Guide to Planning, Writing, and Delivering a Killer Keynote Speech

by Janice Tomich

One of the greatest honours you can receive is to be invited to deliver a keynote address. It’s exhilarating and a compliment to your expertise. 

I’m a presentation coach, and recently a new client was asked to keynote a large women’s tech event. She was new to public speaking and this was her first high-stakes conference opportunity. 

She’s a seasoned leader who works in an industry where she has few female colleagues. Although she loves her job, at times her career has been rough. She was asked to speak to share her perspective with young women who are new to the field to help them navigate landmines yet also learn to enjoy the ride. 

I could feel her excitement and nervousness. 

When your ideas, thoughts, and vision are highly regarded and you’ve been asked to share what you’ve experienced throughout your career/lifetime, your keynote speech provided an opportunity to inspire others…to have your audience learn from you and to enhance their own work from your body of work. 

With the honour of delivering a keynote comes your responsibility to be the best you can be and deliver an address that will inspire the audience to take action.

What Is A Keynote Speech?

A keynote speech stands above other public speaking opportunities because it is showcased by the event organizers as the highlight of their agenda. Large events often leverage a keynote speaker to attract attendees. 

The theme of a keynote will often be a common thread of the event’s theme.

If a conference is a multi-day event the keynote is often scheduled on the last day to build excitement and anticipation, though this is not a hard rule. Sometimes the keynote is scheduled at the beginning of an event, to set the tone. In both cases your keynote would be created differently to reflect when you are scheduled to speak.

A keynote speaker is usually given a substantial amount of time to speak, which means there is a brilliant opportunity to get into the depth and breadth of an area of your expertise while winding an audience along through the ups and downs, in and outs of a storyline. Your speech can be complex and include unanticipated twists and turns, while of staying on track with your core message.

​​​​Do you have an important presentation coming up?
You don’t have to plan it alone.

If you’re lost and unsure about how to make your presentation compelling, I can help.

How Long Should A Keynote Be?

The answer to how long a keynote speech needs to be is ‘it depends’. There are only a few hard and fast rules: 

  1. Dictated by the amount of speaking time allocated by the event organizer. 
  2. The amount of time it takes to deliver your speech in the most clear and concise way that inspires your audience.

Essentially, just enough time and not too much. 

Pro Tip: The amount of time allocated by the organizers is not always set in stone, especially in the early days of organizing an event. Keep the line of communication open with your organizer and know that the time frame might be open to adjustment or negotiation.

What Makes a Keynote Speech Compelling and Memorable?

Presenter giving a memorable, compelling keynote speech.

An engaging, inspiring keynote encourages the audience to envision what they are capable of and compels them to take action.

How does that happen? 

By focussing on one message and one message only. And by putting yourself in the hearts and minds of your audience — taking the time to learn what they want to know and how they want to hear it.  

My client that keynoted at the tech conference’s key message was resilience.

She had funny and heart wrenching stories (some that were excruciating for her at the time they happened) that showed the drive she has to succeed. My client spoke about the problems she had come up against. How she solved them as well as the benefits that transpired all the while tapping back to resilience.

How Much Time Should You Devote To Preparation?

More time than you think.

I have never had a client tell me, “I wish I had spent less time preparing my keynote.” They’re always glad they invested a good amount of time, especially when they are ready to take the stage and feel completely prepared. 

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Designs and her teams work with industry giants on their keynote speeches. They recommend that for a one-hour speech you can expect to spend 30 hours on the content creation side. This doesn’t include building a slidedeck or practice. 

Here’s a breakdown of the time you can expect to be fully prepared to step on stage to deliver your keynote address:

  • Content research and keynote development: 30 hours
  • Slidedeck creation: 30 hours
  • Practice: 30 hours 

Ninety hours likely seems like a lot of time, but to create and develop a keynote requires evolving iterations based on feedback that take time and improve with each iteration.

Investing the time to evolve your presentation from a rough draft to one that you know will carry an audience away is worth the effort.

How Much Lead Time Do You Need?

Keynotes are a rich opportunity to give an audience perspective into who you are and what you know.

You should allow for three months (and a minimum of two months) of lead time before you deliver your keynote.

However, life does not always go according to plan. You may not have a lot of time left to prepare. Crunchtime is a service I offer when you’ve been asked on short notice (a speaker may have become ill) or you have been consumed with other projects and need support to deliver an engaging speech.

Planning a Keynote Speech

Planning out a keynote speech takes time — image of a presenter planning out a speech with post-it notes.

From the perspective of viewing your body of work and experience, what, and how will you resonate with your audience? How will you inspire them to take action? Or have your words of wisdom create a legacy that will stick with them for years? 

