Ask the Experts: A Speechwriter's Guide to the Perfect Keynote

Attendees at your industry conferences and company meetings have high expectations for a keynote address. It’s more than just another presentation, it’s the cornerstone of the entire event. And, if it’s your CEO giving the keynote, the stakes are even higher. Your attendees look to the keynote to energize and inspire. But how do you ensure your speaker delivers on that expectation?

We spoke with three speech writing professionals to find out exactly what you and your speaker should know before getting up on stage.

  1. Know Your Audience

Before you write a single word of your keynote, you need to have a clear picture of exactly who will be sitting in the audience. Eddie Rice, professional speechwriter and president of Custom Speech Writing says that one of the biggest mistakes he sees CEOs make with keynotes is not knowing their audience, which makes it exceptionally challenging (if not impossible) to craft a keynote that will be meaningful. “If you’re talking to a group of CEOs versus a group of middle-level managers, your message is probably going to be pretty different,” says Rice. Tailoring your messaging to your tactical doers vs strategic leaders will make the all the difference in audience sentiment.

  1. Have a Clear Point

The next step is to find out what key question is on the minds of the majority of your audience. Rice recommends writing a single sentence summarizing one main point that answers that question, and then making sure that everything in the speech relates to that one point. “If it doesn’t go to this one point, then it’s extraneous and needs to be cut,” says Rice. “This helps you focus on one thing, and then if you can deliver that one point, you know you’ve been crystal clear with your audience.”

*Pro-Tip for Planners: Make sure you provide audience demographics for your keynote speaker. Offer a pre-event survey with registered attendees so your speaker can better plan their content. If you have an event theme, make sure you tell them!

  1. Share Personal Stories

No one wants to feel like they are back in college listening to a professor repeat facts. Or worse, feel like they are being lectured to. Topher Morrison, a professional speaker and the managing director of Key Person of Influence, says that people want to be entertained, not only informed, and recommends filling your presentation with lots of personal stories that illustrate your main point.“Stories are fun to listen to; statistics and information aren’t,” says Morrison. “If you have information you must share during your keynote, that’s fine, but find a way to put that information into an entertaining story that keeps the audience engaged.”

  1. Make Sure You Don’t Sound Like a Commercial

While personal stories really bring a keynote to life, it’s important to ensure that your keynote is not a thinly veiled advertisement for yourself or your company. Gail & Rice Vice President and Creative Director Bill Blatt, who has written speeches for automotive executives at Ford Motor Company, the Chrysler Group brands and Mercedes-Benz, recommends keeping stories of personal achievement and corporate success to a minimum. “Keynotes should convey thought leadership or a fresh perspective on a relevant issue. They should introduce new ideas. They should motivate or inspire,” says Blatt.

  1. Practice More Than You Think You Need To

If you are the person giving the keynote, you likely already have many presentations under your belt. Executives often assume that they don’t need to practice. But Rice says that when a keynote speaker has practiced to the point that they internalize the speech, there is an extra confidence that comes across to the audience that you can’t really quantify. “Steve Jobs was known for rehearsing every single second and minute of his presentation, even where the lights would appear at a certain brightness at a certain time during a presentation,” says Rice. “This level of preparation really takes your speech to a whole different level.”

  1. Do Something Unexpected

Everyone expects you to get up there and just talk about the industry. Blatt says that some of the greatest presenters find creative ways to “wake up” their audiences and amplify their messages. “Bill Gates once released a jar full of mosquitoes at a TED conference to make a point about malaria prevention. Motivational speaker and Conductor Ben Zander has been known to ask his audiences to sing. By giving audiences more to experience than your talking head, you can make a powerful, unforgettable impression on them,” says Blatt.

And that is exactly the goal of a keynote.