Guide on the Side – Keys to a Keynote

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

Many professionals such as yourself enjoy sharing their expertise with audiences. Speaking can be a gratifying adjunct to your vocation and organizations provide ample opportunities to do it. As your reputation grows, you may be asked to deliver a keynote address.

Unless you have been actively seeking a keynote opportunity, the first keynote invitation may come as an overwhelming surprise. Professional speakers addressing large assemblies, such as Comdex, flash through your mind. You ask yourself “Am I in that league? “No” you are not a professional speaker but “yes” at the local level with smaller organizations you have appropriate experience and skills. You are perceived ready for a keynote speech otherwise you would not have been invited. When a keynote invitation comes, accept the ordainment gracefully and begin mastering two keys:

Key 1 – Understand how a keynote address differs from other types of speeches

Key 2 – Learn to profile the audience, occasion and sponsoring organization.

What makes a keynote speech different than other types of presentations?

It is an inspirational speech designed to unify the audience

It sets the mood and tone for an entire event, program or conference

It is an affirmation of the organization and its purposes

It highlights a group’s primary interests

It links your passions to those of the assembly

Keynote addresses are a major program responsibility but you have the basic skills and experience from other speaking experiences. You know how to:


Deal with the performance “adrenaline rush”

Organize your content

Connect with an audience

Use humor

Tell stories

Use vocal and body language to convey meaning along with words

Deal with the unexpected

Asses whether or not to use presentation technology

How do you profile the audience, occasion and sponsoring organization?

All speeches require that you know something about your audience but the keynoter requires in-depth knowledge. It is not enough to know they are all “techies.” You need to find out about the program to follow and why these topics are of interest to the audience and organization. If you are a member of the sponsoring organization, this information may be already known to you but make sure what you know is current and complete. More often keynote speakers are invited because they do not belong to the sponsoring organization and have expertise in a related or new field. Some of the things to find out:

Purpose of the organization sponsoring the event

Nature of this particular gathering (inaugural, annual, joint meeting)

Theme of the event

Challenges facing the organization

Knowledge level of the audience on your topic

General point of view on your topic (novice, sophisticated, doubtful, cynical)

Primary issues and concerns

How members plan to use your information

Members’ attitudes and values about the program’s themes

Speakers who follow you and their topics

Other keynote speakers (following or before you)

How many people are expected to attend

Demographics of the audience (age, gender, geography, occupation, education)

Diversity level of the audience (experience, career level, outlook, cultural origins)

Glean this background information in several ways:

Ask the person who invites you

Arrange to receive pre-event publicity and the registration packet

Study the program brochure

Talk to several people who are representative of the planned audience

Find out the previous keynote speakers for this audience

Read the organization’s current publications or web site

Search the net or a newspaper database on the organization and its recent activities

As the final touch, meet and greet people as they arrive

Use this background information in the selection of your main points, stories, humor, questions, examples, illustrations, and vocabulary to connecting with the audience. To set the appropriate mood in your role as keynote speaker, you will want to let the audience know that you share their concerns, values and beliefs. Bond with them emotionally by letting them know you are sympathetic with their problems and the challenges they face.

Tips to keep the keys polished

  • Select a topic and use metaphors that carry out the program’s theme.
  • Keynote speeches are usually 25 or 30 minutes. Know, rehearse and stick to your time limits. Arrange for an inconspicuous method of tracking time during your presentation.
  • Write out your introduction and give it to the person introducing you. This insures that the introduction relates to your subject and gives you an opportunity to say things about yourself that are easier said by another person. Rapport can begin with your introduction.
  • Your speech must move quickly and be enthusiastic. Begin and end with a zing. Tie in your ending with your opening.
  • Use collective terms such as “we” “our” or “us” in phrases like “as we all know…” “our experience has been…” of “this happens to all of us…”
  • When you talk about an abstract idea, illustrate it with specific, concrete examples. This can take many forms: personal experience, facts, statistics, anecdotes, or testimonials. Although a keynoter is primarily an inspirational speech you can weave in some practical tips.
  • There are a number of ways to organize your thoughts on and select a cutting edge subject. Many keynote speakers focus on the future and the topic is cutting edge. Typically they:

    Describe a common problem and offer a solution

    Contrast a before and after model

    Highlight the difference in outlooks between various professions on the topic

    Compare the past and present, and speculate about the future

  • Throughout your speech, talk in terms of your audiences interests and values. Define any terms the audience is not likely to know. Although most keynoters do not use overheads or presentation technology, they almost all create vivid word pictures and build lively mental scenarios. If you feel the need to use slides to make a point or illustrate something unique, keep the slides to a minimum and keep them visual in content. Words from your mouth will be far more powerful than any you project on a screen.
  • An example of effective use slides would be to show a cartoon illustrating where we all want to be (a resort beach) followed by another illustrating where we are (at sea in the perfect storm). Visual humor or dramatic charts and graphs convey a lot of meaning. If the future is with wearable computing powered by solar energy, you might want to show what the garments look like because chances are no matter how well and long you describe them, no one will get the picture without seeing examples. A final word of caution, when you elect to use electronic visuals, be prepared to carry on if there is equipment failure. If you don’t see yourself as being able to switch gears midstream, avoid technology.
  • Take notes with you to the podium if you feel you need a security blanket but keep them to a simple one page outline. Know your opening and closing cold so you can deliver them without reference to notes. When your notes are in the form of text, if you need to refer to them, you will have difficulty finding your place and worse yet switch from spoken to the written language. (Guide#47)
  • A strategy to obtain an invitation for a keynoter is to start designing speeches that are researched, constructed and delivered like keynoters. Make the primary objective inspirational rather than informational. Program planners will note that you sound like a keynote speaker and think accordingly.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills