Tis the season for college graduations and I was recently asked to deliver a keynote speech as part of an engineering graduation ceremony. The interesting thing about this speaking opportunity was that I was basically starting from ground zero – I didn’t have an engineering keynote speech in my bag of tricks. This meant that I needed to build one from the floor up quickly – they asked me just a week before the big day.
As I was pulling together my keynote, it dawned on me that lots of presenters often find themselves in a similar situation and may not know how to go about creating a keynote speech that will fit the occasion. In an effort to fill this knowledge gap, I’m going to share with you the steps that I went though to build my keynote speech and, because I delivered it last night, I can also give you some feedback on what worked and what didn’t.
- Always Start With Your Audience: I followed this rule! I realized that I was going to be talking to a group of graduating engineering students, some of their parents, their professors, and various other people (dates, administrators, etc.). This gave me a fairly homogeneous group and that meant that I needed to work “engineering” content into my speech so that they would feel as though I was talking directly to them.
- Start At The End: What’s the purpose of a keynote? You probably aren’t going to change any lives so you had better make sure that you don’t try to. In my case, I decided that I had two goals: to entertain and to provide motivation for the graduates to succeed as they moved forward (“We know that you can do it”).
- Content Is King: So what to say? Since I knew that I was not going to be changing any lives with my speech, I decided to focus on two things: funny stories that have happened to me during my career and a discussion about what things the graduates needed to be aware of in order to have a great career. I mixed in several references to paying off student loans (everyone has those), homework (all engineers have too much of that), and dealing with professors. These were common elements that everyone could relate to.
- Watch The Clock!: Early on I asked how much time I had for my keynote. I was told that 20 minutes would be perfect. It turned out that this was very important – I shaped my entire speech to fit in this time. It is instant death to the speaker who goes on too long especially in an after-dinner speaking situation like this was. People speak at about 150 words/minute and since I was going to be speaking for 20 minutes I knew that I had to limit myself to about 3,000 words which meant that I needed to…
- Write It Out!: There is some controversy to this point, but here goes it anyway: I wrote my speech out from start to finish. There were two reasons that I did this. The first was to make sure that I could fit my speech into the 20 minute window – my written speech needed to be no more than 3,000 words long. The next was because I could remember reading somewhere that if you want to deliver a memorable speech, then you need to get your wording just perfect (“I have a nice thought” vs. “I have a dream”). In order to do this you need to write the speech out word for word. So I did it. Then I proceeded to revise it 1,000,000 times.
- Memorize It!: So if you are never supposed to write out your speech, then of course you should never memorize it! However, that is basically exactly what I ended up doing. I practiced my speech over and over reading it as it was written. After about 5 times of doing this, I was able to spend more time looking at my (pretend) audience than looking at my written speech. Did I ever completely memorize my speech, no. I did get it stuck in my brain well enough so that I really only used my written out speech as an occasional reminder. This mean that I spent most of the speech making eye contact with my audience.
- Use BIG Print: For the version of my written out speech that I had before me when I was delivering the speech, I made some changes to the written out speech. I increased the font size to a nice, easy to read 16 point Arial. I then turned every sentence into its own bullet point. Needless to say this resulted in a longer printed speech – it was 13 pages long in its final form! Oh, make sure that you put PAGE NUMBERS on each page of your printed speech – you just know that you’ll drop the whole thing as you walk to the podium!
- A Highlighter Is Your Friend: As I read over my 13 pages of bulleted sentences, I found it difficult to keep my place. I ended up using a highlighter to highlight the one or two words in each sentence that were the key idea. This allowed my eyes to dance from highlighted word to highlighted word and that helped me to keep my place better.
- PowerPoint Can Be Your Friend: I’m really good looking, but 20 minutes is a long time for an audience to spend staring at me. Since PowerPoint slides were already being used as a part of the graduation dinner, I decided to create some to use as part of my keynote. I ended up creating just 10 slides and none of them contained any words – each just contained a single photo. As I delivered my speech, I had written out [man with truck slide] and so I knew when to move to the next slide. Each slide reflected what I was talking about at the time in my speech so the two media, spoken word and displayed image, helped each other. Oh, and I have a Kensington wireless remote control device that I used to automatically advance to the next slide – much smoother than having to run over and hit the space bar (or say “next!”)
- Have A Good Ending: Ultimately, this is what will stick in everyone’s memory. I took some extra time and carefully worded my last few sentences so that everyone would feel a warm glow of congratulations for the graduates and they would feel as though they had been recognized for their achievements.
So how did it all turn out? I’d give myself a score of 90/100. The PowerPoint pictures that I used were very well received (here is one with a guy and a truck so you can see what they were laughing at) and so I probably should have used more of them. I explained how Milton Bradly’s “The Game of Life” had good lessons for all of us and that went over fairly flat (not enough laughs). I would make changes if I ever gave this speech again, but I received lots of compliments. Making a speech to engineers interesting AND funny is no simple task!
Have you ever been asked to give a keynote speech? How did you go about creating your content? Did you write your speech out or just speak from notes? Did you use any visuals? How did your speech turn out? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.