The Keynote: One Pathway

While we have been involved in hundreds of keynote addresses over the years, I thought it was time to document the pathway of one from start to finish.  Each is different of course based on the speaker, event and audience.  We adapt for each and in this case, we’re working with the founder of a company who has been invited to give the keynote at an annual Chamber of Commerce Meeting.


We started planning yesterday by a reviewing previous talks she’d given to some smaller groups to build upon content with which she was comfortable. It was primarily a listening exercise to understand ‘her story’ and elements we can pull, twist and bend as we fashion a talk specifically for this event.

Then came the question that usually gets a pregnant pause response:  “What question are you answering that’s on the audience’s mind?” ( I don’t insist on answering the question, I just want to define what it is.)

For an event like an annual meeting, that’s difficult. Very difficult. People come to hear updates on the state of the chamber (obligatory), to see and be seen (everyone’s a player), to generally support the chamber and the community (be a good servants). Do they come to hear the keynote? Well, they may not come if there wasn’t a keynote — but the million dollar question for a speaker preparing a talk: will the audience really listen?  Do we really care?

For this event, it will be a morning breakfast. There will be combative fights for coffee, the eggs will be augmented by something sugary, and everyone will begin checking their blackberries about 20 minutes after they’ve taken a seat. Yep, we’ve all been there.

Motivations of attendees will range from networking to gossiping to gripping and grinning. Some will be interested in who is sitting across from them at that imposing white-linen tableclothed round table but….shoot, no time to scream across the bacon and OJ, the program is starting. Time to be quiet. At least with our mouths and ringers (never said anything about shutting down our brains).

So as a speaker, while it seems like a sedate, boring, professional crowd, in fact, there’s a melee going on. It will be her job to break through the clutter and tell a few stories that will wrap up a high-value idea with a take-away that will taste better than the week-old Chinese in my fridge.

We began by building with a hierarchy of messages that we spent 2 hours brainstorming.  We asked “so what” about a dozen times and struggled, unexpectedly, to dig for the most resonating truth (’cause of course we don’t lie!). Next, I’ll help her to organize the ideas and then build an outline (but don’t mess those steps with each other).

We will proceed on the following assumption that the questions the audience wants answered are

A) Who are you and why are you worthy to be talking to me this early morning.

B) What will you tell me that makes me want to like and believe you?

C) What can you tell me that I can take away and apply, repeat or learn from?

D) When can I leave and get back to the mess happening at work?

Now, mind you, these are different questions than what’s on the organizer’s mind- which are :

A) How can you make sure our members feel they got value for buying a table today?

B) How can you tie your message with our latest campaign message for economic development? and

C) Can you make sure you don’t run long, we have a lot of other speakers and we have to clear this room by 9am!

After we establish the content structure and outline, we’re going to experiment with a different preparation pathway: no writing it out.  She’ll take the outline and talk it out into her “voice memos” app and then transcribe, re-outline and take another stab at giving the talk. That’s right. Not write the talk but give the talk.

Why not initially write it out?

After working with several keynote events last year, I realized that many folks should not write out their talks – ever.

That doesn’t mean you can’t transcribe the talk you’ve practiced and see how it’s flowing and use it as a guide. But the reality is, the process of writing words on a computer and thinking through words you are going to speak are very different.  If you have a speechwriter working with you, that’s obviously a relationship you’ve built over the years of someone who knows your style and preference. But if you are starting this on your own, know that there are different pathways you can take.  The point is that for someone who struggles to write, why bother?  I like to walk around (the brain is more active when your body is moving) and talk through it.  Sitting at a glowing screen being distracted by email, facebook posts, phone calls and text messages doesn’t cut it for me.

(Flashback: We helped one speaker last year who showed up to rehearsal seemingly prepared to give her 15 minute talk  the next day. She got up on stage for the big event but was a mess. Her story line was confused, she had way to many ‘ums’ and the audience got lost. When I asked her later what happened since she said she was recording and listening back to her talk, she admitted, “I never put down the paper.” Meaning, she kept reading her talk into her recordings. But the event itself (in a TED style) didn’t allow for notes or a script. Bottom line:  She never got the talk off the paper and into her head.)

The keynote we are building will max out at 15 minutes. We may plan for it to end at 12 minutes and give people more time to chug coffee before they head into work (and be grateful it didn’t run long). Regardless, the process begins now, a month in advance. That’s a blessing that we aren’t starting a week out. The curse? Cracking the code of what will answer their questions, keep them awake and also cheering, long after the linens have been washed.

Check back to see how it goes.