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9 steps to being a brilliant keynote or public speaker

Updated: Apr 30

When I was early in my career I got the bug for running events and workshops. I was running a tiny PR agency and saw the opportunity to stand out and attract new business by getting in front of people and sharing my expertise. I loved being put on the spot with questions, thinking on my feet and going with the flow of a talk with little or no rehearsal.


However, you can't always wing it, so here are my 7 tips for being a brilliant event, workshop or keynote speaker, whatever the circumstances - big crowd, small, rowdy or silent.


Looking for a keynote speaker on brand for your event or conference? I speak on the topics of brand strategy, brand growth and personal brand around the world, so get in touch to find out more.


How to master the art of speaking at events.




Catherine Warrilow speaking at the Sykes Cottages annual conference



1. Slow it down

Some of the most engaging, enigmatic speakers you'll ever have the pleasure of listening to, are masters of the dramatic pause. Especially during the first few minutes of their talk.

A pensive pause between the points you're making adds weight to the idea you are articulating. And the thoughtfulness and clarity slowing everything down brings, introduces a genuine air of authority and intelligence.

On top of these benefits that captivate your audience, you also give yourself time to stay steady, consider your words, take in how the audience are responding to you, and be sure sure you've covered all of the points you wanted to.



2. Make it easy for your audience to interact

This is one of my super skills, and it's a really great skill to master. I think it's dangerous to assume that you don't need participation, and that you are presenting, telling a story or providing an update that doesn't require any interaction.

Whether you're presenting the annual performance report, or telling your life story, bring the audience on a journey with you. Get their ideas, questions, feedback and feelings throughout - make it a conversation and you'll enjoy far better feedback as a result.


3. Do some research on your attendees

Regardless of whether your crowd is eager to hear you speak, or they're attending begrudgingly because they have to be there, it pays to have some background knowledge in your back pocket - especially if you find yourself in a position where you have to warm people up a little.

I do this particularly when I am doing workshop style presentations and I'm delivering tips, strategies and advice. I'll research a handful of people I know are attending, find out a little about their business, have a little look around their website and have some questions prepped around that. Sometimes I give the attendee a heads up, other times, not - depending on the circumstances. I use this knowledge to break the ice, to create relatable discussion in the room, and to encourage participation. Usually this starts the ball rolling with other questions from the room.


4. Give added value to a small audience

Sometimes you're expecting a small group and other times you're booked for 100 and you have a lot of empty seats.

Start by bringing people closer together, ask people to move to the front, and if you were on a podium come down to their level and either sit with them or perch on the edge of the stage.

Make the people who have made the effort to join you feel important and that they're accessing something that is worth being there for. You can do this by suggesting you're changing the format to make it even more valuable to them, or you're changing the approach so it's most fun, quick-fire or action driven - whatever you think suits the setting.

On top, ask people questions up front - what do they want to go away with, if they could solve any problem right now what would it be. Be humble and authentic, if they're not issues you can address, then say so - have fun with it and create a relaxed rapport.

Send people away feeling a sense of surprise and delight. That it was time well spent and it was curated especially for them.



4. Create an electric atmosphere with a big crowd

I once spoke in the Brighton Dome to an audience of 3000. When I finished my talk, I put my hands in the air and said 'thank you - thank you very much' like I was on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. Delusions maybe, but I was proud of the vibe I'd created in my short 25 minute slot. It was in the days when Twitter was the channel of choice and I'd encouraged interaction on there with a small Lego-based bribe. It worked.

And as I returned to my seat, people ruffled my shoulder, clapped, waved and smiled. I felt like a god. So what had created this magic?

A combination of things. My opening line was self-deprecating and raised a smile. Message me if you want to know what it was. As well as this, I used case studies and examples that you really wouldn't expect. Not from household brands, not with rose-tinted outcomes - grubby, messy ideas that really made people think about marketing, growth, their business - everything - people were gripped.

Finally, it was about being authentic. I was a little out of my depth and I knew it. I asked the audience to come with me on a journey - to help me guide them and to be a part of it. I needed them to. And they did - I asked them to meet me on my level and all of a sudden that huge auditorium became intimate.


5. Make it okay to ad-lib

I did a talk on what makes brilliant brands, and the content was great, but I'd put it together weeks and weeks before the event, did practice it and then rocked up with epic slides and no idea what I wanted to say about each of them.

I had a choice; fudge it or fess up. I chose to be honest and admit upfront that I was under prepared. Some bits were disjointed, some bits waffly, and others I had to refer to my notes. But I brought the audience into my world, made the talk light, practical and relevant and I royally winged it.

I'm not saying this is the ideal scenario, far from it. But it's entirely possible that at some stage, you'll find yourself in these same uncomfortable shoes. So best have a backup plan, right? The key if you're making it up as you go is to pace yourself. If you're unprepared and you rush, it's going to be a car crash. If you're rolling with it and you take time to explore the theme with your audience, working in current, relevant examples to illustrate your points, you'll fare better. If you're really having a terrible time, then pause - push a question out to the audience and change tact to a Q&A style session.


6. Encourage social sharing

I always, always, always put a QR code to my LinkedIn profile on my slides. At the start, during and at the close, I ask people to share their thoughts on the talk and tag me in. Sometimes I incentivise sharing, other times I give something away during the session that warrants being photographed. Another option is to create a challenge and gamify it to bring out people's competitive nature. That might be to get the best photo during the session and share it for example.


7. Create one very clear takeaway

Consistency throughout a talk is really important to keep people interested and give them an anchor to keep coming back to. At the end, you want to conclude with one clear takeaway. Literally if the audience take away nothing else, this is the one thing you want them to remember. It should be a mantra, objective or action that underpins everything you've talked about. It will be designed to provoke new thinking, create action or discussion. Whatever it is, make it short and memorable to the point that people will say 'I listened to this great person speak and they said...'.


8. Add context with real-time examples

I've touched on this already, but a brilliant way to engage an audience is to talk about relevant examples of things happening in their world to illustrate a point. That also needs to be relevant to the topic you're covering so either ask the audience for challenges they're facing right now, or use some quick thinking and bring in current affairs that work in the situation. You'll find that people start asking questions and asking for examples around their industry. I tend to use prompts like 'tell me about a time when' or 'what is the impact of...'


9. Make it easy for people to connect with you

I talked about sharing a QR code for my LinkedIn profile in point 6. As well as this you want to be easy to discover after the event, even if people don't note down anything other than your name. Google your own name, see what comes up. Make sure your contact details are on your LinkedIn profile. Make sure your website is up to date, all that jazz. Because most of us don't carry business cards anymore, it's really important.



Interested in me speaking at your event or conference but want a little proof?

Here's what others say:


"Catherine is one of the best keynote speakers on brand you could possibly want - very few people have had such a profound impact on the way I see things"


"The preparation and time to understand our business and brief were unmatched and the session she ran on brand strategy was super engaging"


"We've never had engagement like it from our teams for a keynote speaker - Catherine's approach to growing brands was a breath of fresh air"


Get in touch now - I'm one of the best UK female keynote speakers on the topic of brand and I travel internationally to speak at events.




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Mar 03
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Brilliant! Very useful and helpful tips!

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