These wise words are firmly embedded in my brain, “It’s all about the audience – not about you”. They were emphatically told to my communication cohort by our professor during the first class of our degree program. I’ve never forgotten them.

With every presentation I support my clients through, I’m always checking in to see if the audience will be able to understand what’s in it for them (in marketing terms: WIIFT). Investing time in establishing this is crucial and the foundation for a successful keynote. 

Equally as important is your intention. Why are you giving the keynote and what do you want to have happen because of it? Your intention is also an important checkpoint to continually circle back to, to insure you are on track to engage and inspire your audience. 

With these key foundational pieces consider how you will craft your speech while keeping both in mind.

How To Write A Keynote Speech

  • After you have a good understanding of who your audience is and what your intention is in delivering your keynote it’s time to establish your through-line. What is the theme/concept that you plan to speak to? 

The client who was keynoting the tech conference planned to speak on resiliency, which is a broad topic. I encouraged her to dig deeper. She realized how much of her success was because of her commitment to creating and building relationships. The through-line she decided on was resiliency through relationships.  

  • Once you’ve decided on your through-line it’s time to find an open wall and a stack of post-it notes. In free-writing-mode write down any and all ideas that come bubbling up that will support your theme. Take lots of breaks. I promise you’ll come back with fresh ideas.
  • Now that your wall is filled with post-its stand back and notice the themes. Place those that are similar into three groups. What you have now created is three arguments/points of proof themes that support your through-line.
  • From here do a sweep through and dispense of any of your ideas that are weak or you don’t feel passionate about. 
  • Place the remainder of ideas in a logical order to flow from one idea to the next. You now have your outline. Transfer these concepts to a Google doc or put pen to paper. 
  • I encourage you to not write out a script word for word. Instead think about what you want to speak to for each of your points and flesh them out making note of what you want to say. 

Each and every component of a keynote is important. You’ve invested a large amount of time creating the content. It’s as important how you open, close, and title your keynote. 

How To Open A Keynote Speech

How many presentations have you been to where you were bored by the speaker in the first few minutes? I suspect a few. 

The reason is many speakers begin with a status quo opening such as citing their CV or meticulously outlining what they “want to talk with you about”. 

My client started her keynote off with a dose of humour. She talked about the inappropriate clothes she wore to an interview and what she did to gain access to the building where her interview was being held.

Here are a few more ideas to open your keynote speech:

  • Start your speech by addressing the elephant in the room to address a negative bias your audience may be thinking. Perhaps you are quite young and your audience is an older demographic. You could begin by saying, “You are probably looking at me thinking she’s twelve years old and what could she know. And you’d be right…”
  • Quote a startling statistic. Often keynotes focus on living out dreams. This statement will have your audience’s interest piqued, “The average person has over 1,460 dreams a year”.
  • Begin a story that you can weave and thread your presentation together. You could begin by sharing a story of how a mentor helped. Throughout your presentation continue the story dropping the nuggets of wisdom of what your mentor said and how she helped. 

It’s crucial that you grab your audience’s attention right from the start – that you hook them with your first words.

How To Close A Keynote Speech

Finish your keynote with clarity and power. I’ve listened to many speeches and keynotes where the ending was weak. They didn’t live up to the energy of the body of work. 

The client that I have been referencing in this article looped back to the chain of events that happened before her interview and even though things weren’t going according to plan she hung in there.

A few thoughts on closing your keynote:

  • Loop back to how you began your speech. If you began your speech by talking about the elephant in the room, tag back to provide assurance that you have. 
  • Wrap up the story that you teased with in your opening and that you threaded throughout.
  • Did you begin your keynote with a stat or quote? Reference back to it and summarize how you proved it to be true. 

A tenet I firmly stand by is it is not good enough to leave your audience inspired. You must also leave them inspired to do something…something tangible that will make a difference to them and/or their community.

Choosing a Title for Your Keynote

Your title is your audience’s first introduction to what they will hear so an investment in time of the ‘right’ title that will tweak them to want to listen.

Unless a compelling title comes to mind before or as you are developing and creating your speech, leave the title until the end. You’ll have lots of ideas to play with when you’ve finished gathering your content. 

I learned this trick while writing and working with an editor at Craft a title then play with variations using words that have a hook to them/will get attention. 

Here’s an example of how I played with titles for this article:

  • How To Write An Engaging Keynote
  • How To Write A Compelling Keynote (both are lackluster and don’t reflect the complexity of this article)
  • How to Plan, Write, And Deliver An Exciting Keynote Speech (A bit more punch but not quite there yet)
  • Guide To Planning, Writing, And Delivering A Killer Keynote Speech (More eye catching and indicates a comprehensive ‘guide’ as well how to create an excellent keynote that will be well received)

Invest the time in finding just the right title. It’s worth it because you’ll pique your audience’s interest from their first interaction with you. 

