Three Steps to Creating Your Killer Keynote


When I first started speaking, my biggest challenge was writing a keynote that got consistently booked. I knew I had something to say, but I didn’t know how to coax it out. I was looking for a magic formula.

Over these past 20 years that I have been keynoting, I realize there is no single magic formula but a few essential steps to creating and delivering a killer keynote: Prepare, Practice, Present.

Step 1: Prepare

  • Create Your Outline. Get all your thoughts and ideas out of your head and onto paper. It may sound old school, but if you want to give a great speech, you need to write a great speech. Make an outline, edit, review, and edit some more.
  • Find the Hook. Once you decide on the subject, dig deep to uncover your unique perspective. What makes it valuable? What are you helping your audience achieve? What problem are you helping the audience solve that will make their life better?
  • Give Your Keynote a Title. Create a title that sizzles and sells, but don’t make it cutesy. Make your title easy enough to understand. Remember, you are appealing to two different buyers: the meeting professional looking for a presentation that meets the topic requirements and the audience who wants it to be engaging and relevant to their needs.
  • Make a Promise to Your Audience. In the opening of your keynote, tell the audience what you will share answers their question: “What’s In It For Me?” You might say something like, “At the end of today’s opening session, you will leave with three proven strategies to closing the sale.” Another might be, “Today, you will learn the formula to create a change in your life.”
  • Write Bit by Bit. Think of your presentation as a series of smaller pieces—like the “bits” of stand-up comedians. As you build your talk, work in these bits of content, which might include ideas, facts, statistics, stories, strategies, video, or interactive activities to engage your audience. The greatest thing about creating your bits is that they can and should be repurposed and used in another keynote.
  • Craft the Message and Stick To It. As you organize your bits, keep to a specific, consistent message that drives your speech’s tone. What do you really want to say? Figure it out upfront. And then only weave in bits that directly align with your intended message. Stay on point!
  • Add Your Stories. The best way to engage your audience is through stories. Studies show that people don’t remember facts and statistics, but they do remember a story. Tell stories about your customers, your youth, or your neighbor’s dog. Tell stories that relate and magnify your content and support your message. When you tell a story, you lose yourself in the storytelling. You are not making a speech; you are in a conversation with your audience.
  • Start strong, end stronger. From the beginning, you must engage, impress, earn likeability, and create curiosity. In the first two minutes, the audience will either think, “Yes, I want to listen!” or “Where’s my phone?” Similarly, what they hear at the end is what they’ll remember. Wrap it up with a thought-provoking closing that is positive and inspiring. Send audiences off happy and ready to take action.

Step 2: Practice

You have written a dynamite speech. Now it’s time to get it off the paper and out of your mouth.

  • Don’t Wing It. While there are lessons to learn from improv, this is not the time to shoot from the hip. The more you practice, the more you will know your material, grow your confidence, and make presenting look easy. 
  • Start with the Outline. Create an outline of your presentation. In your first practice round, deliver your presentation reading from the outline. Once you’ve completed the first practice round, you’ll continue refining your presentation. Keep boiling down the outline until you have the outline down to its bare bones. The idea of practicing off an outline encourages you to sound conversational and not robotic. Then once you have the content going smoothly, work on your opener and closing. Get your opening and your closing down-solid; that means memorize it. The more comfortable you are with your presentation, the more freedom you will have to make adjustments on the fly.
  • Make it Personal. Part of your preparation is to learn about your audience before you arrive. Customizing your material (especially the opening) will help you make a deeper connection. Remember, as Donald Miller says in his book Story Brand, think of yourself as a guide taking the audience on a journey, helping the audience overcome their challenges to attain what they need and want.
  • Spread Out Your Practice Times. I often practice two to three weeks before a presentation two times a day. When I spread out the practices, I have more time to make the keynote better, and I become more confident. During the practice time, I have found that I rewrite sections, add stories, or find better ways to say something. I call it keynote marinating time.
  • Timing is Everything. Get in the habit of timing all the “bits” of your presentation. Time your opening, time each bit, every story, and your closing. You never know when the speakers before you went overtime, or something else reduced your speaking time. Seasoned speakers are adaptable, but that takes practice. When your allotted time is cut short or extended, you’ll need to know how to adjust your presentation without missing a beat.
  • Using Notes vs. No Notes. Many beginning speakers ask the question of using notes on stage while presenting. I am not a fan of a keynoter reading from notes unless reading a quote, stat, or a headline that is hot off the presses. Notes can take a speaker out of the moment and make them look unprepared. Instead, try investing your time in preparing a great slide deck to accompany your speech. Often that is all a speaker needs to stay on point and focused. If you are using slides in your presentation, it’s a good idea to send your presentation ahead to the meeting planner and the AV team. That way, there will be no surprises on the day of the presentation.

Step 3: Present

  • Get Comfortable. On the day you present, show up early and get comfortable with your surroundings. Make friends with the AV team as you walk the stage for a sound and slide check.  You want no surprises.  The more comfortable you are on stage, the better you will perform.
  • Get connected.  I have found that talking to the attendees before my presentation calms me down.  As the audience begins to fill the room, walk around, and introduce yourself. Start engaging before you hit the stage.  The more you discover that the audience is rooting for you, the more relaxed and engaging you will be on stage. 
  • Get feedback. After each event, reflect on your performance. Consider the audience’s reactions to your keynote. When were they with you? What parts of the presentation did you feel the enthusiasm?  Did you ever get a house laugh? Take note of what to add or eliminate to make your next presentation even better, and lather, rinse, repeat. It’s time to start all over again!

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