The Art of the Keynote

When I started working at Apple in 1986 I was afraid of public speaking—for one thing, working for the division run by Steve Jobs was intimidating: “How could I possibly measure up to Steve?” But if you want to succeed as an evangelist and CEO, you must learn how to make speeches.

It took me twenty years to get comfortable with public speaking, and this chapter explains what I’ve learned. I am not content that you merely survive speeches. I want you to get standing ovations.

  • Have something interesting to say. This is 80 percent of the battle. It’s much easier to give a great speech if you have something to communicate. End of discussion. If you don’t have anything to say, decline the speech. If you don’t want to decline, then do some research and get something interesting to say.
  • Remove the sales pitch. The purpose of most keynotes is to entertain and inform the audience. It is seldom intended to provide an opportunity to pitch your product. The worst speech you can give is one that people interpret as a sales pitch.
  • Customize the intro. The technique that has helped me the most in public speaking is customizing the first three to five minutes of every speech. This demonstrates that you’ve your homework and have made an effort to craft a speech that is a valuable and special experience. I try to find a personal link to the audience. For example, when I spoke for Acura, I showed pictures of the two Acuras and two Hondas that I own. When I travel, I often show myself in a local setting.
  • Focus on entertaining. Many speech coaches will disagree with this, but they don’t speak fifty times a year like I do. My theory is that the goal of a speech is to entertain. If people are entertained, you can also slip in a few nuggets of information. But if your speech is dull, no amount of information will make it great.
  • Don’t denigrate the competition. Don’t criticize your competition in a speech because it indicates that you are taking undue advantage of the privilege of the audience’s attention. You are not doing the audience a favor. The audience is doing you a favor, so do not lower yourself by using it as an opportunity to slander your competition.
  • Tell stories. The best way to relax when giving a speech is to tell stories. Stories about your youth. Stories about your kids. Stories about your customers. Stories about things that you read about. When you tell a story, you lose yourself in the storytelling. You’re not “making a speech” anymore. You’re making conversation. Good speakers are good storytellers; great speakers tell stories that support their message.
  • Pre-circulate with the audience. True or false: The audience wants your speech to go well. The answer is True. Audiences don’t want to see you fail—why would people want to waste their time listening to you fail? The way to heighten your audience’s concern for your success is to circulate with the audience before the speech. Talk to people. Let them make contact with you. Especially the ones in the first few rows; then, when you’re on stage, you’ll see these friendly faces. Your confidence will soar. You will relax. And you will be great.
  • Speak at the start of an event. If you have the choice, speak at the beginning of an event. The audience is fresher then, so they’re more apt to listen to you, laugh at your jokes, and follow along with your stories. On the third day of a three-day conference, the audience is tired, smaller, and thinking about going home. It’s hard enough to give a great speech—why increase the challenge by having to lift the audience out of the doldrums?
  • Ask for a small room. If you have a choice, use the smallest room possible. If you’re in a large room, ask that it be set classroom style—that is, with tables and chairs—instead of theatre style. A packed room is a more emotional room. It is better to have 200 people in a 200-person room than 500 people in a 1,000-person room.
  • Practice and speak all the time. This is obvious but nonetheless relevant. You need to give a speech at least twenty times in order to get good at it. You can give it nineteen times to your dog if you like, but it takes practice and repetition. As Jascha Heifetz said, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it. If I don’t practice two days, my critics know it. If I don’t practice three days, everyone knows it.”

I hope it takes you less than twenty years to get to this point. Part of the reason why it took me so long is that no one explained the art of giving a speech to me, and I was too dumb to do the research.

This post is a tiny part of Guy Kawasaki’s latest book, The Art of the Start 2.0. Read it and reap…

By |2016-10-24T14:09:13+00:00March 9th, 2015|Categories: Books, Events|Tags: , , |10 Comments

About the Author:

Guy Kawasaki is the chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic design tool. Formerly, he was an advisor to the Motorola business unit of Google and chief evangelist of Apple. He is also the author of The Art of Social Media, The Art of the Start, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, Enchantment, and nine other books. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.


  1. Kai March 9, 2015 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    One word for practice: Toastmasters.

  2. Russell Scott Day March 10, 2015 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    This is particularly strong and useful advice from the book Art of the Start 2.0. I have vowed to make more speeches this year. So far I’ve only made two. I do speak into my web channel. I am alone, the energy is low. I treat it as it is, and have spoken closer to the camera, but softer.

  3. Sudesh Prasad March 10, 2015 at 11:38 pm - Reply

    Great tips, I often wonder why speakers (not only keynote) try and do the sales pitch. The only reason is the conference business models are built on the concept of ‘free’ and ‘paid’ speeches. So if you are at an event by virtue of you being a sponsor, you would try and hard sell, that is the typical mindset and I have seen how the hardsell has resulted in audience leaving in droves. The better strategy even if you are a speaker by virtue of you being a sponsoer is to avoid completely mentioning about your cos’s products and solutions and focus completely on technology, trends etc. If you are convincing in your thought process about a technology or a solution to a tech challenge or a problem, please would obviously walk to you after yr speech is over or during breaks. There you can do your sales pitch while exchanging the cards, not on the podium

    • Russell Scott Day March 11, 2015 at 11:01 am - Reply

      My purpose in giving speeches has become political. One of my most successful speeches of the past was given in conjunction with a rocket launch. The rocket was a little Estes thing with a message written on it. I think for me the main thing is to enjoy myself as much as possible. The little message rocket is part of an overall strategy of Pro Active Civil Demonstration. I imagine drones dropping money, or flowers, or popcorn, for instance. It is intended to be attractive to the powerful, as active use of soft power.

  4. 3dyee March 13, 2015 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    This article from Mr. Guy Kawasaki we were very excited because it may give a lot to learn about the stages of an orator. This can be applied in many areas, and I am grateful for this article. thank you

  5. Speaker,Healthcare Consultant,Executive Leadership Coach, March 15, 2015 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    Excelent article and I do echo what Guy says about PRACTICE !!!

  6. Michelle Carden March 16, 2015 at 6:36 pm - Reply

    There’s some really great tips there, particularly about room size and networking before the talk begins. I’ll give them a try before my next talk.

  7. ravitg March 20, 2015 at 7:12 am - Reply

    Thank you for these posts and the incredibly useful tips. I think in the beginning of every speech is when you grasp the audience’s attention, and adding a little bit of humour and entertainment is just a bonus! I also look toward Giles Cadman and his blog for business advice especially when I need to go out and present. What do you think?

    • Russell Scott Day March 20, 2015 at 9:00 am - Reply

      I thought Guy emphasized that the jokes are not likely to do you the good you might hope for. Personally I take his suggestions as seriously experienced, and therefore valuable. If you want to cheer people with jokes you might better hire a professional comic as a warmup, but then there is also the content to wonder over. Overall I am certain that what is most important is that you as a speaker are enjoying yourself when you speak to the crowd. That is for me the lesson I have taken away from my own experiences speaking, and also performing as a Stand-Up to the level of the pro set of 45 minutes. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse, and the mirror will tell you the truth.

  8. Maurice DeCastro December 31, 2015 at 1:45 am - Reply

    Brilliant advice, especially encouraging speakers to ‘focus on entertaining’. I’ve included this as one of my personal favourites for 2015.Best wishes, Maurice

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