Keynote Speakers: Pros and Cons?

Holly Ross, Exceutive Director of NTEN, just left me this comment / question on my recent Mojo post (yes I am still getting comments – holy smokes!).

One question regarding general session speakers. I’ve been thinking for the last couple of years about their purpose, and if we need them at all. When you’re pressed for time at an event, I wonder if people would welcome or be better served by skipping the keynote for more networking or session opportunities.

Holly organizes the second biggest event (after ASAE) of each year (in my opinion), the Nonprofit Technology Conference, which by the way is in DC in March 2011 – can.not.wait!! So I realized that rather than just get a little reply from me, it might be really useful for her to hear from all of you about this.

Now it just so happened that I was re-reading, at the same time, this excellent post by Peggy Hoffman about the New Conference Attendee – who votes with their feet, who creates their own learning, who self-organizes (whether it’s unsessions or dance parties), who’s tech-savvy in terms of layering social learning on top of traditional learning.  Everyone who reads this blog and has attended any kind of conference or event recently is probably to a greater or lesser extent one of these “new conference attendees”.

So Holly and I want to know – what do you think?  Have our opinions changed about general session speakers in light of the ASAE experience (over several years) and in our personas as participatory learners?

Is the purpose of a general session keynote speaker to:

  • be a big name that attracts registrations?
  • whip up excitement to kick off the meeting?
  • provide inspiration and set the thematic tone for the conference?
  • other?
  • none of the above?
  • used to be a combination of these but not anymore?

I’ll admit I am torn about it.  I still talk about how awesome Clay Shirky was at the Tech conference, and there are others that continue to come up in conversation.  But we’re ABSOLUTELY desperate for more networking or learning time.

What do you think?  What’s the purpose of a general session speaker, and do we still need them at all?

Turn On The Bright Lights


Lindy Dreyer September 14, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I think a big name keynote is very important for marketing purposes–a social object that people will talk about and want to attend to see. Provided the keynote is in some way useful to the conference attendees, that is.

A great (or really lousy) keynote also serves as a common denominator–a fallback conversation starter for everyone at the event. That’s really important, and why having an opening general session speaker is important, in my opinion.

Frank Fortin September 14, 2010 at 1:59 pm

A good keynote speaker creates a common experience for attendees; something to bind people together in some way. This common experience is an essential ingredient for any meaningful interaction of human beings, let alone a business conference.

Scott Meske September 14, 2010 at 2:56 pm

I’m torn on the keynote speaker thing. Big names cost big bucks and can help drive attendance. Touting and marketing a true ‘keynote’ speaker raises expectations to a very different level for attendees. Should that speaker not meet those expectations (which you as conference organizer set), it can have affect on the rest of the conference experience. The other challenge in today’s conference world is finding a keynote that reaches all of your ‘new conference attendees’ in a way that leaves an impression. That is much harder as our members become uber-connected with other resources and education OUTSIDE of traditional association offerings. Great question.

Patti Pokorchak September 14, 2010 at 3:31 pm

You need the right speaker for the right audience with the right message.

Aim for a 80% satisfied goal as you’ll never ever please 100% of the people 100% of the time.

I believe that a truly exceptional keynote speaker will make the audience glad that they came to the event by the first break. If not, then the event review committee has to figure out what went wrong as there are enough kick-ass speakers out there who’d love to be in front of this ASAE audience.

Granted I’ve biased towards this topic as that’s what pays my rent but there’s a reason why celebrities still have groupies and we buy books from famous author/speakers and get them autographed……

Sue Pelletier September 14, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I don’t think it’s the keynote speaker who’s the problem with the general sessions–it’s all that other stuff (awards, announcements, pitches, pleas, thank-yous, etc., etc.) that make up at least half of it most of the time. This is the part the “new attendees” are voting out with their feet. Just from looking around (I know, not very scientific), people start coming in when it’s time for the keynoter. I agree with Frank and Lindy that a good keynote can be good social glue for a group.

If you could find a way to turn that general session non-keynote time into more of a networking opp, I for one would love it.

Eric Lanke September 14, 2010 at 4:35 pm

I’m with Sue. Less pitches and pleas, more inspirational or world-view shaking keynoters.

Holly Ross September 14, 2010 at 10:36 pm

GREAT feedback everyone! I especially resonate with Sue’s notes. I hate announcements etc., and so have always kept it to a bare minimum at our events, although I’ve recently come to realize what a great platform it is to share more about our organization with our community. But I think you have to err on the side of brevity.

I think I generally lean pro-keynote. I agree with Lindy that they can be helpful in terms of marketing, but the real value is the shared experience. When we had Clay Shirky, EVERYONE used his “fail informatively” line for MONTHS after the event.

Maybe the trick is how to make that keynote space social. Can we more effectively integrate twitter, etc. so that everyone in the ballroom can connect around the content AS it happens?

Traci Browne September 15, 2010 at 3:24 pm

I learned recently at SISO conference that Boomers and Millennials tend to like the keynote speakers much more than the Gen Xers. I’m a Gen Xer and I dislike them. Well, not them personally but you know what I mean.

