Most Keynote Speakers Fail At Providing Audience Learning & Performance Improvement


Most keynotes fail at actually providing learning and retention.

Sure, many keynotes are inspirational, motivational and provide an engaging story. And if that’s all we’re looking for from a high-paid professional speaker for a keynote, it works.

However, when an organization pays $10,000-$75,000, or even a higher fee, for a 45- to 60-minute message, we expect more.

Too many keynotes are filled with exhausted clichés, empty entertainment, and low-importance ideas. ~ Dr. Will Thalheimer.

Well, I agree with Dr. Thalheimer! We’ve got to raise the bar…for our paying registrants’ sake.

Most Conference Education Misses The Learning Mark

But it’s not just keynote speakers that fail at providing learning. And on-the-job performance improvement.

Most conference education misses that mark as well.

Dr. Will Thalheimer, an education, learning and performance researcher, and evidenced-based education practitioner, has written extensively about learning and on-the-job performance improvement. He’s also written about how most keynotes fail miserably.

Seven Criteria Needed To Foster Conference Keynote Learning

Thalheimer has identified seven criteria needed for authentic learning based on scientific research. Most keynote speakers only meet two or three of these seven tenets. If we were to grade conference keynotes on learning, they would have less than a 50%, a failing score by any education institution. Yet, organizations continue to pay top dollar to secure keynote presenters. Something has to change!

Let’s take a look at Thalheimer’s seven principles needed to exploit conference keynotes and education for learning.

1. Provide Valid, Credible Content

Most conference education and keynotes do an average job at providing credible, legitimate content. They are ok at best. Rarely does a keynote presenter provide sources and credible research to back their message.

2. Provide An Engaging Learning Experience

Usually, most keynotes, but not all conference education, does a great job at providing an attention grabbing, enticing experience. The learning piece is questionable though.

3. Support For Basic Understanding

Most keynote presenters use stories to help audiences gain a basic understanding of the primary concept. And those stories, when done well, stick.

4. Encourage Contextual Decision Making

Many keynote presentations miss the mark for contextual learning. They don’t ask audiences to think about applying the information to their real-world challenges. The presenters don’t customize their message for the audience’s context.

5. Assist With Long Term Retention

The majority of conference education, including keynotes, provides too much content leading to cognitive overload of the audience. Presenters rarely help attendees with memory-retrieval practice, how to use learning cues and spacing concepts.

6. Sustain Application Of Learning

Rarely does any conference education support the application of new ideas and concepts back on the job.

7. Back Perseverance Of Learning

The majority of conferences as well as its presenters seldom provide resources, reinforcement and materials to help audiences deepen their learning of the concept.

Radical, Fanatical, Out Of This World Solutions To Improving Keynotes

Thalheimer says that instead of spending thousands to hire an outsider to keynote a conference, consider an insider. He says that with the right coaching the insiders can learn the first three tenets of conference keynote learning. And they’ll excel at the last four tenets.

I agree.

Or hire an outsider that has great content…just not one that has an extraordinary fee. Then pair that outsider up with an insider. The insider can bring context and application to the keynotes message while the outsider provides a new perspective.

What are some other ways we can ensure our keynote presenters provide all seven criteria for audience learning? When is it appropriate for a keynote not to provide audience learning?

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  1. Jeff, I respect both yours and Thalheimer’s work, but I have to disagree with several of your points.
    You are taking the perspective that a keynote – especially a high-fee one – should provide take-away learning that can be sustained. That is one purpose, but there are others. Some keynoters are hired to attract attendees. Others are hired to provide comic relief or an inspirational break so that attendees do not experience the cognitive overload to which you refer. Still others are there to set-up a message or theme that can be reinforced throughout the conference. All of these are valid reasons for a meeting professional to engage a keynote speaker.

    You also suggest that you don’t need an outside presenter or that you should pair an inside person with the outside expert to create context and application. Is that what you do when one of the Velvet Chainsaw team is asked to be the keynote speaker?

