What Is A Keynote Speech?

 Learn the best techniques for making your next keynote speech a success 

Lisa B. Marshall
5-minute read
Episode #136

I received a question from a reader recently, and I'd like to share it with you, especially as it’s a common question:

“I was asked to give a keynote next year and am wondering if you've written any tips about that kind of presentation. This will be my first keynote (yeah!) but I'm only used to giving instructional presentations.”

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First of all, congratulations! It’s really fun to deliver a keynote speech and the best part is that keynote speakers usually earn more money. However, in my experience, I've found that many people, both inside and outside of the industry, use the terms “speech,” “workshop,” “seminar,” and “keynote” interchangeably. So even though you were asked to deliver a keynote, that may not be what the organization really wants or needs. (Just this morning I received an email request for a “keynote speaking opportunity,” however, after closer reading of the request, it seems what they really want is an educational speech.)

Know Your Client’s Mission

Unfortunately, many people don't realize there’s a difference between each type of presentation. That’s why I always include a definition section in my proposals so that I communicate my understanding of the various types of addresses available to the organization. 

And that brings me to my first tip: The speaker, the meeting planner, and the host contact should explicitly discuss and agree on the purpose of paid presentation. 

I always ask it in this way, "If your team could somehow magically change overnight, what is it that you’d want them to know, say, or do differently?” 

Know Your Primary Purpose

If the answer is something along the lines of, “I’d like them to know how to X, Y, and Z,” then I know it’s an instructional speech.  If they say, “I’d like the team to be inspired or persuaded to X, Y, Z,” then I know it’s a motivational speech.  If they said, “The main purpose is for the attendees to be laughing and enjoying themselves,” then I know it’s an entertaining speech. Of course, presentations can (and should be) instructional, motivational, and entertaining all at the same time, but all speeches have a primary purpose.  It’s important to be sure that you’re creating and delivering a speech that meets the intended primary purpose—regardless of what label has been used to describe the speech. 

What exactly is a Keynote Speech? 

For the record, a true keynote speech is a motivational speech. I like to think of it as similar to the key note for a cappella singing – its sets the overall tone and context for the event. (Oh, and if a keynote address is delivered in the middle or at the end of the event, then it either continues the conversation or wraps-up the event).  

Of course, all presentations require the speaker to focus on the audience, but a successful keynote requires an even bigger emphasis. In order to motivate change—the speaker must first genuinely connect with the attendees. Without a solid connection, it is impossible to inspire attendees to take action. 

And just like in any situation, solid connections are made by sharing and expressing common ground. The problem is speeches are mostly one-way conversations.  So the speaker must get to know the audience ahead of time in order to incorporate appropriate connecting references into the speech. 


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.