How to become better as a speaker

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One of the most common questions I get from people who want to become keynote speakers is: “What is a keynote?” or “How is a keynote different from a one hour presentation?”

The answer is simple.

A keynote is a speech that is “setting out the central theme of a conference”.


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So it is a speech just like any other speech BUT with the addition that the theme of the speech is inline with the theme of the conference.

(The word “keynote” comes from a musical term meaning “the note on which a key is based.”)

And that explains why many great speaker do not end up as keynote speakers – their speech might be fantastic, but the topic of the speech is not a topic that is common for conferences.

It also means that if you speak on a topic that is popular as a theme for conferences you will do more keynotes…

I speak on Business Creativity, Change and Global Mindset. These are my three main keynote speeches.

And right now a VERY common topic for conferences is “Disruption”.

As a speaker who speaks on “change” that is perfect for me.

Today is a great example of that: A few hundred tax experts from all over the world had met in Shanghai for the PWC Global Tax Symposium. The theme for the 2017 edition? “Dealing with disruption.”

I was the only external keynote speaker of the day.

My speech was on change and disruption.

Please note that I know nothing about “global tax”.

When the organisers where looking to find a keynote speaker for their conference they wanted someone who could be “setting out the central theme of a conference.”

That means that ONLY speakers with themes close to the theme of “Dealing with disruption” could and would be considered.

The lesson here is:

If you want to become a keynote speaker make sure that the theme you speak on is similar to the themes that conference organisers are picking. And if it is not, then spend some serious time thinking about HOW your theme could become more similar to the most common themes out there at the moment.

What are the most common themes? Just walk down to a big convention centre (or google their websites) and look at the advertisements for these conferences to see what the themes are.

I have been a keynote speaker for 20 years, very much thanks to the fact that the theme “change, disruption, and creativity” has been a common theme for the last 20 or so years.

Did I get the speech in China (and others like it) because I am a good speaker? Of course. But let’s be honest, I got it partly because I speak on a topic that is similar to what the theme of the conference was.

Spend time to make sure you have a theme that is similarly in line with what conference organisers are putting as their conference themes at the moment and I can almost guarantee that the number of keynote speeches that you will do will increase.

(Note: That doesn’t mean that you should change your speaking topic to “be more bookable”, it means that you should tweak the topic so that you are still true to who you are but at the same time are closer to the themes of the conferences. How you do that is a topic for another blog post 😉

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Let me give you some background to this post.

Today 30 of the leading business developers in IKEA met in Kuala Lumpur to do a 3 day workshop on what IKEA should try become in South East Asia 20 years from now.

When you consider that IKEA is the world’s leading furniture company (but has no stores in huge countries like Indonesia and the Philippines) and that South East Asia is one of the regions in the world that will most likely change the most in the next few decades you can imagine the kind of challenges, opportunities and possibilities that was being discussed at the event. (I can of course not share any of the insights, but I can tell you that it was fascinating to sit in and listen.)

I was scheduled to speak between 17.30 and 18.30 after the group had been workshopping all day since 8.30. The idea of bringing in an external speaker at the end of the workshop day is usually to either infuse some new thoughts or some new energy into a group (or both).

If there is anything I have learnt about doing speeches at the end of workshops it would be the need for the speaker to understand the “group energy” that has been generated during a day of people working together. It doesn’t matter how much you have been briefed before the event, after a full day of workshopping the energy in a group is impossible to predict, it has to be experienced.

The biggest mistake a speaker could do would be to come in at the coffee break at 17.15 and just plug in his or her computer to the projector and go on with his speech. That would be like someone coming in at the last few minutes of an Agatha Christie mystery play trying to figure our who the killer is.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur at noon and after having lunch I quietly entered the room where the workshop was being held. After being introduced to the group (so they did not start to wonder “who is that guy?”), I sat down in a corner of the room at started to observe the group.

What is the group dynamic in the room?
Are they having fun or are they frustrated?
Who is the informal leader(s) in the room?
Who is the joker/clown (ie. who could you make jokes with?)
Where is the group right now when it comes to energy? (i.e. if your role is to infuse new energy into the group you first need to know what energy there is in the group before you begin.)
Who is the sceptic, and who is the positive one? (so that you know who not to provoke in the beginning and who to get support from.)
What is the “group energy”? (i.e. as a group how are they feeling right now?)
How tired are they? How much energy do they have left? (and what kind of energy is it?)

Things like that.

After sitting in the room for a couple of hours you know so much about the group that you can go in there and play on these group energies.

A professional Formula1 driver or a slalom skier will go through their track/slope before the race to get a “feel” for it.

A professional speaker needs to do the same with the group we are going to work with.

We have to get to know them before they get to know us.

So arrive early and get to know them.

As a bonus effect you get a chance to learn some very interesting things that your client is working on. In my case today how IKEA is going to tackle the very dynamic region of South East Asia with 600 million people.

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Yesterday I mentored a woman who wanted to become a keynote speaker. She was feeling insecure about her potential to make it as a speaker and told me: “Fredrik, why should anyone want to hear my story.”

I told her: “No one wants to hear your story.”

That was not an attack as her as a person, it was a general statement about how most people do not care about other peoples stories.

Unless, you are famous or have done something amazing.

But even IF you are famous or have done something amazing (which is common for people who become speakers) I STILL believe that as a speaker you should not tell your story.

Because there is one thing people care much more about than your story – and that is: What they can learn from your struggles.

I think the minority of a speech should be a persons “story” – the rest should be content based around what you learnt from your struggles and not just packaged around your own life – but exemplified with a lot of stories and examples from OTHER peoples lives, other peoples struggles.

Because when you can take the lesson from you own life and turn it into a human, generic lesson then you will have a much better understanding of the lesson – and people will have a much easier way of connecting with your message.

Remember, a speech is never about YOU – it’s about the message to the audience. And if your whole speech is about you, getting the message across might be more difficult than if you are able to take your story and distill the lesson from it and take that lesson and apply it on other people, other situations, other stories.

Every speaker has a story to tell. But it is seldom that that story is best communicated by telling the story of your story.

Instead tell the message of our lesson.