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.

Emotional presentations

Today, I’ve been delivering a course on presentation skills. I’ve written before about why this is such a valuable skill to have. The complete range of skills that become important in a presentation are not simply limited to standing and delivering a presentation. Self-awareness, use of gestures, non-verbal communication, assertiveness, time management, influencing skills, perceptions of power – all of these things and more become so apparent and transparent. It’s no wonder they can cause great anxiety.

Some presentations though, are just so powerful, even the presenter underestimates what they’re about to embark on. These are often personal in nature, and have a deep meaning that the presenter hasn’t resolved how they feel about themselves. What ends up happening is the presenter, when delivering the presentation, finds themself caught up in unexpected emotion. This is no bad thing as it shows the audience the presenter clearly cares about the topic. What it can do though, is unhinge the presenter to an extent they can’t carry on.

I’ve seen examples of this at wedding speeches, eulogies at funerals, and when recounting personal experiences to illustrate a point in presentations. You can’t help being touched when this happens. As I’ve just said, it doesn’t detract from the presentation. It does create some uncertainty in the audience though about how to react. Do we applaud to encourage you to carry on? Do we stay silent to allow you to compose yourself? Does someone come up to you and get you a glass of water? There is no clear etiquette about this. And nor do I think should there be.

I would like to share what you can do to help yourself for these types of presentation. Unsurprisingly, practise is at the forefront of what needs to happen. The reason people get caught off guard by their own reaction to the topic, is because they’ve not actually stood up and said it out loud. Actually hearing yourself speak, and being mindful of your feelings is a powerful thing. When people say, oh I’ve written it down, I don’t need to practise it out loud, they only do themselves a disservice. And they potentially so themselves a knock in social confidence. Practising helps you to become self-aware of what you are experiencing, and how this impacts your presentation.

A clear structure is of vital importance in an emotional presentation. You stay within the parameters of what you have written and this helps to maintain your focus. Often, when people are overcome with emotion it is because they decide to ad lib, and they haven’t prepared for this. Ad libbing is all good, and creates a true sense of genuine feeling from the presenter, but this has to be tempered. Your emotions can overtake your rational self at such speed and unexpectedness that you are thrown off track. The structure of your presentation allows you to go off course if necessary, and if you find yourself being overcome, you come straight back to where you needed to be.

The hardest thing about being overcome with emotion is allowing it to happen. That almost sounds counter-intuitive. Why would you allow yourself to become emotional? Because, emotions have a funny habit of staying around until you have dealt with them. You may think, oh I just need a glass of water and I just need to man up. And once you carry on, you get swung by a left hook from your own emotions again. Because you dismissed them. Fool on you for not listening to yourself. Being mindful of what you’re feeling and allowing it to happen is a powerful feeling of awareness. Laughing at a joke because it is funny helps the audience warm to you. Equally, displaying sad emotion because you feel it, shows your connection to the material.

I think something which is not considered when delivering an emotional presentation is the way you deliver it. Are you allowed to show it is a rehearsed speech? Is the presentation meant to be so carefully delivered? Are you meant to reveal personal feelings? Yes, yes, yes. People can get hung up on, oh but it was so controlled, and they didn’t reveal their genuine self. Have you ever delivered an emotional presentation? Do you know it is a success in itself to be able to stand there and deliver it while containing yourself?

And here’s something which doesn’t happen often enough. You need to de-brief with someone after. A full and proper de-brief of how you experienced the presentation. Not the content of it, but your own management of what you are thinking and feeling. You’ve just stood and delivered something which deeply resonated with you. Our psyche demands we resolve this in some way. Coffee with a friend, crying on a shoulder, laughing at the world, whatever it may be, it needs to happen. You learn from this, and you grow from the experience.