    Another option is to hire someone who is willing and able to work with you to deliver a keynote with immediate take-away value if that is your goal. I’ve worked with many planners over the years who are not evaluated on the basis of learning application from any part of the conference – much less the keynote slot.

    There are people out there with content mastery; excellent platform skills; adult learning experience; and the ability to help the client create a broader, more strategic context for their conference. It takes some effort to find them, but speakers will follow the client’s lead. They will start to deliver that when clients start to consistently ask for it. So to that end, perhaps the theme of your post should be “How to Get the Most from Your Keynote Presenter.”

    And while we are at it, can we do something about time allotments? 40 to 50 minutes is not enough time to accomplish points 4 through 7 of your post when you are working with thousands or even hundreds. 90 – 120 minutes is more like it if you are going to reinforce and create a way to sustain the learning. And yet, the vast majority of keynote sessions are slotted for 45 – 60 minutes.

    Finally, you define “high paid” as $10,000 – $75,000 in fee. That is an incredibly broad range.

    At $75K you are definitely in the celebrity arena, and I suspect that immediate take-away value is not the reason they are hired. Below $20K you are dealing with working pros who should be able to work with you on these areas if asked. If not, perhaps a more extensive search is in order.

    So do many keynotes fail to hit the mark? Probably. Most? That is difficult to say. A lot of it depends on factors other than who you hire as they speaker.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      First, thanks for reading and for replying. You raise some very good points that conference organizers should consider.

      As I said in the opening, if you’re looking for inspiration, motivation and storytelling, than a professional speaker (regardless of the fee), is probably the best way to go. We totally agree with that.

      Research from ASAE, MPI and PCMA says the top two reasons people come to a conference are networking and learning…not inspiration and motivation. Sustained learning, as you call it, is not what I’m talking about either. If you don’t remember it, you didn’t learn it. Yes, it’s that basic. And bottom line, if you don’t remember it back in the office to apply it, it was probably a waste of time and money, regardless how entertaining, motivational and inspirational it was.

      VCC’s & Tagoras research shows that less than 30% of conference organizers believe that a keynote marquee name causes people to register for the event. So if a keynote’s primary goal is to attract paid registrants, then perhaps we’ve got the goal wrong. If the goal is to attract people onsite to the session, then I question why even have that session. The last thing most people want is for an entertaining presenter to lure them to a session just so the organization can hold the audience hostage with self-promotion and ego-thumping messages.

      As for VCC keynoting, well, the majority of our team does not keynote, including me. That’s not our core business. And yes, we do work with organizations regarding context and real world issues when it comes to a keynote. And, yes, we even provide contextual curation as well as intentional threading of topics and issues.

      1. Jeff, I agree with you 100% on why people come to conferences – especially association meetings. Unfortunately, there is a small percentage who come to corporate meetings because they are told to do so.

        And yet, the associations you mention still have traditional keynote slots and speakers at their conferences. That is what makes me believe that a major problem is in the design which then influences the selection. If you can’t imagine how you would do interaction that promotes networking and learning in a room of 2,000 people, you don’t look for that in the selection process.

        I am 100% with you that keynotes built on clichés and platitudes still exist. But, there are those of us who are working to bring valuable information that can be remembered and reinforced back on the job.

        Great conversation. Thanks.

  2. Scott McKain says:

    Jeff —

    I would suggest, perhaps unintentionally, you have a bias when it comes to professional speakers who are primarily keynoters.

    As a specific example, I respectfully mention the title of this post. The title of your message says “MOST (emphasis mine) Keynote Speakers Fail…” Yet, the material contained in your post could just as easily have been titled, “How Associations Fail To Assist Keynote Speakers To Deliver Engaged, Applicable Learning.”

    Naturally, you can’t do that. Associations are your target market — therefore, it’s the speaker who must be criticized. It’s a “straw man.” Let’s set up seven criteria — all of which sound really good — that would be difficult to accomplish in 45 minutes. Then, we will post about how “most” are failing to meet those standards.

