Becoming a Regular Keynote speaker

First published 14/04/2015

Why Write this Blog?

Last week there was a flurry of tweets related to the perceived lack of female keynote speakers at a 'well-known software testing conference'. Various views were expressed:

It was suggested that perhaps a quota system, mandating a minimum number of women speakers on any programme be applied. Personally, I'm reluctant to back that approach. It would undermine the efforts of women who get onto that same programme through their effort and on merit. I believe that for a conference to have credibility to its delegates and the speakers themselves, it has to be a level playing field. So that's that then. Won't women always be in the minority when it comes to conference appearances? I don't think so. I see no reason why there can't be more women speakers and keynote speakers at conferences. I see no reason why some less-than-inspiring male speakers can't be displaced by more inspiring women speakers. Is success in becoming an in-demand keynote speaker based on luck, or favouritism or is it one of those black arts where the secrets are protected by a small guild of people with funny handshakes? No, I have to tell you that the secret to success is mostly common sense – with some talent and hard work thrown into the mix. I want to share what I know about being an in-demand keynote. It works for me. Perhaps it will work for you (whatever your gender).

Most Keynote Speakers are Uninspiring

By and large, the performances of keynote speakers – at least half in my opinion – are poor. 'Surely not!', you might say. 'Aren't these men (usually) the cream of the speaking fraternity? Are they not thought leaders, gurus and inspirational speakers?' Perhaps in the mind of some programme chairs they are, but not usually in mine. At the outset, I must say that I am difficult to please. Even so, I think there are definite reasons for less than stellar performances from a lot of keynotes. Some keynotes are there simply because they work for 'a large company'. Joe Soap from Amafacemicrogooglyblahblah Corporation. They are there because they have an impressive sounding title and work for a company who are making a move in a particular market (or are nowhere in a market and want to be). Perhaps they have something to say, but usually, it's nothing that can't already be found on their corporate website. Maybe their company is a sponsor. Maybe they work for a bank. Maybe the programme chair wants a job? Then there are the speakers who are the self-promoters. Those who spend half an hour talking up the risks of not doing such and such a thing. Then they spend the rest of their slot espousing approaches, methods or tools that just happen to be part of their market offering. Tool vendors tend not to get keynote slots as they find it 'too hard' not to give sales pitches. But it seems that service and training companies aren't so prejudiced against by programme chairs. Perhaps they should be. Trainers and coaches, being the most practiced and well-positioned to promote themselves, are prominent on the conference keynote circuit. Call me cynical. Maybe I am. But that's the last of the negativity.

Conference Realities

Every programme chair wants to have the very best talent on show in keynotes and their conference programme as a whole. It makes for an excellent conference and an enjoyable and informative experience for all of the delegates and speakers alike. But conferences are, in the main, businesses too. The organisers invest a lot of time and money through the year. Venues often need booking and demand substantial deposits, years in advance. So organisers tend to be quite risk-averse. In the mind of the organisers, there is always a need to balance the need for the best, newest, most interesting speakers with the need to market and sell the conference to the world outside. People want to see at least some familiar faces on conference programmes and some 'big names' too. So there's a natural conservatism at work. The exception to this conservatism is where a conference operates in a market or domain that is exploding. I went to the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona last month. With 2,500 exhibitors and 92,000 visitors and (I am guessing) EUR 50-100m income or more. But they go for the big names and don't take many chances. Compared with the multitudes in the exhibition, I guess there were only a thousand or so people in the conference part of the show. The conference isn't their priority I suppose. TED talks, either the larger international shows or the smaller provincial affairs are remarkably difficult shows to get into. You really do need to be a world-renowned speaker, politician, scientist, doer of good works, best-selling author or philanthropist. And yes, there are also some speaking opportunities at events that pay $100,000 for an appearance, but these are out of reach unless you are an ex-president, prime minister or major-winning golfer. These are exceptional platforms for speakers. I want to concentrate on more mundane, more technical conference opportunities that pay modest fees to make it worthwhile for the speaker. That's enough background – let's get down to business.

What you Need to be an In-Demand Keynote Speaker

I will share with you what I believe you need to do (and be) to be a keynote speaker in demand. Not the also ran, averagely dull keynote. No. You should aim to be one of the keynotes that people in the circles you move in know, respect and want on their conference programmes because you are both a good speaker and a 'draw'. Here's how.


The first and most important attribute you need to be a keynote speaker is your desire to be one. That's a simple statement, and it's a bit more complex than that, but your motivation is the key. This motivation to be a keynote is not the same as wanting to make money, promote your business or yourself. I'm afraid, if these are your motivations, most people will see through you. Not all will. You might have business partners, friends or acolytes who adore you, but these will still be a small minority, unless you frequent cliquey, isolated events or vendor shows. No, the motivation has to be that you think you can actually do a better job than other people at speaking, or I could say, communicating or even (get this!) performing. When you sit back and listen to someone else's keynote talk, you get angry enough to both think and say, "I can do better than that. And I'll tell you why". In your "Keynote Capability Self-Assessment", these are the boxes you need to tick.

