What Makes a Good Keynote Speaker?

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On May 15, 2019  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

It’s not easy being a keynote speaker. When you’re sold as the highlight of a business conference and your job is to set the tone for an entire event, there’s a lot of pressure to do well. And for that very reason, a keynote address needs to be memorable.

But the good news is, it need not be as daunting as it sounds. With the right preparation you can exceed expectations. In this blog post, we will discuss how to get a conference or business event off to an inspiring start. 

What is the role of a keynote speaker?

Keynote speakers are not just another guest speaker, they are the speaker. Their role is to drive home the conference’s main message or theme, and often the other guest speakers support this, delivering a message that links to the keynote’s ideas.

A good example of a keynote speaker is a celebrity at a university’s graduation ceremony. They use their unique perspective to prepare new graduates for life after education. For instance, Oprah Winfrey gave the keynote address at the 2018 commencement for the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and inspired the next generation of journalists. 

What is the purpose of a keynote speech?

A keynote speech can serve many different purposes. These can be classified into four broad purposes: 

  • Educate: An educational keynote speech or address is one where professionals regarded as the expert in a particular industry are invited to share their knowledge on a topic. Educational keynote speeches are common at industry conventions, seminars and workshops.
  • Motivate: When organisers of business conventions and conferences need the audience to be inspired, persuaded or excited about something they will typically use a motivational keynote address.
  • Inform: At many business events, the purpose of a keynote speech will be to inform or update the audience about a range of things – from financial results to a product launch to the findings of a new research study.
  • Entertain: Sometimes, the only purpose of a keynote speech is to engage and entertain the audience. This could be either to create a lively environment before a business event kicks off or to close a conference/convention on a light note.

As a keynote speaker it’s important to understand the event, and its other speakers, as a whole. The question to ask yourself is: What is the core message everyone is trying to deliver and how can I reinforce it? 

How to prepare for a keynote speech


Like any other business presentation, preparation is the key to a phenomenal keynote speech. Having determined the purpose of the presentation, you then need to get to know your audience. 

Know your audience

Use these questions as a starting point for your keynote speech preparation: 

  • What does my audience already know?
  • What knowledge do they need to gain?
  • What are they interested in?
  • Are there no-go ideas in terms of possible content themes?

Remember, if your audience thinks you could deliver the same speech at any conference event, or to any other company, they’ll tune out. So make your presentation original, and about your listeners.

The first three to five minutes of your speech should speak directly to your audience based on their interests, industry and experience level.

As you progress through the speech, use words and phrases they would identify with. Even simple things like knowing if they refer to Clients or Customers, Brands or Products, Industry or Sector will make a difference to your credibility. Do your research and find out what lingo is current in their industry and what acronyms or abbreviations are commonly used and accepted.

It is always a good idea to get to know your audience right before you’re on stage – go mingle, introduce yourself and familiarise yourself with the people you’re about to present to. If anything, it’ll give you friendly faces to look to as you speak, which will help calm any nerves. 

Get good at storytelling

 Preparing a keynote speech

Always avoid a sales pitch in the name of a keynote address. A keynote speech should inform and inspire, not sell. Being entertaining can be an important aspect of a speech. If you look at the most successful (and watched) TED talks, they make people laugh, they make people cry, they make people get up and do what they say. Seldom do they sell things. And those messages are the ones that stick.

An easy way to do this? Get good at storytelling.

Share stories about your life, or maybe that of others, that will resonate with your business audience and support the message you’re trying to deliver. You want to present a good balance of emotion and data. Your story needs to have a strong backbone – and good, hard data is hard to argue with.

For example, if your keynote at your company’s annual conference focuses on how taking time out of work hours to do something creative, or unrelated to your role, actually increases people’s productivity, show the stats that support this. 

Make the audience the hero

 Keynote speaker and audience

A big part of delivering a great keynote address is engaging your audience and building a relationship with them. Passive audience involvement is an effective way to draw listeners into the message and keep them engaged.

