The truth about keynotes: is it THE slot to have?

11 04 2010

Good question.  We often have clients come to us and tell us that they only want a keynote when the speak at a conference.  Fair enough.  A keynote is traditionally the premier slot at any event and for the most part I would agree that this is an excellent slot to have as it sets you apart from competitors and the rest of the speaker list.  But this shouldn’t be used a benchmark for what value you get out of speaking at a conference, or whether you should bother speaking at an event or not.

There are few observations I’d like to share with regard to keynotes….

Audiences are expecting a lot more from conferences these days.  Long gone are the days when delegates were happy to pay full price just to be talked at – they want interactivity, they want to ask questions, they want networking.  In short, they want value for money.   In this respect, keynotes are not also the showpiece of every event and in fact if the conference organisers do a good job at putting them together, panel discussions are much more engaging and exciting for audiences.  A panel full of competitors for example or even representatives of different parts of the industry value chain can really get sparks flying and you often learn more from these sessions then you ever would from the one-way pulpit preaching that a keynote can sometimes be.

Secondly, some conference organisers can be a bit sneaky and many now call any old stand-alone slot a keynote in order to attract higher-level execs to speak at their event.  This can lead to speakers being misled as when most people think of a keynote, they imagine themselves being the first speaker or having a slot that is somehow exclusive.  There can often be disappointment when they arrive and find that they are one of 20 ‘keynote’ speakers throughout the day. Do your research and ask penetrating questions of the organiser about the format and structure of the sessions.

Finally, a keynote slot won’t hide poor presentation skills or a poorly prepared presentation and in fact, with the great expectation that a keynote brings from the audience, it can be detrimental to your communications goals and brand image.  If you are fortunate enough to have secured an opening keynote slot at a great event – PREPARE!  Treat the whole thing like a Broadway musical and practice, practice, practice.  Invest the time and effort in making the content great and the speaker the best he or she can be. It’s a show folks, the audience wants to learn but also be entertained. Many companies that we work with do this exceptionally well and even have a whole internal team dedicated to the task. As a result their presentations are outstanding and they are constantly asked back to present or asked to new events on the back of others.

So step back and have a think about what you want to get out of a conference (sales leads, networking, raise brand profile, etc).  Granted, you don’t want to be stuck in a back room session on the afternoon of the last day of the event, but if the people you want to meet or influence are at the event, chances are you can still be memorable, achieve your objective and gain value from paticipation, regardless of whether you have a keynote slot or not.

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One response

11 04 2010
Kelly Swanson

Great article. Very informative. I agree with all that you’ve said, and would like to add that the reason many of us professional speakers request keynotes, is that we have been a part of many conferences where keynote speakers are the only ones paid for their services. In many cases breakout session speakers waive their fee in return for promised exposure or the opportunity to pitch a product/service. Personally, I don’t really care what you call my slot (keynote, general session, lunch speaker, opening speaker, closing speaker, honored guest, breakout session presenter, facilitator, workshop presenter, trainer, or insert name here) – I care about delivering the right program for my customer, and getting paid for what I do, either in money or traded value. I don’t really care if I get the slot that “sounds” the best.

There is a difference in keynote type slots and breakout sessions – whole group together, versus twenty in a conference room – but we’ll save that conversation for another day.

I position/brand myself as a keynote speaker because my gifts fall more in the area of entertainment, humor, and putting together funny motivating one-woman shows – than intensive content-rich training with PowerPoint and handouts. I need my customers to see my website and think “she’d be great for a keynote” than “we need to have her come teach us about….”

Thanks again for the article.

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