How To Practice Your Keynote Speech

Practice is an essential part of speech preparation. Image of a presenter practicing their keynote without an audience.

It’s easy to put off practicing until the last minute or over-practice until you sound like a robot (and have diluted every ounce of passion out of your presentation).

It’s even easier to make good use of your practice time. 

Here is a post I’ve written and an article I wrote for that provides tips and techniques to learn your keynote speech easily so you can walk on the stage confidently knowing you’ll nail it. 

I have never had a client tell me they wished they had practiced less. I encourage you to practice only as much as you need to and not a second more. 

Pro Tip: When you have a few spots that you are having difficulty learning only practice them. It is too time onerous and a poor investment of your time to practice your keynote over and over in its entirety.

​​​​I am so grateful I found Janice as my keynote would not have been as impactful if I had not worked with her.”

​​​​Sucheta Misra
Associate VP Inclusion & Diversity and Social Impact Leader

Be Heard. Be Remembered.
(info on presentation coaching package)

Tips For Creating Your Slidedeck or Powerpoint Presentation

My take on Powerpoint is it’s a powerful tool that has been dropped into the laps of those that more often than not don’t have the training or experience to use it. 

Before Powerpoint, marketing and communication teams would strategize over the best content for the slides and then have graphic designers create the slides. 

These are the three most important things to know about your slide presentation:

  1. If your slides don’t add or support your presentation don’t use one. 
  2. Create your slides so that they are primarily image based with a limited amount of text. 
  3. If you are not a graphic designer hire one. It’s worth it for the stroke of elegance and professional edge they will add. A graphic designer will bring your deck to life. 
The best keynote slidedecks are primary image-based—keep the text to a minimum. Finding the right images (like the stunning ones on this screen) takes time. Consider hiring a graphic designer for the task.

If you do decide to use a slidedeck ensure it helps your audience connect the dots and visualize what you are sharing with them.

What To Do Before You Deliver Your Speech

I’m often backstage supporting clients at their events. It’s exhilarating to feel the energy from those waiting to go on stage. You can feel the excitement … hearts pounding and voices warming up. 

There are a few tips and techniques professional speakers use to ready themselves that you can use to calm your nerves and warm up your voice before your keynote speech:

  • A few days before your keynote if you find yourself not sleeping well or your anxiety high try 4 – 7 – 8 breathing. Three or four rounds should have you feeling calmer and able to fall back to sleep. 
  • Keep yourself hydrated. The day before your event up your water intake. This will keep you feeling energetic and your voice lubricated. 
  • Make sure you get a good sleep before your keynote. Lack of sleep will knock you off your game. 
  • Fifteen minutes before your keynote move your voice up and down through your natural register with vocal exercises so you can use your voice like the fine instrument it is to keep your audience engaged. 
  • Just as you are about to speak, if you suffer from dry mouth, take these lozenges to help you articulate with ease. 
  • When you arrive at the podium take the time to take a few deep breaths, feel your feet on the floor, and touch a favourite amulet such as a ring or necklace…and away you go! 

What You Should Do After Your Speech

When you end your speech you’re still not quite finished yet.

Make the time to connect with people from your audience as well as gathering valuable feedback. Some of the richest relationships you will create will happen if you take the time to talk with people after your speaking event.

Image of two women chatting—after your keynote, be sure to connect with audience members one-on-one.

If you have the opportunity, after you’ve delivered your keynote, spend time with members of your audience. Ask for presentation feedback to help you learn what worked and what didn’t.

Don’t ask if they enjoyed your keynote because the response will probably be, “It was great!” Instead ask what they took away that they might use to make a difference in their life. Ask them what nugget stuck with them. The answers to these questions will provide information to improve your next keynote. 

Having your keynote recorded provides a brilliant learning opportunity. Many of my clients tell me they can’t/won’t watch a recording of themselves. I ask them to separate themselves from their egos and embrace the opportunity to learn. You’ll find out what landed and what didn’t by the audience reactions. 

Ask for feedback from a trusted advisor. Don’t ask family and friends. A trusted advisor or mentor has the perspective to be able to provide unbiased feedback that your family and friends won’t be able to. A trusted advisor should have the type of expertise where they are expertly able to weigh in about your delivery and content and its effectiveness. 

Keynote speeches are complex. They have lots of pieces that need to fit together to create an easy, simple flow and to hold your audience in your hands so they will be inspired and learn from you.  

Do you need help with your upcoming keynote speech to make sure your audience will leave challenged to take action and be inspired? Let’s chat and learn how I might help. Here’s access to my calendar to schedule a time to talk.

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