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Keys to effective keynote speakers

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Tonya Farmer and Lianne Pereira are certified meeting professionals who have hired many keynote speakers. We asked them to share tips, ideas and stories about doing so.

Earlier this year, Farmer became operations and events director for the Powder Coatings Institute in Conroe, Texas, after a number of years as an event and meeting planner for the Texas Credit Union League. She has worked for American Golf Corp., Boeing and Frito-Lay.

Pereira, who has her certification in meeting management, is director of Juniper Originals, a planning firm that covers a range of services, from consulting to on-site staffing. She is also based in Texas but has clients beyond the state.

We hear a lot about how we must be aware of the varying learning styles of audiences. As Tonya has pointed out, today’s audience could include four diverse generations. Are keynote speakers changing their styles because of this change in audiences?

TF: I am seeing younger speakers come out of the chute able to deliver in a way that most generations can understand and resonate with. Old-school speakers might not always incorporate storytelling, audiovisual or other elements that engage a broader audience. The best ones, though, talk about the audience with the meeting planner and add those elements when they are needed. It can be tough for one speaker to engage everyone. What captures one generation’s attention might not capture another. What might offend one generation might not offend another.

Keynote speakers aren’t hired for the same reasons as other speakers. Tonya, you have said you feel that every conference needs a keynote speaker and that one of your goals is to convince PCI, which doesn’t use keynoters at its annual trade show and conference, to do so.

TF: Right now, there’s not one event that kicks off the conference as an official welcome and creates the vibe and message that should be carried out through the show. Starting the conference with a keynote speaker would create value. It gets everyone under one roof and everyone on the same page. It serves as an icebreaker and gives you something to talk to your neighbor about.

Part of PCI’s concern is cost, right?

TF: Yes, but I have told my bosses that we don’t have to pay $150,000 for Colin Powell. I can find an effective speaker for under $10,000. They might not be a celebrity, but they will have a story that you resonate with.

Keynote addresses can be used at different points in a conference. Tonya likes for hers to kick-start the conference. Lianne, you take a different approach.

LP: I place them strategically, stacking the speakers with the most exciting —  the most “rah, rah, rah” —  at the end of the conference. We try to end with a big bang. A more sedate speaker would be one of the opening sessions. Halfway through, we would have a speaker that would pump you up and get you going. Then, at the very end, we would have the keynoter, the most exciting, the “This is what I’ve been waiting for” speaker. We build momentum.

Tell me some of the qualities that you look for in a keynote speaker.

LP: A keynote speaker can be inspirational or someone famous. They can be the author of a bestseller or a business guru, a high-level government official. For the kind of money you spend on a keynote speaker, I expect the message they deliver to have value to the audience and also that they will be a draw and will get people to the conference. There will also be other benefits: photo ops, book signing. There has to be some cache attached to them.

I find the best keynote speakers are those who have more in their wheelhouse or toolbox than just speaking. In other words, the people for whom speaking is a byproduct of what they do. For example, they might have written a book, or they have a job that relates to the topic they speak about. I find they tend to be higher caliber.

You have said there is another upside to this sort of speaker.

LP: They tend to be easy to work with. They roll with the punches; they can make any situation work. On the flip side, speakers whose talks are gimmicky or don’t have much substance can be harder to please and too absorbed in how they look and how they come across onstage. In terms of celebrities, I have found that A-listers tend to be easier to work with than B-listers.