    I’m on a flight now from Boston, where I keynoted a conference of C-suite executives. I had 40 minutes on the platform. Re-examine those SEVEN criteria you suggest are to be required of every keynote. I think any analysis from a reasonable, objective observer would suggest they are absurd standards.

    The headline of the article commences, “Most Keynote Speakers Fail” — yet, examine #6: “Sustain Application Of Learning.” You state, “Rarely does any conference education support the application of new ideas and concepts back on the job.”

    So, if the organization declines to invest in additional learning tools offered by the keynoter — the speaker should bear the burden that learning isn’t sustained? That’s blatantly unfair.

    Here’s another: “The presenters don’t customize their message for the audience’s context.” That’s a pretty broad accusation, isn’t it?

    We have a pre-event curriculum offered to every participant to prepare them for the event. I always ask for the names of 3 to 5 audience members that our office can interview before every speech to enhance customization. We also provide post-event education through a virtual training platform for our clients. Many of the friends I have who are keynoting at a similar fee to mine do the same.

    If a keynote speaker fails to take these steps, either the organization has done an inferior job of due diligence in speaker selection, has not invested at a level commensurate with their expectations for delivery — OR, they’re hiring a keynoter for an alternative reason.

    Imagine a long conference of detailed, intensive, technical learning — then, for example, the organizers bring everyone together for a session to charge the batteries and lift the spirits of the audience. Do you hire someone like my speech coaching client, Captain Phillips…or let’s say a humorist with a motivational message…with the intent to “Encourage Contextual Decision Making”?

    No — and it’s asinine to suggest that they be judged by that standard. Yet, they perform a critical role in the achievement of the overall objective of the event. (We both know there is abundant research on the value of fun and changing the pace to enhance attention, retention, and learning.)

    I’m NOT suggesting there isn’t a need to upgrade and uphold industry standards. Keynote speakers, as a profession, must to do a better job delivering what our clients want and require.

    However, to suggest, as Dr. Will Thalheimer evidently maintains, “Too many keynotes are filled with exhausted clichés, empty entertainment, and low-importance ideas,” could potentially just mean that Dr. Thalheimer is selecting some pretty crappy conferences to attend.

    (More seriously, perhaps the conferences he’s attending need to do a better job of selecting keynoters…or, that the meeting professionals need to work more diligently with their keynoters to achieve organizational objectives…or, that he — and those who agree with him — have pre-determined that evaluation prior to the presentation, based upon their own outlook and professional goals.)

    I agree that many times the celebrity speaker neither contributes to enhancing registration for the event, nor delivering exceptional content at the event. However, a better alternative for associations is using their budget to invest in a superior professional keynote speaker — and the follow-up tools that will enhance retention and ensure application.

    In the final analysis, the marketplace decides; neither your organization nor mine is the final judge. Personally, my calendar for keynotes is busier than it has been in over two decades in the business — at higher fees, and for global events with extraordinary clients. Almost all of my friends in a similar fee range are experiencing the same results in the current economy.

    Many of the meeting professionals that I am privileged to work for have told me about the events they’ve planned where it was decided to use the internal or non-professional speakers that your post recommends. They’ve shared stories about how their attendees — my guess is the same ones who identified that they came for networking and learning — gave the conference low evaluations because the speakers couldn’t hold their interest.

    Want to see what results that a coached, non-professional can achieve for your meeting? Google what happened with Samsung and director Michael Bay.

    You painted keynoters with a pretty broad brush. Sure, platitude-centered presentations and canned speeches exist. I assure you that they infuriate professionals like Randy Pennington and me as much as they do meeting planners.

    And, yes, we all have our prejudices — and, naturally, there is no doubt that mine is toward the value that keynote speakers of professionalism and quality can provide. I just have to wonder, though, when you say that MOST — over 50% — of keynote speakers fail, if your post is perhaps more of a “market positioning statement” for a consulting firm, rather than an accurate assessment of the realities of the marketplace?

    Scott McKain

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and sharing your opinion.