You Have to be Driven

The first attribute you need is perhaps a certain type of arrogance. You must sincerely think that you can stand up in front of a thousand or more people and tell them what to do. You must honestly believe that you know better than they do (for why else would you be lecturing them in the first place?) I have said arrogance but that doesn't quite cut it. It's a combination of hutzpah, confidence, courage, belief and sheer bloody-mindedness. I can't quite put my finger on it, but you have to be willing and able to put yourself 'out there'. When you're in the spotlight and someone in the faceless crowd challenges you with a piercing or even a stupid question, you have to want to reinforce your message, not just defend it. You must want to be, like in the children's' game, the 'King of the Castle'. There are few things more toe-curlingly (or deliciously) embarrassing than a keynote who is caught out. It's a bit like those situations when a member of the public asks a politician a simple, direct question and the hapless politician has no credible response. This keynoting game - it's not for everyone.

You Must Have Something to Say

Of course I'm sure you have, but it is worth emphasising that if you are simply trotting out clichés, mantras, received wisdom, or low-risk restatements of common sense or even other well-regarded speakers' ideas, you might get away with this in a track talk, but not a keynote. Having said that, there is a place in all conferences for people who can communicate difficult concepts or can convince people to adopt what might appear to be simple things that are hard to achieve. But this puts you in the 'excellent communicator/motivator' bracket.

You must be a Good Communicator

Are you a good communicator? How do you know? Having a large vocabulary, using long words (when short ones will do) is not necessarily a good thing. Great communicators are not (usually) loudmouths, rabble rousers or soapbox orators. Look up a definition of communication skills and use that for reference. Suffice to say, I have seen fantastic talks from people who are absolutely not natural speakers. TED talks are often good examples where the speakers are not slick, but their material and their natural, no frills delivery gets their message over beautifully. It's a really hard one to judge oneself, so I recommend you ask advice of friends or people who have heard you speak in the recent past. But, do not think you can wing it, or think that your poor skills are the fault of your stupid audience.

Know Your Audience

Having something interesting or useful to say is not your decision. It is a matter of other peoples' opinion. You might think you have pearls of wisdom to share, but your target audience might not. Fads, trends and revolutions come and go. Being on the bleeding edge of a new approach might suit your target audience. But it might also be too big a step for them to appreciate or even, most embarrassingly, they think of your talk as old hat or just inappropriate. You have to know your market, what they know and don't know, what their problems and aspirations are and what will go down well or like a lead balloon. Knowing your audience is at least important as motivation. So, these are the personal attributes of you as a speaker that you must pay attention to.

Getting Your First Keynote – Catch 22

But how do you get selected to speak at conferences? The best product on the planet - you, in this case, will never sell itself without some marketing. This is where most people fall down. Probably the most important aspect here, is experience. Most programme chairs want experienced keynotes, not first timers. First timers pose a huge risk in the eyes of organisers and programme chairs. That's another stopper then. How to get that first keynote without previous experience? How do I get experience if I can't get my first keynote? There are some simple (note, I don't mean easy) ways of getting your keynoting career off the ground.

Create Your Own Conference; Hire Yourself

First, how about creating your own conference and putting yourself on the bill? Now this is not as arrogant or as crazy as it seems. If you want to talk about a new topic that you think is important, perhaps there is no conference in existence that focuses on the themes you are interested in. (If there is, you are already playing catch-up, aren't you?) Perhaps there is no regional conference in your part of the world. Perhaps there's a local group that needs livening up. Offer to help organise and suggest that having a keynote speaker might sell the event more. Volunteer to be the first.

Organise a Conference and Network

In any circumstance, get yourself involved in a conference as an organiser, programme secretary or part of the selection or management team. Put this on your CV. Being part of a programme team means you'll have to find keynotes from time to time. Get in touch with other programme chairs, ask them for advice and names of other keynotes who have performed well for them. Make them aware that you are choosy and that you know a good keynote from a bad one. (You happen to be a keynote too). Become part of the 'keynote employers' circle – make people aware you know their business.

Never Create a Track Talk Again

Only pitch keynote talks. From now on, you only ever write keynote talks. If you have to propose using an online form, call your talk a keynote regardless of whether you are pitching for a keynote or track. Make the reviewers believe that your talk is a cut above the average proposal. You never know, if the chair needs a keynote they might pick yours.

