The Anatomy of a Keynote Speech

I get a lot of questions about speaking, including how I prepare, how I engage the audience, and so on. For example, in May 2014 I gave the opening keynote presentation at the Global Scrum Gathering in New Orleans. Immediately after I completed my speech (and continuously since then), I received great feedback and plenty of questions, many of which were similar. Typically, when I get the same questions or comments repeatedly, I take that as a sign that a blog post is in order. I’ll use my May 2014 keynote as an example, but the advice applies to any important speech or training effort.

You win or lose in the prep

An important thing to keep in mind is that I didn’t start my speaking career at the keynote level. Learning how to speak publically on such a large stage is a career-long endeavor. At least 20 people asked me how long I prepped before I delivered the Scrum Alliance keynote. My answer to them? “Over 25 years!” Meaning, I have prepped more or less my entire professional career to give that presentation.

You can’t just whip up a few slides and stand in front of the mirror prepping for a couple of hours the night before the presentation and expect to deliver a memorable keynote (at least not me). I truly believe that I could not have given the presentation that I did had I not been refining my skills as a presenter for over 25 years.

Brief historical note. In 1988 I was the original, and for many years the principal, trainer at ParcPlace System (the company that brought Smalltalk out of the research labs at Xerox PARC). I am certain that I have trained more people in the world on object-oriented development with Smalltalk than just about anyone else—probably over 10,000 people. I have recently surpassed the 10,000-person mark of people I have trained in agile. So overall, I have trained more than 20,000 people.

Apply Agile Principles: Small Batches and Fast Feedback

I create my presentations in an incremental, evolutionary manner. Since I have frequent speaking opportunities, I try out the delivery of an individual idea or concept with smaller audiences (30 to 50 people) at frequent intervals. Based on the fast feedback I get, I inspect and adapt both the material and how I present it.

It is typical that my larger, more important presentations are significantly composed of proven material that has been vetted and refined through numerous prior deliveries. For presentations like my Scrum Gathering Keynote, the uncertainty is whether the composition of vetted material and the new materials I create specifically for the keynote form a coherent message that effectively conveys my thesis/goal for the presentation.

Whenever possible, I want to find an appropriate audience with whom I can vet the full composition. In the case of the New Orleans keynote presentation, I tried out a first draft with an agile users group in the U.S. I then refined the presentation based on the feedback I got and delivered it one more time to a different agile users group.

Next, and really its first major unveiling, was the inaugural Regional Scrum Gathering in Sydney, Australia, in April 2013—a full year before the keynote in New Orleans. The Australia Gathering was a major event (over 300 people) and I prepped for it with the same intensity with which I prepared for the Global Scrum Gathering keynote.

Not only did the positive reviews from the Australia Gathering presentation in 2013 lead directly to my invitation to speak at the Global Scrum Gathering in 2014, but also the feedback and learning I took from the first major delivery of this presentation helped me hone my message, revise my slides, and clear up ambiguities. Subsequent to the Australia presentation, I delivered the presentation to several other agile user groups in the United States, continuing to refine the material and its delivery in preparation for the Global Scrum Gathering.

So, by the time I took the stage in New Orleans, I had a proven, effective presentation that I was very comfortable delivering.

Borrow from Others

Prior to the Australian Gathering, I worked hard to design a very effective presentation. The result was well received. However, in the spirit of continuous improvement, I wanted to take things to the next level at the New Orleans Gathering. With over 25 years of experience giving presentations, I have my own ideas of what I believe works and doesn’t work, but I really wanted to learn from others who have given truly inspiring presentations. So, months before the New Orleans Gathering, I started watching highly regarded TED talks and read a few books on how to give a great TED talk. Based on what I saw and read, I reaffirmed things I was already doing and made some improvements. For example:

1. I opened the presentation using a combination of two of the most powerful opening techniques:

  • I first asked two relevant questions that would resonate with all attendees. The questions I chose were 100% relevant to the presentation I was about to give (but not in an overly obvious way).
  • I then told a personal story that everyone in attendance could relate to and that underscored the critical message I wanted to deliver.

2. I then very specifically told the audience what they would understand by the time I had finished, without giving away the surprise of what I would discuss (keep ’em on the edge of their seats).

These might seem like small things (and they are certainly not the only ways in which the best TED talks influenced my presentation), but they were powerful. I get emails almost daily from people who were at the presentation or who watched the video commiserating with me about the restaurant situation I told in my story and how that analogy perfectly describes the actions and attitudes of their companies.

Choose Your Topic Carefully

My keynote was titled “Economically Sensible Scrum.” I chose this for a couple of reasons. First, I have deep knowledge of the topic. The material in the presentation is mainly drawn from various areas of my Essential Scrum book. That book took me three years to write and edit, so I am intimate with the content. Also, many of the concepts in the presentation I also cover in my training classes, so am used to discussing them on a regular basis.

The second reason I zeroed in on Economically Sensible Scrum as a topic is that it is my job as the opening keynote for the conference to set the agenda and tone. The topic, therefore, needed to be provocative and discussion worthy. In other words, a good keynote generates good, constructive conversation and buzz. It is not as important that everyone agree with me as that they begin to think and talk about what I’ve said.

