Posted: Jun 1, 2016

Finding a Conference Keynote Speaker Who Won’t Put You To Sleep

a conference keynote speaker getting laughsI snuck in the back of a ballroom to hear a conference keynote speaker yesterday and noticed that most of the people in the room were restless. Those who weren’t restless seemed to be focused on their smart phones, rather than the speaker.

I was at the conference getting ready to lead an interactive song session and even my client, who had hired the speaker, was complaining about the yawns in the room.

I asked my client why she’d hired this particular speaker. She told me that the speaker had expertise and that the speakers’s topic was relevant to the content of the conference.

My client learned the hard way that you shouldn’t hire a conference keynote speaker based solely on subject matter expertise. When you do that you’re rolling the dice. You may get a great performance and a compelling session or you may get a snooze fest.

The good news is, you don’t have to roll the dice. You deserve to get a subject matter expert who is also a great presenter. There are wonderful and entertaining speakers out there for almost any topic you’ll need. And with a plethora of video available these days, it’s so much easier than it used to be to check out potential conference keynotes. You can see any good speaker in action before you engage them to wow your own attendees.

Why Staying Awake Matters

A great speaker can make any topic interesting and a not so great speaker can make an interesting topic boring. I once heard a conference keynote speaker who’d climbed Mt. Everest make that seem boring. And climbing Everest is exciting stuff! Conversely, I was engaged and enlightened in a session led by someone speaking on the topic of online analytics. Who knew SEO could be so much fun!

My point is that the presentation, the delivery, is as important as the message being delivered. As a professional performer and keynote speaker, I actually believe that presentation is more important. Without a good presentation you won’t remember the message. If the part of your brain that engages and absorbs new information goes to sleep, you won’t get value from a speaking presentation.

Walking into a room full of alert and engaged people is electric. It’s motivational to be part of a crowd that’s fully awake and enjoying themselves. That energy begins to move from audience to speaker and back; creating memorable and successful sessions.

So make sure you’re not focusing solely on subject matter when you look for a presenter. This will help you avoid the pitfalls of hiring a boring or even disastrous conference keynote speaker.

How To Find A Great Conference Keynote

audience interactionFind a speaker who genuinely interacts with the audience, someone who is genuinely present.

I was at a conference in Dallas, Texas when the kick-off keynote speaker actually said this:

Good morning Orlando. So special to be with you all today. I’ll be selling books in the back after my presentation…”  

Did I mention we were in Dallas!?!

  • Look for a speaker who does this often – I’m an example of someone who had to practice and evolve to become a successful speaker. Although I’m a performer, a hit-songwriter and pianist by trade, I quickly learned that a speaking gig is different from a musical performance. It took me hours of practice and lots of speaking engagements to figure out the best pacing, to learn what resonates with an audience. I had to gain the comfort and confidence that comes with experience before I was able to consistently engage with an audience and change things up when needed. So if you want to increase your odds of success, find a speaker who speaks a lot!
  • Look For An Interactive Presentation – Look for a speaker who views the people in the room as participants rather than as an audience. Remember that session I mentioned above about online analytics? It was a fun session because the speaker got everyone involved and interested from the get-go. To begin the session, he went around the room and asked people to describe their understanding of analytics. As you can imagine there were lots of duhs…and uhs…and laughs. It highlighted how little most of us lay people know about the subject and piqued our interest in what we’d learn from the session. This initial back and forth shrinks the distance between speaker and audience, making even a large venue feel intimate.
  • Look for a speaker with a sense of humor – Laughter should be required at business conferences. We all love to laugh. Humor is engaging. A genuine laugh is the total opposite of boredom and disengagement. Look for a speaker who’s at ease and who might be naturally funny. That doesn’t mean you need a comedian. There’s a lot of laughter during all of my own speaking presentations but I’m not really a funny guy.  It’s just that as a subject matter expert and a good listener, I’m able to observe and comment in ways that strike people as funny. Additionally, I do have some set pieces. Like most speakers, I have some practiced lines that I know will get laughs. But I also know that every audience is different so I’m careful read the room and stay engaged myself. I won’t try to force a laugh and risk coming off as insincere.

Choosing The Topic Of Your Conference Keynote

I realize that when you’re searching for a conference keynote speaker your first thought may be to find a subject matter expert who can directly address elements of your agenda. But if you’re too literal about tying in your specific agenda goals you may miss the opportunity to motivate and inspire your attendees with something fresh or creative.

As an exercise in jump starting your search for a compelling speaker, try thinking out of the box by casting a really wide net. Ask colleges, friends and meeting planners about recommendations for memorable speakers without limiting your request to specific areas of expertise.

Since I’m an entertainer and not a corporate type, I’m definitely not your specific subject matter expert. But that doesn’t mean someone like me can’t be a success as your keynote. A few years back I was hired to speak at an aerospace company meeting. In years past my client had kicked off their conference with a former astronaut or another industry expert. However, this company was having trouble keeping their millennial workforce engaged in their conferences. They realized that the most impactful thing they could do would be to kick-off their meeting with something out of the box, something that would appeal to a workforce that demands activity and participation to stay engaged.

While I certainly wasn’t able to talk about technical matters related to this company’s work, I was able to provide content that motivated and excited everyone in the room. This was a disruptive presentation in that it was out of the box and allowed people to explore different ways of thinking. In this case, hiring a speaker who was an entertainer rather than a more narrow subject matter expert sent a signal that this wouldn’t be the same ole’ conference.

To a degree, you can have your cake and eat it too.

  • Many successful speakers, whether they’re musical performers, magicians, comedians etc., will take time to learn everything they can about you, your industry and your agenda. The best speakers can and will find metaphor and analogy within their presentation that ties even a seemingly unrelated presentation into your goals and agenda.
  • This subject matter tie-in may not be in the literal or informational in a way you’re used to. But the motivation attendees take away from a great session will set the stage for the learning and participation you seek for your conference. I’ve never had a client tell me they regret feeling energized, motivated and engaged.
  • Don’t think of an off topic keynote as a waste of agenda time. Rather, think of it as the necessary preparation to ensure success for the rest of your agenda. A compelling keynote that gets people truly engaged will be a catalyst for success to follow.

I’ve invited you to find a subject matter expert who is also a great speaker. And I’ve invited you to find a great speaker who may not be a subject matter expert. As you search for the best way to wake up your conference, keep an open mind to all possibilities.

Check out my speaking video – I promise I’ll keep you awake…

About Billy Kirsch

Billy is a Grammy & Emmy nominated, CMA & ACM award winning songwriter with numerous Top 10 hits to his credit. His team building programs and keynote speaking presentations help people tap into their creative abilities to become more innovative and engaged in their work. Clients include Fortune 100 companies and organizations throughout the world.

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