      I would posit that you missed the point of the post. My title doesn’t stop at Most Keynote Speakers Fail. It says Most Keynote Speakers Fail At Providing Audience Learning and Performance Improvement. The seven points I sighted from Dr. Will Thalheimer about what is required for learning to occur is based on scientific research not bias or personal beliefs.

      1. Scott McKain says:

        Then, perhaps, Jeff, a discussion would be beneficial about the goals of a keynote. I’d suggest you missed my point, as well.

        Again, if you set that the “straw man” arguement that the sole purpose for an association to book a keynote is to deliver “learning and performance improvement” — then, you’re right. No one should ever book a keynote speaker from Bill Clinton to Erik Wahl…from Captain Sully to Alan Greenspan. Perhaps no humorist, no motivational speaker could meet those criteria.

        Dr. Thalheimer, in the very post you cited, states: “Hardly any keynotes are designed with learning in mind.”

        I challenge you to show me the scientific research that validates that statement.

        He posits that HARDLY ANY keynote speeches are prepared with the speaker even considering that the audience will learn anything from the presentation. (Note — here he said “learning,” not “learning AND performance improvement.”) I respectfully suggest that any researcher who would make such an egregious statement has already displayed an obvious bias towards the subject.

        (“Good science inevitably embodies a tension between the empiricism of concrete data and the rationalism of deeply held convictions. Unbiased interpretation of data is as important as performing rigorous experiments.” –Kaptchuk; “Effect of interpretive bias on research evidence”; NIH; 2003)

        In any industry, THE MARKETPLACE DECIDES. A recent study about professional speakers from Association Insights says…what?

        — Engagements up more than 10% from almost 40% of the respondents.
        — 72% report that fees are UP — and 15% have fees that are up more than 25%!
        — Bureaus (who typically book keynotes, not training or consulting) are reporting business up 16% in January.

        Respectfully, if “most” of us are failing — as you suggest that “research” displays — then, why is the marketplace apparently wanting more keynote speakers, for more dates, at higher fees?

        If something is failing so dramatically that “most” aren’t providing learning and performance improvement — why is demand going up?

        The marketplace has decided that — while some keynote speakers fail, as occurs in every profession — those of us who are actively making a meaningful contribution to fulfilling the varied and worthy goals that they have established for their important events are a sound investment for their organizations.

  3. Great discussion! Thanks for the pushback!

    My original suggestion, that keynotes could be improved to better support learning, stands on solid ground. Most keynotes, and I’ve seen a ton at many different conferences, simply don’t provide the learning supports that lead to long-term remembering and on-the-job application.

    Now let me make a confession. I’m a keynote speaker too, and I don’t do enough to maximize learning, nor could I given the requirements and expectations that the conference has for me.

    What I do try to do in my keynotes, besides being charming, provocative, engaging, and ooze electromagnetic sex appeal, is to focus on specific issues and decisions that my audience members have to make on the job. I usually provide realistic scenario-based questions, have my audience members respond to them, share the research that informs good practice, describe some relevant real-world examples, have my audience reflect on what the practical application would look like to them, and be open to questions so the audience members can clarify their understandings. I also try to space conceptual repetitions over the length of my keynote. Moreover, I often provide job aids that folks can use back in their work. Sometimes I use triggered action planning to make it more likely that people will remember what they’ve learned. Finally, I almost always give people website links where they can further their learning, reinforce what we covered, etc.

    I don’t always do these things. Indeed, I rarely do all of these things. Sometimes the content doesn’t lend itself. Sometimes the conference organizers want something different. Sometimes I simply forget to use good learning design. Almost always there simply isn’t enough time to do it all.

    I almost always fail to give substantial practice. There simply isn’t time. I rarely provide after-keynote reinforcing learning nuggets (although this is beginning to change as I experiment with subscription learning). I usually don’t have time to support perseverance in learning.

    Look, I’m not a wild-eyed idealist. I don’t think keynotes are ever going to be perfect learning-delivery mechanisms. All I’m saying — perhaps a bit too enthusiastically — is that it might benefit us to think a little bit more about our keynotes as learning-delivery systems.

