What is a keynote speaker?

The role of a keynote speaker is literally to set the “key note” for the conference or event. They are responsible for the establishing the basic tone and tenor of the gathering that resonates through the event.

The role of other speakers is to add overtones and themes that are complementary to those of the keynote, together making the content and messages of the conference a harmonious whole.

Making the keynote a perfect match

As the role of the keynote speaker is to set the tone for the event, they always need to have a thorough briefing on every aspect of the event, including understanding the full context of the conference hosts, the event objectives, any history if it is a regular event, the theme that has been set for the event, audience demographics, the other speakers and topics they are covering, and the specific outcomes the organizer would like from the keynote.

Very occasionally an existing speech by the keynote speaker will be a perfect match for the event, but in almost all cases the keynote speaker will adapt their content and the delivery to ensure they hit the mark. Since they are usually opening the conference, their performance will likely shape the success of the entire event, so they should design their keynote specifically to achieve that.

Attendees will warm up during the course of a conference, but the keynote speaker gets them ‘cold’ and needs to engage them from a standing start, usually first thing in the morning. This requires a compelling presentation style, a light and often humorous tone at times, and most importantly a deep knowledge of the audience. This will be reflected in how the keynote speaker modifies their presentation style, but also demonstrating to the audience that the keynote speaker truly understands them and their issues, and they are not just getting the same canned presentation as every other audience. Where possible find keynote speakers who have a solid understanding of your industry, or are prepared to put in the research to make their keynotes highly relevant.

Different roles

A multi-day conference will usually have keynote speakers on each day, which encourages attendees to get to the event on time. In this case the keynote speaker is responsible not just for fitting with the overall theme of the conference, but also the topic and ideas that will be covered on that day.

A keynote speaker is not necessarily a ‘motivational’ or ‘inspirational’ speaker. Motivational speakers often tell engaging stories of overcoming adversity, which if done well can get a strong audience response, but they don’t usually set a specific tone or theme for the event. Keynotes should almost always be inspiring and give audiences a sense of possibility, however they should also be grounded in the specific context of the event and its participants.

The role of a closing keynote speaker is often to make sure people stay to the end rather than leave early, so the speaker and their topic must be compelling to the audience. They are also responsible for setting a “key note” for the event, in the same way as the opening keynote speaker, however as a closing keynote speaker they need to set the tone for how people remember the event and how they take the messages back to their everyday lives. As such the messages of the closing keynote speaker need to be inspiring and optimistic. A highly positive view of the future of the industry or community represented at the conference is often an excellent way to close the event.

Attracting and engaging audiences

Another critical role for any keynote speaker is to attract attendees and make people feel they cannot miss the event: they should be a strong drawcard. Sometimes the name value of the keynote speaker is sufficient, though in that case their fees are usually commensurately high, and they may simply give a canned speech. In other cases the value and relevance of the topic addressed by the keynote speaker, supported by their credibility, makes people compelled to attend.

Event organizers will prefer keynote speakers who are active and visible on social media channels, as they can not only help promote the event beforehand, but also increase audience engagement during the event through their social media activity. Usually social media activity is not specifically included in a keynote speaker’s fee, however good keynote speakers will be willing to engage in some social media activity within their standard fee, as well as record short videos to help promote the event. Our keynote speaker influence rankings page helps to identify those keynote speakers whose web and social media activity has the most impact.

Making the right choice

The note that the keynote speaker strikes in their opening (or closing) address should resonate not just through the conference, but far beyond. At their best, the keynote speaker can modify how people think, and give them inspiration and a sense of possibility that lasts long after the event finishes.

Please also look at our resources on how to choose a keynote speaker and how to work with a keynote speaker, as well as an overview of my own global work as an inspirational keynote speaker.

I wish you all the best for your event and in finding the right keynote speaker!