Guide on the Side - Keys to a Keynote

By Marie Wallace, Published on July 2, 2001

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art.  She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities.

Many professionals such as yourself enjoy sharing their expertise with audiences. Speaking can be a gratifying adjunct to your vocation and organizations provide ample opportunities to do it. As your reputation grows, you may be asked to deliver a keynote address.

Unless you have been actively seeking a keynote opportunity, the first keynote invitation may come as an overwhelming surprise. Professional speakers addressing large assemblies, such as Comdex, flash through your mind. You ask yourself "Am I in that league? "No" you are not a professional speaker but "yes" at the local level with smaller organizations you have appropriate experience and skills. You are perceived ready for a keynote speech otherwise you would not have been invited. When a keynote invitation comes, accept the ordainment gracefully and begin mastering two keys:

Key 1 - Understand how a keynote address differs from other types of speeches

Key 2 - Learn to profile the audience, occasion and sponsoring organization.

What makes a keynote speech different than other types of presentations?

It is an inspirational speech designed to unify the audience

It sets the mood and tone for an entire event, program or conference

It is an affirmation of the organization and its purposes

It highlights a group's primary interests

It links your passions to those of the assembly

Keynote addresses are a major program responsibility but you have the basic skills and experience from other speaking experiences. You know how to:


Deal with the performance "adrenaline rush"

Organize your content

Connect with an audience

Use humor

Tell stories

Use vocal and body language to convey meaning along with words

Deal with the unexpected

Asses whether or not to use presentation technology

How do you profile the audience, occasion and sponsoring organization?

All speeches require that you know something about your audience but the keynoter requires in-depth knowledge. It is not enough to know they are all "techies." You need to find out about the program to follow and why these topics are of interest to the audience and organization. If you are a member of the sponsoring organization, this information may be already known to you but make sure what you know is current and complete. More often keynote speakers are invited because they do not belong to the sponsoring organization and have expertise in a related or new field. Some of the things to find out:

Purpose of the organization sponsoring the event

Nature of this particular gathering (inaugural, annual, joint meeting)

Theme of the event

Challenges facing the organization

Knowledge level of the audience on your topic

General point of view on your topic (novice, sophisticated, doubtful, cynical)

Primary issues and concerns

How members plan to use your information

Members' attitudes and values about the program's themes

Speakers who follow you and their topics

Other keynote speakers (following or before you)

How many people are expected to attend

Demographics of the audience (age, gender, geography, occupation, education)

Diversity level of the audience (experience, career level, outlook, cultural origins)

Glean this background information in several ways:

Ask the person who invites you

Arrange to receive pre-event publicity and the registration packet

Study the program brochure

Talk to several people who are representative of the planned audience

Find out the previous keynote speakers for this audience

Read the organization's current publications or web site

Search the net or a newspaper database on the organization and its recent activities

As the final touch, meet and greet people as they arrive

Use this background information in the selection of your main points, stories, humor, questions, examples, illustrations, and vocabulary to connecting with the audience. To set the appropriate mood in your role as keynote speaker, you will want to let the audience know that you share their concerns, values and beliefs. Bond with them emotionally by letting them know you are sympathetic with their problems and the challenges they face.

Tips to keep the keys polished