What is the first thing conference attendees do what they look at the program of the events? Without going into details who is presenting what in the regular sessions, they go straight into keynotes and start building expectations. Like it or lump it, the atmosphere of the event you are organizing, be in to business, academia or your community, is largely determined by who the special guests and main speakers are. With their long, global presentations and their big names, they generate quite a sense of anticipation and set the tone for the whole thing. Booking your keynotes wrong can result in much harm, while booking them right can lift an even otherwise mediocre event up. Here is what to look for in a candidate.
Unfortunately, just being recognizable is no guarantee for being a great talker. Hiring a household name works perfectly fine as long as they are known having enough ideas to share. A good keynote speech is all about sharing ideas, talking about concepts, getting notions across. People expect to walk away from a lecture hall with a sense of knowing more than when they came in and being able to apply their new knowledge.
Talking about ideas requires great communication skills, especially the ability to deconstruct complex notions into chunks digestible by a group of listeners who can differ in background or experience. Sometimes, it is wrongly equated with having to dumb the message down to meet everybody's needs, but the fact is that it is more communicative as well as intellectual refinement that are in order.
The audience is usually very well motivated during keynotes and have a big benefit of a doubt to give out to the speaker, but whoever runs the show has to know how to attract and direct the attention of listeners wherever he or she wants it to go. Preferably, this should be done by creative, peaceful means rather than by dipping into school-like methods. If somebody cannot keep people focused and interested for an hour, while delivering a presentation, they are no good candidate for a keynote speaker.
There is more in a keynote than information. Other presentations may be expected to deliver insights on single projects, specific research, one product or any other fragmentary knowledge, but the role of the keynote speech is to take a global, many-sided, complete view of things that is both well-documented with detail and all-embracing. If it is on a pen tablet or some other gadget, it has to look beyond the specifics into a large-picture analysis, which can give people some broad guidance.
Conferences and seminars are typically quite serious events and a presentation is not expected to be very funny. It can be, but standards of professionalism force people to keep it to a reasonable minimum. It is different with the keynote speech, which – on top of being informative and inspirations – is usually hoped to be entertaining, delivered in outstanding style, for extraordinary effect. In other words, it takes a bit of a showman in a speaker to please the audience.