What I Expect from a Keynote Speaker

After the long car ride home from an event, during which I spent a lot of time processing the impact of a particularly divisive and controversial keynote speech, I stumbled in the door, dropped my purse, and sat down at the computer to write about it. Literally, I didn’t even go to the bathroom first – I was so desperate to get the swirling, nagging thoughts out of my head. It felt really good to get it out, and the community responses were really helpful at alleviating some of the distress I was feeling about the whole situation.

It occurred to me, though, that I have never heard a discussion about what a keynote speech should be like. I have served on numerous committees for a variety of events and conferences, both professional and community-based. I have attended tons of conferences, and I have been a guest speaker at those events and conferences a number of times. In my experiences as a committee planner, the keynote speaker is typically chosen by a consensus of some sort and given little, if any, information about what might be requested of them.

It occurs to me that this lack of specificity about what qualities make an effective speaker, or what the group’s expectations are about the speech itself, does a huge disservice to the planners and attendees of any given conference.  So, I spent some time today thinking about what I, as an audience member, hope to get from a keynote speaker. I also thought about what components I try to attend to when I am a speaker, and I considered what issues a planning committee might want to be sensitive to. What follows is my idea of what makes an effective keynote speaker. They are in no particular order – just some food for thought:

  • I appreciate a keynote speaker that has unique experiences, training, knowledge, or ideas that are worth sharing on a large scale.
  • I think a keynote speaker should know the population(s) who will be attending and be sure to speak fairly and directly to everyone.
  • I believe a keynote speaker should not avoid controversy. A good speaker will tackle difficult issues head-on and will not sugarcoat or minimize potentially inflammatory ideas.
  • I appreciate when keynote speakers are cautious to balance challenging or difficult ideas with positive and hopeful messages.
  • I like keynote speakers who provide a comprehensive, well-rounded explanation about the topic (unless it’s a more personal approach). I like when speakers provide multiple viewpoints and address the complexity that surrounds any given issue. I like it when speakers don’t assume that the audience has prior knowledge, but provide a fair and balanced explanation of the topic.
  • I appreciate a speaker who is careful to choose appropriate, non-judgemental, inclusive terminology. If I hear a speaker using terminology that excludes, denigrates, or ignores certain populations, I am immediately turned off to the message. Some may call it “PC,” I call it awareness and respect.
  • It is nice when a speaker recognizes that her or his own experiences are different from everyone else’s. I think it’s important that they avoid making generalizations or assumptions based on their personal experiences. While personal examples and experiences are highly effective tools when speaking, I think a speaker should acknowledge the limitations of a singular experience and address alternative experiences.
  • I like speakers who demonstrate personal insight – being aware of and acknowledging personal challenges, biases, and privileges. I like speakers who are open and honest about their own personal experiences and the impact of those experiences.
  • I appreciate a speaker who demonstrates social insight. I like when the speaker will attempt to objectively assess the topic from a broader stance and provide listeners with a sense of the wider social impact. I think it’s important to attend to the impact of social systems and, ideally, provide some insight into the community to which they are speaking.
  • I appreciate a speaker who will give concrete ways to move forward, whether that means providing a mechanism for continued dialogue, explaining specific actions that may be taken, or by encouraging listeners to find ways to bring the message into their own lives.
  • I appreciate it when a speaker will back up factual information with evidence. When citing statistics or making claims about certain populations in a factual manner, I think the speaker should be prepared to support those claims.
  • I appreciate when a speaker makes clear when the information presented is based on opinion, observation, or anecdotal evidence.
  • I like a speaker who will make me think, will provide new insight, and will leave me with more knowledge than I had before the speech.
  • I think a keynote speaker should leave me feeling inspired and motivated. I want to leave with a greater sense of connection with the community as well as a desire to seek more connection.

It may seem like a tall order, but isn’t that the point of a keynote speech?

I welcome other ideas and comments.

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