When does a keynote stop being a keynote?

It’s always interesting listening to keynote speakers deliver their wisdoms. The audience waiting with bated breath for the golden nuggets that will deliver them salvation. Ok that’s a bit romantic, but they’re certainly looking for deep insight from these peeps with big brains.

Until they realise that these big brains are no bigger than their own. What these keynote speakers have learned to do is focus incredibly well on a set of core messages that they become well known for, and whoosh they’re off.

Last week I heard two big brains talk at Learning Technologies Conference and was glad of the opportunity. The first was Brian Solis, who is well known for thoughts around digtal behaviour. The second was with Jim Kirkpatrick – oh yes, he of the famed four levels of evaluation of learning.

Some of the broad thoughts I was left with are around whether keynotes and big brain speakers have had their day at conferences? I was left feeling the same after the keynote from Goffee and Jones at last year’s CIPD Annual Conference. There were no insights I hadn’t come across via social media.

So what’s the worth of a keynote speaker?

I think we’re too used to the model of speak and behold. Conference organisers keep fast with the model because their delegates tell them this is what they want. No, they don’t.

People attending a conference want to be shaken up. They want their own big brains to be stirred and made to work. We are connected enough and smart enough to make our own judgements and derive our own insights. What we need is the right stimulus. At heart we’re still and will remain slaves to responding to the environment we’re in.

If we’re engaged actively by a speaker, not just by their words but their involvement, this is where things start to shift. Speakers need to realise they can and should be doing more than speak and deliver.

I know a good many folk who will do this. Who will step out of the confines of tradition and blaze a new trail.

What kind of thing am I talking about? Well let’s set aside for a moment that the speaker’s time is being paid for. What is it they’re there for? To deliver something of value. What is that value? It isn’t them.

The value is what they can provoke. The value is what they can invite. The value is what they can share. The value is the discussion that happens. The value is the clarity they can provide.

And you don’t get that by standing and delivering.

That’s where the value of a keynote lies.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

6 thoughts on “When does a keynote stop being a keynote?”

  1. Hi Sukh, really good read and message. My first keynote is at the end of March. Tell me what you’d like to experience if you were coming to see it… And resist the temptation to flip it back to me – really interested in what you’d like to experience.

    1. You’ve got things to say and that is excellent and why you’ve been chosen. I’ll want to hear some of what you have to say. Make me work for the nuggets though. A moments personal reflection, ask a question and invite responses via the backchannel, use the physical space well, tell stories I can repeat, simple dialogue between people listening. Nothing grand just lots of purposeful activity.

  2. Great post Sukh. And I agree. The ‘jazz hands’ aspect of a keynote is great and can energise / stimulate thinking but the conversation needs to continue to take that energy & bring it back to your own reality – what does that mean for me & the people I work with? What are others going to do with this?
    It starts to merge into training rather than purely talking / telling.
    So David, I think any chance you can get to let your audience discuss in groups and come back to you with questions / thoughts on what it means for them would be amazing.

  3. That’s why I organise barcamp events (when I can). The focus needs to be on provocation and conversation, not listening passively. The old ways of conference die hard. We know that the lecture format has serious limitations but it remains the default. Good keynotes, delivered well, make for great TV – hence the popularity of TED Talks. David, try to subvert it if you can! Get the presentation and resources online before the event and maybe get some discussion around that first. As Helen says, make it interactive if you can. Biggest problem of keynotes is chairs facing forward, not inwards, but that may be too difficult to change. I wrote this piece on the difference between conferences and unconferences a couple of years ago – http://ow.ly/tdnda

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