For the uninitiated, passive audience involvement is a technique where you don’t directly ask your audience to join the conversation (e.g. respond to a question) or participate in an activity (e.g. call people on stage).

Instead, passive audience involvement focuses on approaches like pre-empting questions, referring to members in the audience, getting the audience to imagine a situation or using rhetorical questions.

If it suits the style and setting of your keynote address, you can also use more participative involvement techniques like asking open questions to your audience or getting them to take part in an activity, such as a poll or a quiz. 

Visuals are key

 Projector presenting

Keynote speeches can often last for more than 15 minutes – so while a clever narrative, an inspiring message, captivating stories, clever audience involvement (even humour where appropriate) will keep people’s attention, you also need visuals to drive your message home.

A strong narrative requires both data and emotion. Visuals (think thought-provoking imagery, large font statements, simple yet powerful graphs) present your ideas in yet another way for your audience to understand.

Remember, people are diverse – some people’s brains resonate more with words, some with images and others with facts and figures. Also think about the energy and tempo that fits the theme and mood of the main event. 

Know your material

Last but not least, know your material backwards and forwards until you can speak it as if it’s a casual conversation between you and a friend. Practice makes perfect and looking confident and in control requires it, especially when you may have to answer questions before or after the speech. Your focus should remain on your audience at all times. 

Love your environment

Just as it’s important to know your audience, it pays to be familiar with your environment. Test out the on-stage equipment you’ll be using to avoid any awkward shuffling. Dynamic movements on stage are a simple way to take your presentation to the next level, so make it a point to familiarise yourself with the stage beforehand.

Often, the ‘strangeness’ of a new place can cause speakers to feel nervous before a big speech, so it’s equally important to be familiar with the room where you’ll be delivering the keynote speech. 

How to introduce a keynote speaker

How a keynote speaker is introduced can make or break their speech – even before the speaker walks on to the stage!

If you’ve been tasked with introducing a keynote speaker, it’s not a role to take lightly. It’s your job to get the audience excited, to have their interest piqued and to encourage them to sit up and think: “This speaker will be worth it”.

First port of call is to ask if the keynote speaker has an introduction they want to use.

Sometimes they want you to read it word-for-word. If this is the case, practice beforehand so you’re engaging the audience with the right tone and style, and not just reading off a piece of paper. 

Here are some tips to introduce your keynote speaker in style: 

  • It’s all in a name: It sounds so obvious but make sure you know how to pronounce the speaker’s full name before you get on stage (first impressions are everything!). Say it out loud several times because what may appear easy to say on paper may not be the case when it’s coming out of your mouth!
  • Titles don’t mean much: Whilst it may be useful to state the speaker’s title it’s far more powerful to explain to the audience what their role is or what they’re responsible for. For instance, it would be way more powerful to say “Renee has funded three of the UK’s top-ten Artificial Intelligence startups in 2018,” instead of simply, “Renee is the MD of XYZ Venture Capitalist firm.”
  • Add a personal touch: If you’ve heard them speak before, say when and where, and how it changed your perspective. Or perhaps there is an amusing anecdote that you can share. Sometimes a speaker has an unusual qualification or hobby that you can mention. These insights will all help endear the speaker to the audience and get things off to a positive start.
  • Crowd control: It may be that you will also need to inform the audience of how the session will go. Will there be questions afterwards? Will they be spoken through a microphone, written down and collected or do you need to visit a website/download an app to submit them?
  • Hand over the floor confidently: After you’ve given a short and powerful introduction to your keynote speaker, make sure you wait until the keynote speaker has walked on to the stage before confidently shaking hands with them. Wait until they’ve thanked you so you don’t start walking off the stage while they’re mid-sentence!

If you’ve been chosen as a keynote speaker,confidence is key to owning the stage and delivering an inspiring, memorable message with confidence, flare and conviction.

Want to learn more about delivering an outstanding keynote address that builds your reputation? Get in touch with secondnature and we can help you get started!

Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

Read Bio

Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

A total commitment to quality, service, your people and you.