
  • How members plan to use your information
  • Members' attitudes and values about the program's themes
  • Speakers who follow you and their topics
  • Other keynote speakers (following or before you)
  • How many people are expected to attend
  • Demographics of the audience
  • Diversity level of the audience

Use this background information in the selection of your main points, stories, humor, questions, examples, illustrations, and vocabulary to connecting with the audience. To set the appropriate mood in your role as keynote speaker, you will want to let the audience know that you share their concerns, values and beliefs. Bond with them emotionally by letting them know you are sympathetic with their problems and the challenges they face. You can research this background information in numerous ways. Some of the best methods include:

  • Ask the event organizer
  • Arrange to receive pre-event publicity and the registration packet
  • Study the program brochure
  • Talk to several people who are representative of the planned audience
  • Find out the previous keynote speakers for this audience
  • Read the organization's current publications or web site
  • Search the net or a newspaper database on the organization and its recent activities

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