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The art of a keynote speaker


We've all been there. We've agreed to go to a conference, we've arrived in the morning for the opening presentations, the lights go down, the music goes up, and we are waiting with bated breath for the person to kick it all off and then...the presentation feels off. It all goes flat. The rest of the conference feels like a let-down, and it is all from that opening keynote.

One of the most important things for any conference and event, which can make or break it, (Other than food) is the quality of the keynote speaker. We have attended a number of conferences over the years and have seen everything from screaming 'futurologists' destroying TV's with a sledge hammer, through to directors of analytics mumbling through their 10 minutes on stage whilst delivering death by PowerPoint.

Normally within the first few moments of the presentation you know if it is going to be good or bad, regardless of the subjects that they are talking about for their audience, and all of the good ones have the same traits, regardless of style. These can be distilled down into a few key areas;


Know your audience

'Know your audience' is a cliché, but hugely important. I have seen keynotes go south for the majority of the audience because the presenter’s expectations of who the audience was and how they would react was wrong. For example, I remember a keynote at a conference in the Paddington Hilton, where the presenter walked on stage expecting whooping and a hollering, high-five's all round, USA style. He went on to put a huge amount of effort into trying to foster that reaction, which didn't really play well with us 'reserved Brits', and the keynote pretty much flat from that point on.

We have also seen it go the other way, with an expert in the field deliver such a dry presentation to journalists that snoring could be heard from the back of the room!

Knowing your audience is all about understanding the tone of presentation needed, how in depth you are likely to need to be, and how much 'energy' you are likely to get back from the room. For me, it is easily achieved when by looking at the types of attendees to the event, look at what follows and precedes in the days agenda (Try and sneak a peek at the others if you can!) and planning accordingly.


Know your subject

One of my favourite quotes is Einstein's 'If you can’t explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough'. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in keynote speeches. Quite often, you have been asked to present as you are either an expert in your field, or have done something that no one else in the audience has likely done. Getting these ideas and thoughts across in a way that most of the audience will be able to understand and take something from is key to be a great keynote speaker


Be yourself

Some people say you have to be charming. Some people will say you have to be informative. Some people will say you have to be funny. None of these things are true. Good keynote speakers are themselves. They present as the people they are, so come across honest, and that helps build a rapport with the audience. 


Be prepared

One of my other favourite quotes is from the Martian, and its 'At some point, everything is going to go south on you'. Now, obviously, space travel has a slightly larger impact on you when things go pear-shaped, but keynotes and presentations often go wrong. From slides or teleprompters dying, through to rats running across the auditorium floor in front of you mid-presentation (that freaked the HELL out of me), something will distract, break your flow, or generally try to ruin your key note. It is important you have prepared and know what you are about to say intimately. At a minimum, it'll prevent you stumbling through your words, but it can help you look like a pro when all else around you is turning to .... well... you get the idea.


Pilots go through a highly detailed checklist before each flight. It doesn’t matter if it is their first flight or their thousandth. A keynote speaker should have the same habit, creating a checklist and being prepared for any contingency before they step onto the stage. And of course it goes without saying that practice really does make perfect. So if you are going to be a keynote speaker at an Analytics event and you’d like to run through your talk beforehand with an independent audience (or if you simply want to brainstorm a few ideas when preparing), please do get in touch with us at Station10.