How to Nail Your First Keynote

I spend a rather significant amount of time learning about entrepreneurship from people who are experts in the industry. I am, more often than not, a student: constantly writing down notes from those who have gone before me about the lessons they have learned along the road to success and the roadblocks they hit on the way. To be completely honest, I don’t often think of myself as someone with advice to give.

It’s why I was surprised, if not ridiculously honored, to get an invitation from Blake at Protohack asking me to be the keynote at their inaugural Protohack Chicago event.

I don’t think I could have accepted faster if he told me there was a room full of free ice cream waiting. This was mainly because I was terrified out of my pants and have learned that when something is truly terrifying, that’s when you put your confident face on and march right in and just do the darn thing. I had never actually given a keynote before. I had spoken in front of large audiences, sure. I had pitched people, absolutely. But never had I gotten up in front of a group of people and tried to inspire them.

In that way, keynotes are a whole different beast.

But I was lucky. Protohack is a really cool organization that is helping non-coders launch their business ideas. As a non-coder myself, the audience was right up my alley, and in some ways I really could offer a little advice — from the perspective of someone who was a little bit further down the road.

So the first thing I did was tell my executive coach, Paul (yes, I have an executive coach. It’s one of the most awesome things that Kellogg bestowed upon me. And in moments like this, it’s perfect). I said, Paul! I’m making a keynote speech. You’ve been in senior management for like 25 years. What the hell do I do?

Paul then proceeded to lay out the basics of keynote speechmaking. Here they are for you.

Tell them what you’re going to say.

Then tell them what you’re saying. Then tell them what you said. Intro, body, conclusion.

Take time to explain why you’re here.

What unique perspective do you bring to the table? How does that make you special? What accomplishments have you had to date? Before you can offer any advice, you have to convince them that you’re worth listening to.

If you want to use slides, use slides.

But make sure the slides are extremely concise. Maybe one word. Maybe just a picture or even a piece of clip art. Make sure the audience is focusing on you. Otherwise they’ll spend their whole time reading the slides.

Don’t be afraid to make your speech into a conversation.

Not enough keynote speakers are willing to encourage dialogue among their audience. We are all in this room together; why can we not help each other?

When answering questions, give a short answer first, then back it up with supporting information after.

Don’t drag on and on. Be upfront — short and sweet. If someone says “do you like long walks on the beach?” You answer yes. Then you explain why. You don’t spend five minutes building up to it.


More than you’ve ever practiced before. So it just flows out of you. So that you know every single slide in that damn slide deck and you know exactly which one is coming up next.

You’ll be glad to know that I absolutely took most of Paul’s advice. Except the last one. I ended up having little time to practice due to a wedding last night for my lovely friends Catherine and David, so you can blame everything on them. But lucky for us all, there was time after the wedding, and my practicing was quite fierce after a few bourbon cocktails were in me.

Paul’s advice is pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know about making a keynote, but in case you wanted to check out a couple of tidbits I picked up along the way as well, check out these puppies.

Before Your Keynote

Figure out your A/V

Do you need a PowerPoint, or does a PDF work? Will you have a remote to advance your slides, or a podium to stand at? How about a microphone? All of these things can help you understand what your presentation should look like.

Do your research

Ask the organizer, visit the website, and do a little investigating to figure out what works for this audience. Have there been other keynotes before? What did they talk about? What was the difference between a great keynote and a not-so-great one? Who are the people who are attending this event, and what do they know already? What kinds of questions do you think they will ask?

Get a friend to film you

If there won’t be any video or photography at the session, ask if it’s ok for you to bring a friend to film you making your speech. That way, you’ll be able to review it later in order to improve. You’ll also have some great documentation that you can use for future speechmaking opportunities, since now you’re a professional speechmaker and all.

The Day Of Your Keynote

Get to know the crowd

If you can, try to show up at the event a little early to get to know the audience you’ll be speaking to. Why are they here and what are they trying to learn? What questions do they have? Not only will it help give you some last-minute context for your speech, but it will allow you to be more interactive during the keynote itself because you will be able to refer to specific people in the crowd.

Speak from personal experience

Rather than gross generalizations, try to speak from your own experience or the experience of real people you know. Those bring out the best stories, plus they’re relatable. There’s nothing more annoying than hearing someone draw bold statements out of thin air without backing them up (and yes, don’t worry, I did this plenty of times — don’t forget that this was my first keynote ever, cut me some slack!).

Engage the audience

Really look at them. Are they paying attention? Are they bored? Ask questions. Take casual hand-raising polls. Make them laugh. Jump around if you have to. Do whatever you need to do to keep them hooked.

After Your Keynote

Stick around for questions

You did it!!! Now if you can, hang around for a bit — people inevitably have questions they want to bring up and many will prefer to do that in private.

Follow up with a thank you

Make sure YOU take the time to thank the organizers for having you, at least in an email. Be a great guest and use your manners. You never know — maybe you’ll be asked back again!

Ask for a testimonial

If you think you did well, consider asking the organizers for a testimonial. That way you can use that for future speaking opportunities (like your pictures and video, because you’re smart and prepared and had a friend come to take some of you).

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I walked away from my keynote feeling good, and a few attendees found me after to tell me how much they enjoyed my talk. Had I been nervous? Absolutely. Was I wondering the whole time if everyone already knew pretty much everything I was telling them? Of course. But I was proud of myself. Challenge accepted — and passed.

Curious to hear from all of you. Have you ever made an inspirational or keynote speech before? What are your best tips for people doing it for the first time?