Your Keynote Sucks. Thank God It’s Ignite Season!


Jason Seiden wrote a great post about what it’s like to be a public speaker. I am really focused on my own speaking career, right now, and I am shocked at the number of failed and boring speakers in the marketplace.

So I thought I would tell you about the process of writing and delivering a keynote speech.

Let’s start at the beginning. Writing a keynote is a pretty simple exercise. You have to come up with a thesis. It operates as the infrastructure of your sixty-minute presentation. Once you have something to say, the flow of your presentation looks something like this.

  • Briefly introduce yourself and thank the people who invited you.
  • Talk about how flattered you are to be there.
  • Tell a quick bio story to establish your expertise.
  • Explain your thesis/topic.
  • Tell a story.
  • Give some facts and data (because people like metrics & charts & shit).
  • Tell another story.
  • More facts.
  • Tell a story that seemingly undermines your thesis — but wrap that story up with the lesson learned that actually reinforce your main idea.
  • Give a few more facts.
  • Tell one more story.
  • Summarize all that shit.
  • Close by telling people how they can find you.

Sixty minutes flies by. It’s that easy.

Except that it’s not.

You wouldn’t believe how many people get it wrong. I saw Dennis Donovan speak at a Human Resources conference. He is the former CHRO at Home Depot. He asked the room to take ten minutes and discuss what it would be like to be Dennis Donovan — the highest paid Human Resources guy ever — on his first day of work. I couldn’t believe it. He wanted the audience to use one-sixth of his presentation time to talk amongst ourselves about what it would be like him — a narcissistic white guy who ended up getting the largest severance amount ever for a Human Resources professional.

I almost had a heart attack. What the ever-loving-hell was this guy thinking? Wasn’t he paid to tell me a story?


The good news is that Global Ignite Week is coming up. Have you seen one of these presentations? Have you given one? I presented at Ignite, last year, and it changed my life. I had five minutes and twenty slides. That’s it. I couldn’t deviate from the rules — and the format forced me to be structured, to be entertaining, and to be concise.

Who needs more than five minutes to make a point, anyway?

I know that giving a good keynote is hard, and even the most successful speakers struggle with the sixty-minute PowerPoint presentation that sucks the life out of a room. We’re in an era of social media and smart phones, too. You could attend a conference with Jesus, Buddha and Krishna on a panel — moderated by Anderson Cooper — and no one would pay attention for more than eight minutes. This is why Ignite works. The speaker focuses on the core of story and leaves all the nonsense behind.

Here’s what I learned from Global Ignite Week in 2010: You don’t need to eat an hour on a presentation when you can have fun, convey an idea, and get on with the business of gettin on.

Unfortunately, many associations and organizations hold live conferences to earn their operating capital for a year. They need long-form speakers with boring PowerPoint presentations in order to justify the cost of a conference. It’s a failing model — but it’s not dead yet.

The good news is that some speakers get it. They infuse elements of Ignite into a traditional keynote. I hope that my skills continue to grow so I can fill an hour of time but it feels like a five minute Ignite talk. That’s my personal goal, anyway.

And I will never, ever ask the audience to take ten minutes and discuss shit among themselves. That is a disrespectful way to treat your audience, and it’s absolutely cringeworthy to watch.

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