What is a Keynote Speech?

Public speakers often talk about a keynote speech or address.  What do they mean?

A Classical Music Concert

You feel tense as you take your seat at a classical music concert, for the first time.  What if I’m bored?  What if I want to cough?  When do I applaud?  Can I stand up and whoop?  Will I want to?

A man with a stick arrives to tumultuous applause.  He raises his stick and silence falls.  The music starts.

A new world opens up.  How is it these sounds, so far from human language, mean so much?  Why do I and others feel these emotions?  What is at stake?  What is it that brings me to the edge of my seat?  Why do I sense jeopardy as the music approaches its end?  Why do I feel relief as the music resolves and finishes just so …?

When music finishes just so.oh.oh.oh, it returns to its original key, a familiar place, subtly different.  We have been on a journey and return to and recognise ‘same but different’ resolves the music. The composer sets out and we experience tension until we discover how the composer finds their way back.

The key not only sets the music’s boundaries, it also sets the theme and tone.  Without the key we cannot make sense of the music, just get frustrated.  The key-note is the first note in the scene-setting chord.

Conference Keynotes

The word keynote in public speaking best applies to a conference or event.  The keynote speech sets its theme.  It could be at the beginning, setting the theme and tone for the conference and is likely to be delivered by an inspirational speaker.  Or else it could be at the end of the conference, bringing together insights from the conference and clarifying what happened.

You attend a conference and its theme is British Mammals.  You expect the keynote to state the aim of the conference, perhaps setting the tone by highlighting issues facing mammals.

Next up, you hear a lecture about freshwater fish.  Why?  The keynote set the boundaries.  You thought you were here to find out about mammals.  Just as you think you might leave for a coffee, the speaker resolves the tension.  We need to understand the ecology of fish, to understand the lives of otters.

Perhaps some of the most intriguing and so powerful keynotes, do not address the theme directly or set boundaries.  They set the tone by uniting the audience around a concern or emotion.  Their concern is not so much about content, as the approach to the topic.  Where there is fundamental disagreement in the room, setting the tone may be important.

Business Keynotes

It would be an appalling speaker who delivered the same keynote, whatever the conference!  The conference keynote belongs to the conference.  The keynote speaker cannot change the theme of the conference.

However, we do speak about business keynotes.  These set the theme, tone and boundaries for a business.  A business owner may deliver a similar talk in many places and circumstances.

Here the talk belongs to the speaker, invited to deliver that specific talk.  It may set the theme for a  meeting.  Often questions and answers follow before the meeting moves on to some other topic or activity.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. However, don’t forget, the difference between conference and business keynotes resides in ownership of the theme.

Usually a conference keynote requires more work because you need new material and to build it into a new talk you deliver only once.  Nevertheless,  it is an opportunity to build your business’ reputation, through access to a new audience.

Finally, there is the formal pitch.  This is where you set the theme, by pitching an idea to a small group, who if persuaded might support your idea.  There is likely an understanding about the nature of the pitch but it is yours to deliver.  It falls somewhere between conference and business keynotes but is likely far more stressful than either.

Before we get down to practicalities, can you think of other types of keynote address?

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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