The thesis of my presentation was:

Having teams perform Scrum or any agile process exactly right, in a textbook-like fashion, does not guarantee you will meet your organization’s goals. You need to perform economically sensible Scrum to achieve success.”

So here I am kicking off the Scrum conference by saying that even if you do great team-level Scrum it may not be sufficient to be successful. I imagine that not everyone agreed with that premise! My hope was that their inherent skepticism would keep people focused on what I had to say to see if I could make my case. And for the people who did agree with the initial premise, my goal was go give them even more ammunition to make their own case when engaging with people in this debate.

Did it work? I think so. Right before I gave the presentation, at least 10 people approached me to say, “Hey, I’m skeptical, but let’s hear what you have to say.” After the presentation, I heard a lot of people talking about the concepts I used and even heard a number of other speakers referring back to the keynote. That was important to me. If you set the agenda properly, other presenters should be saying things like “as you heard Ken mention in his keynote address,” or “let me expand on a concept that you heard in the keynote.”

By the way, my apologizes to the one presenter who approached me after the keynote and said, “Ok, thanks (with a smile), now I have to think about what I am going to say since a section of your keynote covered my entire presentation as well.” Sorry, I wish I could have avoided that!

Be Convincing, Engaging, & Aware

I have to admit that one of the most satisfying outcomes of the presentation is the warm emails or in-person comments made to me by other Scrum trainers. I am grateful for everyone’s feedback, of course. But to get the recognition from others who are out there day to day, in the trenches, like me, is especially sweet. More so since I might, from time to time, compete with these same people for business. It just shows the professionalism of these folks to be willing to share praise when they feel it is warranted.

Here is a snippet from one email I received from a training colleague:

Your presentation was a perfectly nuanced and yet appropriately stark representation of how the Scrum framework needs to have all of the other organizational supporting elements, many of them cultural, in order to truly succeed. You were funny, engaging, intelligent, animated, and passionate about the subject, and it was definitely a highlight of the Gathering for me. Thank you!

I certainly appreciate the kind remarks in the first sentence (indicating to me that this person agreed with the core of the message I was trying to deliver). This is the primary goal of any presenter: provide a clear and convincing presentation of the essential point you want to make so that it benefits the listeners.

The second sentence highlights the skill that took me 25 years to develop: be engaging. To demonstrate some of the things I deliberately do to try to connect with my audience, I want to reference this video recording the Scrum Alliance was kind enough to create. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that I am constantly moving laterally across the stage. I did that to involve every audience member. There were two screens (on the left and right sides of the stage) projecting the slides. I would have preferred one screen in the middle, but for 600 people, two screens do make sense.

What you really can’t see in the video is that I am working really hard not to just look at the people in the front row, but instead all the way to the back. As an aside, had there not been a podium dead center in the middle of the stage (that I neither needed nor really wanted), I would have spent a bit more time in the middle of the stage and then turned left and right to engage the audience. However, I loathe standing in front of a podium; I have to be mobile (I think better walking around). In typical agile fashion, one must inspect and adapt given the obstacles one is given, so I just worked around the podium!


Another way to keep the audience interested is to be animated and passionate. I’m not sure my level of animation and passion in the video comes across at the same level that I felt—and others told me they felt—in the room. I have learned over the years that if I watch someone’s (anyone’s) presentation live and then later a recording of it, the live version is always better!

The two words in my colleague’s comment that I most appreciate are: “perfectly nuanced.”  That is really the part that is the hardest to achieve. Defining perfectly nuanced is difficult (Maybe it’s similar to the way the Supreme Court of the U.S. defined pornography: You can’t really define it, but you know it when you see it). To me, one important dimension of being perfectly nuanced is timing—knowing when to pause and for how long. I think you only get this by having a lot of experience with your materials. It is especially important if you are going to try to be funny—I think we can all appreciate that in comedy, a lot of the effect is in the timing.

To get to this state, you have to be able to go “meta” on yourself. This was a concept I learned in my first and only class that I took on how to be an effective speaker (back in 1987). The instructor of that class said something that has stuck with me to this day: “Accomplished speakers can go meta on themselves. It is as if they are outside their own body watching themselves speak and can give corrective feedback in real time.” I had been speaking for over 5 years before this finally happened to me. I remember I was teaching a Smalltalk class and I found myself telling the speaker (who was also me) things such as, “Take your hands out of your pocket, try to make eye contact with more people, write more clearly on the whiteboard.” All the while the speaker’s mouth (mine) was still moving and the proper words were coming out.

During my Scrum Gathering keynote, I spent most of the time outside my own body, aware of what I was doing and giving myself feedback about how to improve in real time.

Get Feedback from Your Audience

If you made it this far, you must truly be interested in one guy’s thoughts on how to prep for and deliver a keynote presentation. In case you are interested, here are some links to the video and slides:

May 2014 Keynote Video: Economically Sensible Scrum

Even though the video is high quality, it lacks the energy that existed in the room of 600 people (in part because you can’t really hear what the audience is saying or see how they are participating when I asked them questions). Also, you can’t see the slides in the video, which does reduce the usefulness of the video (since most of my slides are highly graphical and I am frequently referring to something on a slide). The good news, you can download the slides here:

Keynote Slides: Economically Sensible Scrum

If you have other questions or comments, or some speaking advice of your own to share, I’d love to hear from you. Please post your comments here and we’ll continue the conversation!