Last week, a high school student read three paragraphs about my life to this point in front of 1,900 people, then asked them to give me a warm welcome.
Twenty feet away, I emerged behind him in a full suit with a wireless microphone in my hand, stared out into the bright lights hiding the audience from me, and enthusiastically asked the question I always start with: “Who’s excited to be here today!?” Then I talked to them, uninterrupted, for 35 minutes.
Delivering a keynote message is easily the most exhilarating and unique parts of my job. When I got back to my room, I texted my dad and told him about my adventure in front of nearly 2,000 people. He responded by saying “I would be so terrified. I don’t think I could do it.”
To be honest, I didn’t always think I could do it either. I remember being on the speech and debate team in high school, and the one event which always scared me too much (besides policy debate, which seemed to be nothing more than people speed reading at each other incomprehensibly like they were battling to become auctioneers) was oratory, an event which required a 10 minute prepared speech. Speaking for 10 minutes felt about as easy as swimming across the ocean. I never once did it.
Almost a decade later, not only do I present even longer presentations, but often I wish I had MORE time to really deliver the story. How I got there took a lot of work, but I figured I would share some of the tips for delivering a long speech that I’ve figured out along the way. I’m still developing my own voice as a speaker, but you can think of these as your life raft to help you get started on your voyage:
1. Tell Your Story – Now Add Details
When we think of telling stories, most of us begin with something resembling a children’s book in our minds: “There was a person. They did a thing. They learned a lot. Hopefully you can learn something too.” The children’s book approach is a great way to start, but it won’t get you very far for the same reason you don’t bring children’s books on a plane; they’re too short (and also are for children).
Easily the hardest part of delivering a keynote is figuring out which story to tell, but once you do, you’ll have to find the details to help flesh out the message to the audience. When I deliver my Today Is A Great Day message, I tell my story of surviving cancer. But I can’t just jump in by talking about treatment. What did the world look like before I was diagnosed? What does the world look like after? In the middle, what are some of the ways, both big and small, in which life changed? These are questions which invite details, and those details often are the moments that are the funniest and most enlightening for audiences.
2. Don’t Marry Your Message
I’ve come to realize in the last few years of speaking that speeches are an art form – essentially discrete instances of performance art. Each speech is another chance to hone, to mold, and to improve both the message and delivery.
The first time I delivered the TIAGD message, I told the story as it had been experienced by me: essentially 40 minutes of describing the minutiae of treatment with 5 minutes of positive lesson tacked on to the end. The end result was OKAY, but it wasn’t until I had given it a few times and received some great feedback from my teammate Danielle that I really was able to deliver a message that seemed to resonate with both the audience and me.
Don’t be afraid to try new things with your message, to change it up based on what’s worked and what hasn’t. Last week when I gave my keynote, I took out a slide just before getting onstage which contained an especially powerful quote in my life. I took it out because reading a bunch of words had just never “landed” with the audience the way I wanted. So as much as I LOVED that part of the message, I took it out. The speech flowed smoother, and I ended up happy with the result.
Even though your keynote is your story, you’re not trying to entertain yourself (though obviously that helps). You’re trying to entertain a group of people who may not be interested in the same things as you, and your enthusiasm can only take you so far.
3. Speak As A Human First
The rush of getting up onstage after hearing your name announced is indescribable. It’s like finding out what it’s like to be famous all within the time span of 15 seconds. There are lights and applause and an audience who’s clapping for you because they were just told to do so.
What happens in the next moment is up to you. I’ve seen a lot of different keynoters in the past decade or so, and I always love watching the tact they take to engage the audience. Some are very heavy on activities to get the audience moving, some like to emphasize theories and ideas, and some like to just dive right in and start telling a story.
As a keynote speaker, I’m still working to develop my own style, but the people who I’ve loved to watch the most as an audience member have always been the ones who were the most human in their stories. It’s easy enough to don the cape and make yourself seem like a superhero in your own telling of stories – and even easier to not really talk about yourself at all.
But the speeches that have always resonated with me the most were the ones where I watched someone else describe in vivid detail what it’s like to live life as a human – to SHOW me leadership rather than just tell me about it. I think I love those stories the most because they seem like the most educational and inspiring, and also the hardest to tell. It’s hard to strip your life bare for others, and even harder to do it in front of hundreds of people at once. But there’s something intimate and special in those moments when it happens.
I haven’t reached that point yet in my own message, but it’s something I strive for all the time. I think for a lot of speakers, deep down they just want to be good enough that at least one person in the audience feels their life trajectory shifted just a little bit more for the positive when they walk out of the room – we were in the audience once, too, and we remember those moments where someone on stage taught us a little bit more about being a human.