I especially dislike when they are brought in to energize the crowd and do some sort of inspirational talk. I do however love when these types of keynotes are scheduled for first thing in the morning…means I get an hour of extra sleep. I don’t come to conferences to “feel empowered” or to learn to “conquer new challenges” I come to cram as much valuable information that relates specifically to problems/needs I’m having in my business and to meet other people who have solved those problems/needs, are also struggling with them and we can work thru it together.

I have been to keynotes that have been entertaining but at the end of the day I did not walk away a better person because of it. My business did not benefit from it. Entertain me during dinner…otherwise I will feel you have wasted my valuable time.

I agree with what others have said about the thank yous and recognitions. Yes we need to do this but again…maybe it’s something to include in a video loop that plays during a meal.

Good luck Holly…it’s a tough decision and you will definitely not please everyone.

Steve Smyth September 15, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Great post Maddie and as usual, you ask the questions that most in the meetings/event space want to – but don’t.

From my perspective an effective keynote speaker should, as Frank says “create a common experience” for attendees. Hopefully this grounding also motivates, creates excitement and ideally sets a tone creating an anticipation for learning. After all, I’d wager that the majority of attendees are seeking two things from the event: 1. learn something new that can improve their work/life experience and 2. meet or re-connect with folks that can improve their work/life experience.

Sometimes that effective keynote speaker can be a “big” name, but could as well be someone who has deep topic knowledge and is really, really god at presenting it in an engaging way.

I will say this though – I’ve never, ever made a decision to attend an event solely based on the scheduled keynote speaker. I go for the knowledge & networking.

If I ever did make a decision to spend $2k+ (reg, travel, hotel, etc.) to hear a particular speaker – I’d only spend that if they presented to me and a couple of my friends and colleagues in my living room. F&B provided of course;)

Jeff Hurt September 16, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Instead of an “either or question” I think this is a “both, and” situation.

I think keynote speakers are needed and their sessions need to become more interactive. It should serve dual purposes: everyone focusing on a common message and attendees talking with each other. It can be done and has done by some great presenters. Steve Farber is one example I’ve hired in the past who integrated his presentation with audience participation and learning.

A good keynote speaker will take their content and divide it up into chunks of information. Then every 10-15 minutes, they will have the audience talk with one another about what is being shared. It’s not that hard to do. It does take some rethinking of the keynote sessions. And, it’s the best way our adult brains learn and retain information. Without the framing and seeding of important information, the participant networking and discussion is all over the place. That’s ok too. However, as associations, we are to be industry leaders and help our professions discuss important issues everyone is facing.

I believe that keynote sessions should set the tone for the conference or day. If you start with an opening keynote, that can set the rhythm and beat for the rest of the meeting. It can frame important issues that will be discussed at events. If you close with a keynote speaker, it can set the tone for “What’s next?” and the drumbeat for the coming weeks.

Ultimately, conference organizers need to move out of the mindset of securing a keynote speaker as an isolated event. We need to move to thinking about the overall event experience, the themes and messages we are conveying and a keynote speaker that will integrate into that nicely. We need to find keynote speakers that understand audience dynamics and participation. That means working with the keynote speaker to make it an interactive experience. And it means just because someone is a great writer does not mean they are a great speaker.

David M. Patt, CAE September 19, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Another option is to not have ONE keynote speaker. Instead, have a couple of sessions each day with either a speaker or topic that a large number of people will be drawn to (and no competing sessions).

The “hype,” if there is any, will be about the overall conference and the association, not individual sessions or speakers. Attendees will constantly move from one location to another and the “main hall” will be just another venue for a session, like booking a really big room for a really big audience.

It won’t wipe out speaker costs, but it will eliminate focus on the “star.”

BTW, some keynoters and celebrities are really good and help us organize our thoughts and ideas in better ways.

Ellen September 22, 2010 at 1:40 pm

A bit late to this thread, but can’t resist commenting…. The other comments are valid, but I have to say that the core answer is actually embedded in what Holly said: “I’ve been thinking for the last couple of years about their purpose, and if we need them at all.”

All content — and treatment/delivery mode for that content — should be determined by the target audience or learner group.

Given that, shouldn’t we be asking our members how they’d like that time and money used, rather than deciding among ourselves what would be best?

Perhaps one association really needs to address some critical new regulatory changes and would be best served investing that time in a highly interactive session to help members deal with it — opening the session outward to members rather than holding it “close to the podium” with a keynote speaker.

Perhaps another organization really needs to drive membership or registrations and believes a particular opening session presenter could do the trick.

Perhaps another group sees its registrations dropping and chooses to invest the general speaker money in travel stipends for the most needy attendees (and promotes the change from general speaker to stipends as such).

I’ve been to conferences where the general session speakers didn’t just fire me up for the event, but gave me insights I still carry with me. And I’ve walked into other general sessions I immediately walked out of, too.

As Holly said — what’s the purpose? Not overall…. not as an industry… but for *your* organization’s event? Answer that question and you’re on your way to a successful general session — or a strong alternative.

Great post, Maddie!

Kim Harmon October 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I’m a Gen X who loves the keynote. Depending on the size and type of conference – sometimes that’s my best learning and I follow on twitter before, during, and after the conference. The breakouts are too often hit or miss. With that said…..the best conferences i attend dont offer purely “inspirational” keynoters…..they often go hand-in-hand with my business objectives. Digital Now does it right.

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