From novice to expert: Keynote speaking tips from the pros

Michael Duarte

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Michael Duarte

Do you want to become a keynote speaker? Or perhaps you have been asked to give a keynote speech? The excitement of your big moment is subsiding, and now you’re wondering: where do you get started?

We at Duarte have worked with thousands of keynote speakers (and some of us are keynote speakers ourselves), so let us give you the keynote speaking basics and how you can take your skills to the next level.

What is a keynote speech?

A “keynote speech” used to mean the primary remarks at a formal gathering. Think of a major industry conference with a speaker’s headshot plastered to a foam board on an easel, posted outside an event hall doorway. Or a high-profile guest speaker giving a motivational keynote speech at a company’s annual internal event.

Over the years, the practical definition has gotten a bit more relaxed. When someone says, “I need to give a keynote speech,” they might mean they are headlining a major event. Or they might mean they are one speaker taking the stage, but there are other speakers who will also be giving their own keynote speeches. They could even mean they’re just giving a speech on an important topic — main stage or not.

As far as we’re concerned, if a group of people are gathering because they want to listen to your uninterrupted point of view on a topic, then you’re giving a keynote speech. There are probably some purists who’d disagree with us, but for practical purposes, we’d consider all of these keynote speeches:

  • A vision talk
  • A sales kickoff
  • A speech at an industry conference
  • A commencement address
  • A TED talk
  • And even an acceptance speech

The reasons we think these all count as keynotes is because of the similarities they share in creating and delivering a good one.


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What is a keynote speaker?

A keynote speaker is the person who gives the keynote speech. Generally, this person has an expertise or unique point of view that other people want to hear.

Business leaders are often required or asked to give a keynote speech at their internal events, like all teams meetings and company kickoffs. They are also called to take the stage for big customer or industry events. And some business leaders are tapped to give commencement speeches, like Elon Musk at USC or Sheryl Sanberg at Berkeley.

Here are some of our favorite keynote speech examples

  • RTI International was able to capture their audience’s attention and garner praise during their keynote speech at the 50th Annual IFDTC Conference. They partnered with Duarte to figure out what would resonate with the visuals before they went to work creating an engaging storyline with powerful visuals.
  • Salesforce was able to wow their 170,000 in-person and 15 million virtual attendees at their annual event, Dreamforce. CEO Mark Benioff had an on-stage guest in the form of their AI Engine, Einstein, thanks to Duarte’s mix of augmented reality, animation, sound effects, slides, and a bit of production magic.
  • Duarte CEO, Nancy Duarte, gave a TEDx talk that has reached over 3 million views. In the keynote speech she reveals the hidden structure that the greatest communicators and persuaders have used over thousands of years. The audience walked away with a new tool they could use to become a riveting communicator.

Where to find great conference keynote speakers

It’s also common for authors and experts to take the stage as a keynote speaker. If you’ve got the need and the budget, you can get Tony Robbins, Brene Brown, or Daymond John to speak at your event.

And then there are capital C celebrities. Actors, directors, musicians, and athletes often turn their experience and personal stories into keynote speech material. Celebrities like Oprah, Mike Rowe, and Tim Tebow have all taken the stage. Just reach out to their publicists or PR teams to get a quote for a keynote speech from them.

How to become a keynote speaker

But you don’t have to be an executive or celebrity to give a great keynote speech. Public speaking is a learnable skill, and a good keynote speech is one that moves an audience to action. That action could be:

  • A behavior, like committing to a new process or making a purchase
  • A belief, like trusting leadership or changing their minds
  • Or it could be a feeling, like renewed confidence or heightened optimism

In summary, if you want to become a great keynote speaker, you probably need to brush up on your delivery skills, and you want to make sure you can write a great keynote speech.


How do you write a keynote speech?

If writing your keynote speech seems daunting, just remember there are tried and true methods you can follow.

1. Start with the audience

You are only a keynote speaker if there’s an audience there to listen to you. It’s your job to complete a thorough audience analysis so you can be sure you’re creating a keynote speech that will resonate with them. Picture the audience in their seats, ready to listen. Now ask yourself:

  • Who are they?
  • Why are they here?
  • What do they fear?
  • What do they need to hear from me to be inspired, persuaded, etc?

Once you know your audience, you’re ready to think about your content.

2. Write out your Big Idea™

Your keynote speech should only have one central idea you want the audience to care about. This is what we call your Big Idea. Sounds easy, right? But it can be tricky to narrow your focus, especially when you’re deep into writing your content and designing your slides.

It’s why you want to force yourself to write down a single sentence in the form of a Big Idea that includes:

  • Your unique point of view
  • What’s at stake for the audience if they do (or don’t) adopt your point of view

Keep that sentence where you can see it and hold yourself accountable to only include content in your keynote speech that fits your Big Idea.

3. Put your content into a story structure

Sure, you could list out a bunch of facts and data points while sticking to your Big Idea. That’s one way to write a keynote speech. But as storytelling experts, we don’t recommend it. Instead, you should put your keynote speech outline into the persuasive story structure of “what is and what could be.”

