What Makes a Great Keynote Speaker

Whether you aspire to be a keynote speaker or you are looking for one, you probably would love to know about the attributes or qualities of a great keynote speaker. You may be looking for the “Seven Things to Look for in a Keynote,” or “The Four Reasons that Keynote Speeches Matter,” or “The 10 Commandments of Good Keynote Speeches” or some such list. I can make it much simpler for you.

“If you want to be a better speaker…shut up.” Or, “if you’re looking for a great keynote speaker, find one who can shut up.”

The point is that a good keynote speaker knows how to listen. He listens to the needs of the client; she listens to attendees at the event and uses some of those insights in the presentation; he listens to life to use as illustrations and teaching tools in his speeches; she listens to body language of attendees and adapts to better stay in synch; he listens to the overall goals of the event or conference so that his speech serves well the overall goals while being the highlight/keynote; and, she listens to people’s comments afterwards, graciously accepting feedback with humility.  You get the point.

Before I began delivering keynote presentations, I began a newsletter that then became a book: Listen to Life:  Wisdom in Life’s Stories.  I thought I was simply sharing stories from real life that helped illustrate important lessons or wisdom.  Come to find out that it is these sorts of genuine, engaging, non-smarmy stories that connect people.  And keynote speeches are about connection if nothing else.  Connection to learn, to grow, to feel, to empower.

Carl Rogers , the famous American psychologist, wrote about “deeply spoken stories” in his book On Becoming a Person. His point was that when we share stories from a place inside where we think others will not understand, they actually will understand.  From that depth, we connect.  Keynoters must connect, whether through humor, inspiration, motivation…they must connect to enhance understanding.

Depth is important. Thomas Moore, a popular spiritual writer, states “As a therapist, I have listened to many stories and believe that if a person can find a deeper story to tell, one less familiar and worn, less useful in maintaining the status quo, then something might happen that we call change.”  Keynoters are hired to effect some sort of change, and stories are the answer.

And where do stories come from? By paying attention and listening, not by pulling “famous stories for speeches” from a reference book.

Want a better speaker? Find one who knows how to be quiet.  Want to be a better keynoter?  Shhhhh.


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