Skip navigation
Ditch passive presentations. Nine speakers who turn audiences into active participants.

Keynotes are tricky. Designed to kick off an event by setting the tone or theme, the keynote address can be the most expensive hour of your conference, with top speakers commanding from $10,000 to several hundred thousand dollars. And because the speaker is often central to your marketing efforts, a keynote session comes with high expectations.

Both of these factors add to the stress for planners, and because the keynote marks the opening of the program and very often takes place first thing in the morning, it can also add to the stress on your attendees.  People who flew in the night before, slept in an unfamiliar bed, and stood in line for a badge may not be in the best frame of mind to appreciate the wisdom of a titan of industry early in the morning. To be fair, “early” is a relative term. Musician Bruce Springsteen began his keynote speech at SXSW by saying, “Why are we up so f*@#ing early? How can this speech be so important if we are giving it at noon?” 

 But whatever time the keynote happens, organizers hope the audience experiences something that will inspire, educate, entertain, or all of the above, and set the tone for the rest of the conference. It is interesting, then, that when MeetingsNet talked to people who attended C2 Montreal, Canada’s award-winning three-day business event, they mentioned the innovative networking events, immersive experiences, and even the circus performers used to change scenery onstage, but could barely remember anything about the speakers. 

 Sarah Michel, CSP, vice president, professional connexity at Velvet Chainsaw and conference networking and design expert, says this is because “context is king, not content.” The speaker may have valuable information relevant to the audience but, according to Michel, if the listener can’t write it down, reflect on it, or question it, they won’t remember it. “Just listening isn’t enough; remembering requires a higher brain function.” 

John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and the bestselling author of Brain Rules, says research shows that memory is dependent on repetition. For your speaker, that means at the very least using “call and response” tactics to make the audience physically respond and repeat key points of information. As part of his prescription for making the message memorable, he says, “The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be.”

Active Listening

The speakers we highlight in this story all share one common element: In their own ways, they make audience members part of the message. And by actively participating in the presentation, attendees are more likely to understand and remember it. 

One of our speakers, Alex Valdez, is blind, and attendees at his talks experience some of the frustrations of life with a disability. He has them attempt tasks with a fictional handicap, for example, reciting a favorite recipe to each other with their tongues stuck to the top of their mouths. Valdez is a comedian and so his presentations are always amusing, but the audience is taken on a journey that makes them experience what life is like for the differently-abled in the workplace until, ultimately, they reach the conclusion that only minimal accommodations need to be made to reap the benefits of an inclusive environment. Because the audience learned this lesson through actively participating rather than passively listening to a lecture, the message is internalized and is more likely to be acted upon.

Michel agrees that interaction is the key to engagement. She says, “When a speaker just speaks at you, you might remember a story or a funny moment. But when you are investing thousands of dollars for a 45- or 60-minute presentation, you want to get more return on that investment than that. Learning should be transformational. What’s the attitude, behavior, or skill change that your attendees take with them?”

Medina has outlined three factors that help people retain information: Storytelling and emotion, well-designed visual information, and environments that boost innovation and creativity.

1. Storytelling and Emotion

Storytelling will engage an audience, but when they participate in the story the emotions are authentic. Anne-Marie Gaultier, president and co-founder of Datakalab, a company that tracks and analyzes attendee facial expressions and emotions, says this is important because “Emotions are anchors for memory. People remember things better when emotions stimulate the hippocampus.” One of our highlighted speakers, the elite climber Cathy O’Dowd, uses polling to involve her audiences in decisions made on one of her trips up Mount Everest. The audience’s choices sometimes mimic those of the expedition, and sometimes don’t. Showing them how a bad call will result in the expedition running out of food, for example, or how extreme conditions impact decisions, helps them learn risk management tactics.  

2. Well-Designed Visual Information

The YouTube video “How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint” by the Swedish design and presentation expert David JP Phillips has more than two million views, but apparently there are still speakers who need to be sent this link.  

Medina’s Brain Rules state that vision trumps all other senses. According to neuroscientists, sight is our dominant sense, taking up more of our brain’s resources than any other. Presenters, especially subject-matter experts, often think that more slides equal greater value but, in fact, too many become overwhelming and counterproductive. “Explain to speakers that attendees can either read a slide or listen to them,” advises Michel, “then ask them which they prefer.” Better yet, do away with the PowerPoint in favor of having audience members illustrate the story. Jessi Arrington speaks on creativity and self-expression, and provides secondhand clothing in bright colors so that her audience can make its own rainbow. 

3. Environments that Boost Innovation and Creativity

Unfortunately, plenary rooms seem generally designed to boost the chances of a nap rather than innovation. Comfy seats and dim lighting encourage audience members to sit quietly rather than actively innovate. Two of our speakers bring tools to change that. The conductor Boris Brott provides tone bars so that attendees can make music in collaboration with the rest of the audience, and artist Phil Hansen provides drawing materials which are used to create a giant work of art. 

However, if you might be about to call up the Obamas or Oprah and tell them their keynote services are no longer required, Michel has some news. “There is still a lot of value in having a really phenomenal inspirational speaker or humorist for closing your conference. Most of us are brain dead by the last day and can’t absorb any more educational content, but someone who can make people feel really good about the work they do is a great way to finish on a high note.”

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.