The “what is” part of your speech is the current reality your audience is facing, a reality that’s not so great or even detrimental. The “what could be” part of your speech is what’s possible if their current reality changes. It’s a tease of the better world where the problems of today don’t exist. Throughout your keynote speech, you’ll move back and forth between “what is” and “what could be.”

4. End with a call to action and a new bliss

The best keynote speeches are explicit about what the audience should do next. Make sure to include a call to action, whether it’s a detailed next step they can take or a belief you want them to adopt. Then, wrap it all up with a picture of the world when they fully adopt your point of view.


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How do you give a keynote speech?

Depending on your perspective, giving the keynote speech may be harder or easier than writing it. There’s one group of keynote speakers who have anxiety about getting up in front of an audience. That makes sense because keynote speaking is opening yourself up to a vulnerable spot.

There’s another group of keynote speakers who would rather skip the writing and just get on the stage. They’re ready to feed off the energy of the crowd!

Step 1: Develop the content

Our expert opinion: don’t be like group #2. If you want to give a good keynote speech, you need to put the work into developing the content. We have lots of training workshops on this, from Resonate® (learning how to build a persuasive presentation) to Duarte DataStory® (when your keynote speech needs to involve a lot of data and charts.

Now, you need to practice it.

Step 2: Practice your delivery

The best way to practice is to create a similar environment to the one you will be keynote speaking in. If you’re giving a virtual keynote speech, spend time making your virtual setup solid. Check your lighting, mic, background, and internet connection. Then, hit record and present your keynote speech, uninterrupted, start to finish. Finally, it might hurt, but watch that recording. Make a note of content changes and delivery tweaks you’d like to make.

If you’re giving a keynote speech in-person, see if you can get a rehearsal in the actual space where you you’ll be presenting. You’ll want to get a sense of:

  • How to move across the stage
  • How you’ll react to the lighting
  • How you’ll sound on the mic
  • Where your confidence monitor with your speaker notes will be
  • How your slides will appear behind or to the side of you, etc.

If you can’t get into the space ahead of time for a rehearsal (again, we recommend you be brave and make the ask), then you should still run your own stand-and-deliver rehearsal. When you practice your keynote speech aloud, in the way you intend to perform it, you’re more likely to deliver it authentically and drive your audience to action.

Duarte video: How much time do I need to rehearse for a presentation?

Step 3: Get peer feedback

You could also try to get a peer or leader to watch you practice. Give them specific content or delivery areas to critique. Maybe you want to make sure there are a few moments of light-heartedness or humor, so you want your peer or leader to let you know if it’s landing. Maybe you have a habit of using filler words, so you need your peer or leader to let you know if it’s distracting. Keynote speakers are rarely a good judge of their own skills, so it helps to enlist the help of someone else.


How long is a keynote speech?

If someone tells you that all keynote speeches have a specific length, run away. That person is either lying to you or they’re misinformed. Keynote speeches range in length based on many factors, like on who the audience is you’re speaking to, whether it’s a virtual keynote speech or in-person, and what else is on the agenda.

As you prepare for an upcoming keynote speech, you need to ask questions.

  • If you are a conference or corporate keynote speaker, ask the organizers what length they’d like you to cover.
  • Also ask them if there’s a possibility that the other speakers/agenda items will run long or fall short of their estimated time.

That way, you can save the day with extra content or with the forethought about content you would cut to help the entire event run on time.

If the organizers offer you a keynote speech length that seems wildly too long or wildly too short for you, don’t be afraid to offer alternatives or push back. Sometimes event staff are just relaying length guidelines set by something else. You’ve been approached for this keynote speaking opportunity because you have an expertise to share. You can also use that expertise to help them craft the right experience for the audience.


The benefits of getting a keynote speaker coach

Whether you’re just getting ready to write a keynote speech, or it’s almost time for you to give the keynote speech, you might want to seek out keynote speaker coaching. Keynote speaker coaches are skilled at public speaking, and offer personalized, action-oriented feedback.

A trained speaker coach can help you with:

  • Coming up with your keynote or thought leadership idea
  • Analyzing your audience
  • Putting your content into story form
  • And leading delivery-focused rehearsals with you

They can even evaluate your keynote speech once it’s all said and done so you can continue to improve the way you give a keynote speech in the future. For more details behind the curtain, learn what it’s like to work with a speaker coach in this article.

Working with a keynote speaker coach can also help you refine your skills for other professional situations. Keynote speaking skills translate nicely to:

  • One-one-meetings
  • Sales pitches
  • Internal meetings
  • Media interviews
  • Town halls
  • And more

Once your keynote speaking skills start to become second nature, you’ll find you have an easier time incorporating story and delivering your message in a comfortable, dynamic, and empathetic way.

If you’re looking for a keynote speaker coach, Duarte Speaker Coaches have worked with executives and leaders at brands such as Microsoft, Salesforce, Blackberry, Google, VMware, Bumble, HubSpot, Snap, Cisco, and many others.

If you’re not quite ready to invest in a keynote speaker coach, but you want to start developing your delivery skills, try out our keynote delivery workshop, Captivate™.

Are you looking for a conference keynote speaker for your upcoming event? Check out this lineup of Duarte keynote speakers.


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