Pitch Multiple Talks

I can hear conference committees groan right now... Give the programme chair or committee a choice. If they want you on the programme at all, when they see a gap, your excellent proposal might just slot in. But very often, conference programmes get shuffled around quite dramatically before they are settled. Think of it like a game of cards. The more cards you have in the deck, the more likely your card will come off the top. Of course, you need to have the content for two or three excellent talks. Your number 1 talk might be great but suppose it clashes with someone else's talk? Give the chair the opportunity to select your number 2 talk. Most importantly, never take an existing abstract, change a few buzzwords and pitch that as a second or third offering. If you did have a good talk to start with, it will be obvious what you've done and all your proposals will be tarred with the same brush as hacks – and will be rejected. You must put the same effort into all of your proposals. They must have variety. They must all be 'top-drawer'.

How Many Talks Should I Have?

Some speakers get away with creating one new talk every few years and bang it to death. Maybe they concentrate on writing terrific talks. I try and create two or three talks on new topics every year. For each of these topics, if someone chooses them, I create a tutorial from them. I usually pitch topics as both keynotes and tutorials of course. More cards in the game. As some of your talks peak and seem to become less popular, you need other talks that are leading-edge, novel or topical that are advancing to replace them. Maybe you have three talks:

Pay Close Attention to Calls for Papers

Target the conferences you want to speak at and diarise the key dates for each. Look out for where the call for papers will be announced. If you know who next year's chair is ask them what kind of keynotes might they look for – they might take note and get back to you later.

Before, or just as the call is published get in touch with the programme chair or someone on the programme committee. Ask them what would be a perfect pitch for a keynote that aligns with the theme or, what kind of topic would be a good 'off piste' talk they'd consider for the programme. They'll probably trot out the conference theme of course. But the key question to ask is, 'when will the keynotes be decided?' Make sure you send a well-written abstract for a killer keynote a week or two before this date. This might not be part of the standard call. But, having offered a talk, I would expect the chair to keep it – just in case.

Submit to Keynotes, Offer them as Tracks

Submit to keynotes, knowing that you'll probably only get a track talk. Make sure you add the phrase 'this is a keynote talk' in the abstract. When a programme team are discussing what's in and what's out, it's unusual for them to discount a talk until they have to. Programme teams have a hard job and in some ways are quite indecisive because they are somewhat democratic. So your talk is quite likely to have one advocate in a programme team. But it has to be a good abstract of course to catch the eye of your advocate.

Offer to be a Reserve

It seems obvious, but medium-sized conferences that won't get hundreds or thousands of offers of talks sometimes struggle to get enough good proposals. Offer to be a reserve track presenter, tutorial giver or keynote. If there's a gap in any programme, especially in the shows that you help with – volunteer. Make it known that you are happy to step in and save the day in a crisis.

At conferences you attend, remind the organiser or chair before the opening talk that, 'I always carry a spare talk on a USB stick with me'. It will be noticed. If there's a disaster and your talk fits, you might just get the call.

Also, because programme chairs often network to learn of new keynotes, if another programme chair enquires and wants a keynote who can step up in a hurry – you might be remembered.

In-House Conferences

Quite often, people who hear you speak and appreciate your talk ask you to come and present at one of their internal conferences or get-togethers. Never say no, unless the hassle is too great or they ask you to speak on a subject you are not expert in. As often as not, internally they will call you a keynote speaker – it makes you (and the organiser) sound more important – as you are of course. If this is your first keynote – no problem – do the talk, get it on your CV. You're on the move.

Never Say No

This might sound like a controversial suggestion. What I mean is never say no to an invite to speak at what you regard as a 'good' conference or one that won't cost you a lot in money or time. Always be open to go to new shows. The reason I say this, is if you are just getting started, get as much experience as you can.

Some years ago, I was invited to speak at the 'Northern {insert obscure Midwest US state here} Software Testing Association'. I'd never heard of it, and had to use an atlas to find the location. But I met some very smart and lovely people, they treated me very kindly and I got several fantastic stories that I've been using for years and years – in keynotes.


Ah yes – the fantastic fees you get as a keynote speaker. Or not. The fees cover your expenses and a bit more besides – if you're lucky. To be paid to pontificate to a group of friendly peers is also very flattering. But I have to say, unless you are an ex-president, business or golfing icon you can't make enough money to live on.

Actually, to create a good keynote talk takes a considerable amount of time, and you find that you have to re-use experience acquired over many years of being a practitioner, researcher and dreamer. The fee rate isn't quite so attractive when you take all that time into account. In fact – the rate sucks.

If you aspire to be an 'in demand keynote', you have to settle for two main rewards. The adrenalin and energy boost of being on stage in front of your peers is one. The other is the occasional person saying something very complimentary about your talk.

It sometimes ends in tears.

Tags: #WomeninTech #BeingaKeynote

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