Working Smarter

Looking for a Keynote Speaker? What You Need to Know

Posted by Joe Robinson


YOUR ASSIGNMENT, should you decide to accept it, is to book a great keynote speaker for your meeting, off-site, or conference. It is not a mission impossible, but it can be if the speaker and the event are not in sync or the presentation doesn't engage your audience. 

I remember a travel conference where I did a keynote address. I always like to hear other speakers and see what they’re up to, so I sat in on another presentation. The speaker was a national figure, known for being, of all things, a con artist. I wonder if the organizers considered how that theme could be taken the wrong way for the products they were promoting.


The speaker had achieved a kind of fame by pretending he was an airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer, and swindling people out of tens of thousands of dollars. What was this guy doing here? Maybe the pilot angle was the connection to the conference?

He went through his life story of scheming in an expressionless, rapid-fire monotone that let us all know he had done this many, many times before. Heads defaulted to smartphones.

The topic seemed so off-point from the focus of the program, which was to promote travel to a particular southern state. It was truly a mission impossible to tie the speaker’s address and the travel business together, which in a way was a good thing for organizers, considering what his topic was.


It’s worth defining: What is a keynote speaker, anyway? Is it just someone with a wacky biography? Or is a keynote about spotlighting the purpose of the conference or industry, connecting with the audience in a personal way, compelling storytelling, engaging the crowd in interaction, and giving them useful knowledge that can improve their lives, fire them up, and entertain them?

The keynote speaker delivers a featured speech at an event, usually about an hour, often opening or closing an event. The goal is to engage, entertain, and motivate the audience and leave them feeling great about the event. There are few times in the week when we can be inspired or get advice that makes life more satisfying or meaningful. The keynote address can be a moment that allows people to focus on things that go missing in the rush of the week. It’s an undistracted, undiluted entertainment experience that is a powerful opportunity to persuade, rally, and inspire.

A keynoter should have deep knowledge of the topic at hand. Planners should always look for a subject matter expert who can present with gusto. This lends your event credibility and translates into higher attendance and better reviews. Look for speakers who are also established authors and who have been vetted by the media. Keynoters who have strong media presence across print and broadcast have been preselected for their expertise and audience skills.

In my own work as a keynote speaker I have found that audiences learn a lot more and have a much better time when there are opportunities for engagement. Participation is one of the keys to a gratified life, the route to our core needs, and I see it on display whenever I am doing a keynote. When people have a chance for strategically placed activities and involvement, the program connects personally and participants feel a part of the event, instead of mere spectators. And they have fun, which gets word-of-mouth going for the next conference or off-site.


As an old newspaper editor of mine once said, you have to show, not just tell. Activities help do that. For instance, when I’m talking about how multitasking is a myth and that we can’t do two cognitive tasks simultaneously, I move to the “show” portion, with an exercise given to me by one of the top multitasking researchers, David Meyer at the University of Michigan.

I have everyone count out loud as fast as they can from 1 to 10. Then I have them do the same with letters A through J. They have no problem with single-tasking. Then I ask them to put them together, 1A. 2B, 3C, 4D as fast as they can. It all falls apart by 4, and the lesson is learned. We can’t do more than one cognitive task at a time, since there is only one neural channel for information to flow through.

Showing, not just telling, leads to a connection with the audience and a good time had by all—making the event planner the most popular person in the room.

If you would like to learn more about my keynote programs, from work-life balance, to motivation and happiness, visit the keynote page or click the button below.

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Tags: Joe Robinson, keynote address

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