    Yes, of course keynotes aren’t all about learning, but still, shouldn’t they be a little bit better at learning than they are? Shouldn’t we at least try to innovate?

    By the way, I love the suggestion that we do some empirical research on how successful keynotes are in reaching the goals we have for them (including learning). And, I’d be delighted to do that if a sponsor underwrites the time and expense.

    1. Scott McKain says:

      I love this discussion — and, Will, THANK YOU for such a thoughtful, brilliant look at keynoting.

      When we consider the keynote presentation, I think that for some groups at some occasions, expecting it to be a vehicle for the delivery of sustained learning is akin to the old saw about trying to get a fish to ride a bicycle.

      If the goal of the keynote — as defined by the organization and the meeting professional — was to provide the learning supports that lead to long-term remembering and on-the-job application…and it doesn’t deliver…then, the keynoter has failed at his or her job.

      My agitation was with what seemed to be the effort to apply that standard to keynote presentations in those instances when that clearly wasn’t the goal that had been prescribed to the speaker.

      I, too, create a website for every client so audience members can download every slide I use, find supporting material and research, watch video they can share with their colleagues on the subject with signature stories, and more. The reason I do that is because, in most instances, long-term remembering and practical application are at the top of the list of objectives I’m hired to accomplish. I can cite many colleagues in the profession who deliver similar levels of client engagement. (Which is why I took umbrage at the “hardly any” description.)

      However, a “humorous motivational” speaker (frankly, I hate that term…the speaker is, at best, merely a catalyst for motivation) hired to get the group in a “fun mood” or to provide a break from intensive learning should not be judged by those standards, in my opinion.

      What really counts for every speaker is: Did they deliver, based upon the goals presented to them by the meeting professional, at such a level that the investment in their services was a great value for the organization?

      I agree wholeheartedly — we must innovate, we must experiment, we must think more about improving how keynotes can deliver learning! I have to admit, I’m more excited about the wild stuff I’m using from the platform now than I’ve ever been in my career…and audiences (especially Millennials) are responding!

      However, I also recoil when professionals in an industry that I love are characterized unfairly. After almost three decades of keynoting experience, I don’t want to see those who are achieving keynoting success be branded as “failing,” when they are not. Often, it’s simply because the mission they have been hired to achieve isn’t harmonious with the standards that were presented here.

      (Now…whether that’s the mission that they SHOULD receive or not is another discussion! And, one that I hope a sponsor will engage Will to do research on to determine!)

      1. Jeff Hurt says:


        I’m so glad you stuck around and continued adding to this conversation. While some speakers, including you, were upset with my original post, I think we both agree that the discussion following this post has been valuable.

        As someone that has hired more than 3,000 professional speakers in my career, I’ve had both successes and failures with those professional speakers. Sometimes it was my fault. Sometimes it wasn’t. And I’ve hired keynotes for learning, motivation, inspiration, entertainment and fun as well.

        My goal with the post was talking about keynote speakers for learning and education and to get people talking and thinking. The goal was not for our own market position or to get clients. It was far from that.
        Perhaps I should have clarified that in the post.

        And perhaps I should have stressed more than the second and third sentences, as well as the last question about when is it appropriate for keynotes not to provide learning, that this post was not about those that speakers that provide inspiration, motivation, entertainment and fun. I get that.

        I really liked what you said, “What really counts for every speaker is: Did they deliver, based upon the goals presented to them by the meeting professional, at such a level that the investment in their services was a great value for the organization?” That’s a golden statement.

        Thanks again for sticking around.

        PS…oh and I totally agree that a discussion about the goal of a keynote is important! It’s critical to both the meeting’s and speaker’s success.

  4. Traci Browne says:

    Great discussion everyone. I think by now I’ve probably sat through about a hundred different keynote speeches and some have been quite relevant and educational, but most have been “filled with exhausted clichés, empty entertainment, and low-importance ideas” or they’ve been a regurgitation of a book the speaker has written.

