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On being a keynote

Photo: Paul Clarke
Photo: Paul Clarke

“Keynote” sounds grand doesn’t it? Like the key stone that keeps an arch in place, it sounds like something irreplaceable, the piece without which the rest of the edifice will crumble.

Most keynoters would like to believe we are that important. The truth is, we’re not.

The truth about any keynote address is that while it sets the tone for an event (the key note is literally the note the orchestra tunes to), it’s only one of many things that the audience will hear. So while it’s important, the conference won’t fall to pieces if it’s not perfect.

Even if they reluctantly accept that they are not the centrepiece of an event, however, any keynoter worthy of the name will want to do a good job. That means delivering the right talk for a particular event, for a particular audience.

Which is why, with 40 minutes to go before the start of Learning Pool Live South last week, I found myself starting on my second cup of coffee and re-writing my entire presentation.

You see, the evening before the conference I had been at another event with Marco Faccini, who had described very positively the previous Learning Pool live events he had attended. That gave me a sense of the enthusiasm of the audience, where they came from and what they were expecting. I was already reconsidering my talk on the way home that evening, and as I lay in bed that night.

And when I arrived at the venue, I realised that the presentation I had submitted to Learning Pool’s Lisa McGonigle two days’ previously wouldn’t do.

Learning Pool CEO Paul McElvaney chatted with me on the way in – charming, full of energy and with lots of insight into the company’s progress and how the previous events had gone. That confirmed me in my opinion. I had to find a table, plug my laptop in, and re-write.

“You should really be nervous,” said Patrick on the tech team, as he saw me apparently calmly tapping on my laptop keyboard. “You’re on in 20 minutes.”

“Oh I am nervous,” I replied. “And I’d be worried if I wasn’t. If you don’t feel anything before you talk, you shouldn’t step on stage.”

That’s certainly true. I have chaired more events than I can count. I have worked with over 800 conference speakers in my time. Experience shows that the only ones worse than those who say “It’s all right. I never get nervous” are the ones that say: “It’s okay, I don’t need to prepare. I’ll work out what to say when I’m in front of the audience.”

It’s always worth getting a presentation ready well in advance, even if you know you’re likely to re-write it. In fact, you should always hone it. Delivering the first version of a presentation to an audience means you’re effectively giving them a beta product. And nobody wants that.

So why did I finish my final draft 10 minutes before going on stage? Because I had made a fundamental mistake in my previous drafts: I had written something I wanted to say, not something that would suit the event and the audience.

The event was a beautifully staged event that brought together some 300 of Learning Pool’s clients from the south-east of England. The effortlessly smooth running was something that you wouldn’t notice, which is exactly as it should be, but which any conference organizer will tell you can only be achieved through relentless attention to detail and hard work. As a fellow professional I stood back in admiration.

The event needed something with a bit of spark, some illustrative anecdotes and a clear structure to set the tone for a day of conversation and sharing with key Learning Pool customers. (They call these ‘hero stories’. I love that approach.)

The audience had committed a day of their time to be there. In many cases they had travelled some distance to be there. They deserved to be informed, to be focused on a handful of important, big picture issues, and to be entertained a bit.

And my original talk did none of that. It had been all about the stuff that was in my mind when I wrote it. It was all about me, not about what the event and the audience required.

So I stepped up, delivered my talk and I believe it went down well. We had some meaningful discussion about some important issues, we laughed and chatted together and everyone went into the coffee break ready for the rest of the day. The re-write was worth it.

There is a coda.

I had ended by saying that this might be the end of my talk, but it was also, I hoped the beginning of a conversation. The next morning I received this message on LinkedIn. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed being with the Learning Pool team and the audience, this message alone would have made everything worthwhile:

Thanks for the connection, I’m reading all the material you have on [your blog]!

I’m making the transition from trainer to Training Manager. Looking for inspiration and guidance to formalise my skills and make the transition on a personal level and professionally to elevate my organisation beyond its wildest dreams!

I loved what you had to say yesterday, and the whole day left me invigorated hence me doing work tasks at 7am…

For someone who believes passionately in the need for the profession to develop itself, and that we need great training managers in the future, it was wonderful to know that I had encouraged one person on their personal development path.

It was also good to be reminded of really matters in any keynote: the audience.

5 thoughts on “On being a keynote

  1. Agree with Lucy! I’m far best suited away from the podium and it’s refreshing to read the value you placed on your audience. To change your presentation on the day is a brave move but it’s obvious that it was well received from the feedback. Hope this inspires other presenters to consider their audience. Thank you for sharing.

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