Standing on a stage and presenting to a crowd of thousands can intimidate even the C-suite leader. I’ve seen experts — who were brilliant in their fields and spearheading Fortune 500 companies — crumble behind a podium. A flop can be tough to watch, but more importantly, it can affect a leader’s credibility. But on the other hand, I’ve seen even the most guarded personalities become dynamic speakers.
So what’s the secret to delivering a wildly successful keynote?
A colleague recently put me on the spot with that question as we met over coffee. But as the CEO of a communications and public relations agency, I found that it’s actually not a secret at all: It’s preparation.
Here are five tips for preparing for a successful keynote:
1. Know your audience.
You wouldn’t show up to a dinner party without knowing the hosts, so you shouldn’t enter a keynote presentation without knowing who’s in the room. Beyond the basics, such as audience size and format, think about who’s there and why. What challenges might they be facing? What new information could change their perspective? How can you motivate them to take a step in a new direction?
Research the audience like you would data for your deck. Once you know who will be there and why, you can start building a speech that will resonate with them.
2. Define your top three messages.
Yes, just three. I believe if you have any more than that, you could risk losing your audience's attention. Think about what three things will change how they think about your area of expertise. What are your big ideas? Flesh them out.
Experts are asked to deliver keynotes because they’re just that — experts. There’s no question you know a lot about your subject matter. What unique points do you bring to the discussion? Capture the takeaways that the audience can only get from you.
3. Find your stats and stories.
Next, break down the color commentary around your top three messages. Engaged audiences want a balance of practical data and personalized stories. We’ve all been in presentations loaded with chart after chart, so we all likely know that a data dump is boring. And in the reverse, you’ve probably walked away from a presentation questioning how you could recapture the past 45 minutes.
Research and pull data to support your messages. Package the data into graphics or slides that can be easily understood. Use the flash test: If you only had 15 seconds for your slide, would your audience get the point? If not, simplify your message.
What anecdotes do you have to complement your data? Whether it’s your own story, from a book you’ve recently read or based on a historical figure, think about making connections between the subject and your audience’s ethos. Stories can add color and solidify points that charts and graphs rarely can. They can leave your audience hanging on your every word.
4. Gather your tools.
Depending on the audience (see tip No. 1), how you deliver a successful keynote presentation can vary. You can use slides for a visual cue of technical data or a moderated fireside chat to spark personal connection. Plan for energetic pacing with a wireless microphone, or request a barstool and microphone stand for a stationary spot. Hype the audience with a sizzle video, or fold in high-quality photography to give life to your stories. The tools really depend on the tone and takeaways you want to set.
Work with the venue and your communications team to get your tools in place ahead of time. Think of it as a carefully choreographed event. Every slide, file, visual and aid has the purpose to convey a powerful message.
5. Prepare your delivery.
Even the most experienced presenters need practice. With each new audience and venue, a strong keynote comes from repetition and expert timing. It’s not unlike acting; timing is everything. Think through the order of the content to be sure it tells a cohesive story. Plan key phrases that will stand out and stick with your audience. Work in a few lighter moments, and allow time for questions. I believe preparation and practice lock in most of your material and leave a margin for a bit of the unexpected — where many of the best keynotes find their magic.
Sharing your expertise on stage builds credibility for your company and your personal brand. Take these tips and step onto the stage ready to captivate the audience with a compelling keynote, one story at a time.
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