    But to Scott’s point I’ve never felt the speaker was in any way at fault. I’ve blamed the organizer for their poor choice. It usually further proof the organization is completely out of touch with their audience. I also agree that accomplishing all the goals you have listed is impossible to do with a large group in about 60 minutes.

    The onus should fall to the conference organizer to continue expanding on the ideas presented by the speaker throughout the year. But they don’t do that because out of sight out of mind. Most associations and other conference organizers see their events as a specific moment in time instead of a small part of the entire year. As soon as the event is over they are putting their heads together to plan their next big event and create a new theme.

    Jeff, to your very first charge of “Provide Valid, Credible Content” I give a standing ovation. If the speaker is going to claim something I want the data that supports that claim. Otherwise, it’s worthless. I wonder, what if we all agreed to stand up and demand the speaker cite credible sources for every claim they make? I know we’re supposed to, as the audience, sit there quietly, but if we paid to be there don’t we have a responsibility to ourselves to make sure we are getting good information?

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Hi Traci!

      As always, thanks for reading and adding your views to this discussion. Your last statement is a gem as a paying attendee “If we paid to be there, don’t we have a responsibility to ourselves to make sure we are getting good information?” I think that’s true for all sessions we attend–both keynotes and conference education.

  5. Fantastic discussion here.

    I get the impression from the context of this thread that it appears that keynoters simply aren’t relevant to the meetings industry and I want to share a few thoughts.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the requirement that keynoters should be relevant, innovative and provide a learning experience for the audience members. I have seen many that fail at this.

    Ultimately, the market determines the relevance. In other words, there is a very prominent market for “keynoters” – i.e. clients continuously bring them in to deliver on an objective – be it motivation, entertainment, inspiration, a critical sales message, adapting to change etc.

    You can say “research” shows (from ASAE, MPI, etc) … But at the end of the day, decision makers are choosing to bring keynoters in (and not necessarily solely for learning and performance improvement.) And when I say decision maker this is not “meeting planners” or association executives for that matter. I’m talking about executives/board members, etc who are responsible for the budget and most importantly, the outcome of the meeting.

    There is DEMAND. And that demand drives the market. And more often than not, the demand is based on VALUE. Thus – decision makers still value keynoters, and they are willing to pay them.

    As such, the generalization in this article that “MOST keynoters fail at providing audience learning and performance improvement” is a huge stretch. Maybe the larger question to ask is “are decision makers really looking for this from keynoters?”

    Sure there are bad keynoters, but ‘successful’ keynoters are accommodating the needs of those that are hiring them. And as long as that’s the case, then it’s clear that the higher paid, busy, keynoters must be doing something right.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Thanks for reading and continuing the discussion.

      You raise a critical point about demand and market share for speakers. Here’s the rub that I’ve seen , sometimes the people securing the professional speaker–the decision maker, the executives, the committee, the board, etc.–don’t truly understand the needs or wants of their target customers (the paying registrant) for a keynote. So the speaker misses the boat. That’s not the speaker’s fault at all as Scott and Tracy have stated.

      IMO, speakers have to do some digging to see if the goal established by the decision maker is actually the goal of those paying to attend or those required to attend in the case of corporate meetings. Unfortunately, this is where the speaker is often held accountable by the audience. Rarely does the audience blame the decision maker.

      So who is the true customer of a keynote speaker? Is it the decision maker? Or is it the audience–the paying attendee? Without the audience, the decision’s maker’s choice flops. I think it’s a both/and situation and can be a delicate situation to navigate. Now add in a speaker bureau and you’ve added another layer of complexity to hiring the right speaker.

      This is where conference’s need to do a better job at truly identifying the real market and thus the real demand. Then they can hire the right speaker.

      1. Jeff, you obviously struck a nerve with this post. Congratulations. I think it is a matter of re-training the marketplace of meeting professionals as well as some of the keynoters out there who still believe it is about them.

        We always ask this question very early in the discussion: What would you like attendees to be able to know, feel, or do at the end of the session?

        I’m always excited when I receive know and do responses, but there are still a large percentage of “feel” responses about being inspired, confident, etc. I try to explain that the ultimate inspiration and confidence is knowing or the ability to do something different to improve the attendee situation.

