How to be a Great Keynote Speaker


You hear the MC say, “Please welcome to the stage, our Keynote Speaker”.

Is your heart racing? Are your palms sweaty? Are you wondering what you are going to say?

Public speaking is purported to be the number 1, fear or phobia, beating out the fear of death, so why would you want to be a Keynote Speaker, and if you do, how can you be good at it?

I have been a Global Conference Speaker for over 20 years, and I have coached and mentored hundreds of executives and upcoming speakers to present with poise and confidence, to leave a lasting impact on their audiences.

Keynote Speaker – or Main-Stage Talk?

Sometimes the term ‘Keynote Speaker’ gets misused; it’s like someone who has posted a blog on HBR calling themselves a ‘Harvard Business Review’ columnist.

A keynote speech is a presentation, usually of 20 to 60 minutes, that establishes a main underlying theme, framework, or ‘big idea’ of the conference or convention.  This is distinct from all the other ‘main stage’ or ‘break-out’ speeches that address specific topics or business updates.

Recently, I was the keynote speaker for Deloitte’s SE Asia Partner Conference in Bali. The theme of the conference was ‘legacy’, and so my speech framed legacy as it relates to professional services and Deloitte’s values.  And, just last month I gave two speeches for a Company Kick Off, in San Diego. The first speech was a Keynote on ‘A New Day’, as the company was re-branding, and the second was a Main-Stage presentation on Executive Presence, something I’m a subject matter expert on.

The preparation you need to do, to present with impact, will depend on the type of speech you are going to give. Find out as soon as possible about the type of speech required, audience (size, type, and needs), length of presentation, and venue.

Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance

Spontaneity takes practice! The average TED speaker has rehearsed their, 18-minute, speech 40 to 60 times and that’s not counting the numerous iterations it took to get the speech into an ‘Idea Worth Spreading’.

Planning and Preparation are not only about the ideas and information of your speech, they are about your physiology, your gestures, your pauses, your intonation, your empathy, your engagement, and finally your slides.

This can appear overwhelming. So, where to start?


When you know the theme of the conference or have decided on the topic for your talk, it’s time to brainstorm.

I’m old school and I like to get flip-chart paper and create a mind map about everything I know about the topic. I research the key ideas and look up the etymology of the words. I group the ideas into clusters to look for key lessons and I reflect on my own personal insights.

When I have the ideas, topics, lessons, and takeaways, I transfer these to PowerPoint slides so that I can begin to work on a flow.

A Great Keynote Speech is a 3-Act Play

If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it should be good enough for you. The 3-act structure is a timeless method of storytelling that is still used in movies and novels today.

The structure is as follows:

  1. Setup
  2. Confrontation
  3. Resolution

In Act I, the Setup the main characters and ideas are introduced. The storyteller, in this case, the keynote speaker sets the stage for the audience.

My personal favorite way to start a speech is with Time. Place and Emotion, for example:

“Let me take you back to the year 2000, I’m standing in a coffee shop, and I’m not happy.”

You can watch this opening here, and what it shows is that I didn’t start the speech by introducing myself and my credentials, but by immediately transporting the audience into the story.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…”

George Lucas gives us time and place in the opening scene of Star Wars. The emotion is created by the visuals, but he thrusts us straight into the story, and that’s what you must do as a speaker.

Act II is called Confrontation because the characters face challenges and must overcome them by learning something new. As a speaker, this is where you invite your audience to learn something or discover something inside of themselves. Here is the place where you share the old model or way of looking at things, and your insights as to the ‘New Model’.

In my webinar masterclass, “Cracking the C-Suite”, I share an old model of Influence, power, position, and budget, with a new model, “Whoever sets the frame, wins the game”. You can watch it here.

Act III is the Resolution. In the movies, this is where good triumphs over evil in a final epic battle, and it’s where the writer ties up loose plot ends. For the keynote speaker, this is where they lay out their conclusions and make an emotional call to action.

This is a great opportunity to close a story you started in Act I. For, example, I sometimes start a speech telling the story of my business disruption in the year 2000, and end with a story of how I apply the lessons learned from this with my children today. The story illustrates perseverance and staying true to your values. Something that each audience member can relate to.

 In summary, speaking is an awesome opportunity to showcase your thought leadership whilst positively impacting an audience. It is therefore, in my opinion, not something to be afraid of, but something to get good at.

“A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step”.

[ If you liked this post - check out: Presentation Skills - Training Tips and Using Metaphors for Change, Growth, Coaching and Leadership]





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