How to write a keynote speech – secrets of masterful presenters

National Speakers Association LogoI’ve just spent four intense days attending my 7th National Speakers Association (NSA) convention, held July 30 – August 2nd in Anaheim, California. Over 1,500 attendees heard from some of the world’s top world’s professional speakers in an event themed Influence ’11. Fellow NSA Northern California member Susan RoAne wrote on Facebook: “In my 27 years as a member of NSA, I have never been so awestruck/enamored by any of our events like I am about Influence 11.”

I agree.

This conference featured the best of the best — professional speakers who communicate their message with authenticity and passion. As happens when watching a professional in any field, they made what they do seem sooo easy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The one session that stood out for me was Nido Qubein‘s panel on Crafting a Killer Keynote. It featured four speakers who had presented earlier in the conference discussing “how the sausage was made” — masterful presenters sharing their secrets. We heard from:

  • Ken DychtwaldHow The Age Wave is Transforming Our Lives, Our World and Our Profession
  • Lou HecklerHow Do You Catch Success?
  • Kyle Maynard Passion for the Platform
  • Glenna SalsburyThe Essence of Presence … How to Harness the Authentic You

Here’s what they shared:

Crafting a speech with impact

Nido Qubein stated that great speakers ask themselves how their talk makes an audience feel, recognizing it’s not just what they say, but how they say it. Style is an important as substance. Nido reminded us that a fine diamond tossed on the floor inside a crumpled McDonald’s bag would be ignored; a semi-precious stone gift-wrapped with a bow is appreciated.

For a speech to have impact, it must:

  • Convey specific information that the audience finds useful
  • Use metaphor to convey meaning
  • Redefine reality and engender hope

Speak from the heart, not just the head

Glenna Salsbury’s 45 minute keynote speech included 25 stories, each making a point that the audience can apply in their own lives. She keeps a file of stories to consult when writing a new speech. Glenna also speaks from the heart and soul, not only the head. “Talking to the head of the audience won’t transform them. People don’t just want information.” A speaker needs to love each audience member individually, from the heart.

Communicate on multiple levels to involve an audience

Ken Dychtwald communicates on three levels:

  • At the level of the content of the talk
  • What the audience will think about the content
  • What he wants to alter in them, forever

When preparing a speech, Dychtwald is crystal-clear about the point he’s making. He triangulates this after each speech by asking audience members in private what they thought the talk was about, refining his message for the future if there’s any discrepancy between his goals and their perceptions. He’s focused on the audience’s reception of his transmission—always looking for creative ways to “get inside the heads” of the audience and move their perception.

His presentation style makes masterful use of the pause. This is one way he “tunes” the audience to a pace and rhythm that makes people receptive to his message. If speakers deliver a talk at a uniform pace and rhythm they “become invisible”. He believes that the more involved the audience is, the better. His talk, unusually for NSA, made extensive use of multi-media PowerPoint and video. He invests in creative design help to structure images and colors for maximum impact.

He acknowledges the difficulty of effective storytelling and takes theater workshop classes to improve his ability. A speech without stories is “terrible”.

Great speechwriters leave space for serendipity

Lou Heckler (gotta love that name for a person in public speaking!) “plays a character called Lou Heckler when I’m up on stage”. He speaks as if talking to one person: his wife of 30+ years.

Incredibly, Lou spent seven months working on his 45 minute keynote. He first thought of the theme of the catcher in a baseball game in December. By January he had ordered an LA Angels baseball outfit with his name on the back to wear when he presented. He used Google to locate relevant baseball quotes and by mid-June had the speech outline almost completed. At this point he deliberately left some “air” in the speech for anything that might occur closer to the event.

Sure enough, the Angels threw a no hitter for the first time in many years a few days before the speech and the pitcher, Ervin Santana, “…credited defensive specialist catcher Bobby Wilson — he and Wilson were on the same page, Santana said — and added that he was hitting his spots and staying ahead in the count.” Heckler was able to incorporate this late-breaking news about the importance of the catcher into his speech.

Wrapping up

Multiple speakers acknowledged importance of the conclusion to a speech. Dychtwald claimed he gets more accomplished in the last 60 seconds of a speech than in the first 30 minutes. “The audience are with me, everything I say hits home.”

Nido had the last word: “What’s so interesting about this convention is that we’ve heard from so many types of speakers.”

Look for recordings of the keynote sessions and breakouts from the conference, including the Nido Qubein panel, the keynotes delivered by each of the panelists and the Ken Dychtwald workshop on Lessons from 35 Years on the Front Lines: Maximizing Your Success as a Professional Speaker (from which some of the content above was taken) to be available here in the near future.

8 Comments so far
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Sir, you are an excellent writer. Can you help me as I develop programs? Thanks, Dale


Happy to help. Give me a call or email to discuss. Contact details here.

Outstanding summary, packed with very thoughtful points.

Thanks for sharing this information from NSA.

Sorry we didn’t meet at the NSA Convention last week but I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. This post inspired me to post my top three takeaways from the Influence ’11 Conference on my blog:

Thanks Patrick! Appreciate your top three take-aways.

Ian- So glad you liked Nido’s session. It was one of the things I asked Randy to make sure we did – a deconstruction session. NSAAustralia does this after every mainstage presentation. A “Behind the Actors Studio” to really understand the birth and development of a keynote speech. Glad to hear you liked this and hope we continue to do something similar next year!

I am very thankful that you decided to share your notes from the NSA Conference. I have a personal goal to become a NSA Speaker this year. These notes do help me to continue crafting killer keynotes.


Ressurrection Graves


I’m happy to hear you find these meeting reports of interest. Good luck on your journey and achieving your NSA membership.


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