        Like Will said, we all miss pieces of what is needed to stimulate and reinforce learning. But your post will have advanced the discussion if it causes meeting professionals and those of us who are content-based keynoters to ask a few more questions.

        1. Thanks Randy! You gave me the idea that we ought to take this discussion on the road to get more folks involved in it…and reflecting differently about keynotes-as-learning opportunities.

          = Will

        2. Roger that Jeff. I agree.

          As you know, sometimes the decision maker/people running the meetings are disconnected with the attendees. This is where we – as thought leaders – can take the opportunity to consult and coach the client with regards to the theme, areas to focus on, breakout topics, and even industry issues that they may not even have thought about/addressed. This adds value and makes us a strategic partner in the meeting, rather than just a slot filler.

          For all my keynotes – I gather a lot of content/ideas/company issues from the attendees on site – before I speak….as nothing beats hearing issues/challenges from the horses mouth, as opposed to just the executives and planners.

          Bottom line – when you take that stage, you had better be relevant, know your audience intimately, and bridge the gap between your concepts/brand/story and whats going on in the hearts and minds of those in the audience.

  6. Jeff, so glad you posted about this. From the great discussion here (wow you’ve got a great audience!), I’m thinking a conference session debating/exploring the question of keynoting-for-learning might be warranted…

    1. I agree, Will.

      It would be a fun session. And I would be curious if anyone would want to do it as a keynote/general session.

      1. Great idea! And you’re really raising the bar for those who volunteer to lead that baby!

  7. Rod Johnson says:

    Great discussion. I propose that the challenge starts on the front end. Speakers in their proposal likely are requested to fill-in blanks like “key take aways” or “what the audience will learn” type of objectives. The challenge is a couple things. This assumes that if information is delivered – then information will be learned. As Dr. Thalheimer points out – this is a terrible assumption.

    Second we need to ask ourselves, were keynotes ever really focused on learning? As noted, the connection between information and learning is difficult – and to be quite honest – very few speakers understand “learning.”

    My perspective is simply this. If keynotes are supposed to stimulate learning, then learning professionals should probably be part of the development process for the conference and every speaker needs to have a learning coach.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts to the discussion.

      Great point to that if speakers are asked for key take-aways or learning outcomes from a presentation, then learning is the goal. Then the speaker needs to take it very seriously and work on ways to help the audience learn it. A learning coach could definitely help.

  8. Linda Keith says:

    Jeff, thanks for the post. Although i also took issue with the title of the post. I am primarily a trainer who also does conference presentations. As a trainer, I must deliver on all seven of your points.

    Even if I do a conference presentation, whether a break-out or a general session, I need to be hitting on the elements that the time allows for and the client requests.

    I definitely distinguish between a keynote and a general session. Not every general session is a keynote. In a general session, we sometimes have a full 90 minutes. We may have learning objectives we can accomplish by chunking the content down tightly enough to deliver on that promise. Often, it is a challenge narrowing the content down sufficiently because, often, the client wants too much accomplished in too short a time. It is my job as the professional to bridge the gap and agree to an outcome I can actually deliver.

    To me, the opening keynote often is the part of the conference that sets the tone, breaks the attendees distraction with whatever they left at the office, and gets them ready to focus on the objectives of the conference. The closing keynote helps them focus on how they can act on what they have learned and can tie things together. If these keynotes can get some new learning in, that might be fine. But I believe that is typically not the intended purpose.

    So leave the learning to the break-out sessions, the general working sessions and the pre- and post-conference tools and resources provided by the keynoters. Hold managers in the company responsible to mentor and extend the learning started at the conference. As long as the speakers (in all of the slots), the meeting planners, the decision makers and the audience are in sync, we will have done our job well.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and adding your perspective. You’ve added more depth to this discussion and it’s clear you get it.

      Your statement, “It is my job as the professional to bridge the gap and agree to an outcome I can actually deliver,” really resonated with me too.

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