Over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to be the opening keynote speaker at over 300 conferences, meetings and conventions around the world. Agents at speaker bureaus instinctively knew to recommend me when a meeting planner was “looking for someone to set the tone for our event.” Instead of defining my current vocation as professional speaker, I think of myself as a Conference Kickoff Specialist.
Why me? I have enthusiasm, offer business-action content and have the right message (from Love Is the Killer App). I find a way to validate the theme of the event and highly customize my keynote address to connect with speakers or sessions to follow over the course of the event. Besides, I’m not afraid to speak at 8am, even to non-morning people.
I’ve been studying the art of the Opening General Session for several years now, and have a perspective about them. First, it’s important to understand the purpose of conferences and conventions: They are the engine of innovation and human connections for an organization or industry. In just a few days, you can create hundreds of friendly collisions, which lead to new ideas and robust relationships. This is why they exist, even when times are tough.
If that’s the charter, then what is the role of the Opening General Session? It encourages attendees to share knowledge with each other. It sets the stage with a theme, objectives for the event (often learning oriented) and if successful, generates a thirst to learn and teach. The session should also encourage networking and if possible, give insights on how to make meaningful connections. If the session drives these two activities (Knowledge sharing and Networking), then the event will drive real value that lasts long after the buffet food is digested and surveys are completed.
If you look up the definition of keynote, you’ll find my role in that session: A prevailing tone or central theme, typically one set or introduced at the beginning of a conference.
What would I likely talk about if I was the keynote speaker at your Opening General Session?
- Learners Are Leaders – The landscape at work and in the market is changing fast. It rewards learners and punishes coasters, who try and get by on yesterday’s education. Some of the smartest and most successful people I’ve worked for (e.g. Mark Cuban) are first and foremost students with a voracious appetite to learn. For them, a conference would be a feeding frenzy of intelligence. Attend sessions, walk the trade show floor and open your mind up to learn.
- Knowledge Is Only Power If We Share It – Information silos kill organizations. They bottle up all the learning and dribble it out politically. This is how legacy companies get passed by when times change and startups show up…with a culture of sharing not protecting.
- If You Share Ideas, You Gain Insights – When we use conference time to share ideas, learnings and research with each other, we enter a virtuous cycle of learning. The more we invest in sharing with others, the more we receive from them. The reciprocity habit is ingrained in our psyche: When someone gives you a tip, you try and give one back.
- We Are Only As Strong As Our Collective Know How – Sure, times change, but the learning organization benefits the most from the disruption. If parts of our organization or industry aren’t current in their thinking, bad things can happen for everyone involved. It’s the struggling division or company that drags down the whole, and often, their problem is a lack of intellectual capital.
- Your Network Is Your Net Worth – Our professional connections are our greatest resource at work. When we build up a rich network of smart, generous and tenacious people, there’s nothing we can’t tackle. On a personal level, your network offers you everything you need from mentorship to encouragement to resources.
- Networking Is About Giving, Not Gaining – The best networkers in history were highly generous. They leveraged every interaction into an opportunity to identify opportunities to connect people that “should meet”. They expected nothing in return, other than follow up on the part of those they connected. Their networks grew exponentially as a result.
- You Are Not Your Title, Following Or Wealth – You live a story about the difference that you made. At work, it most comes down to educating others (including clients) and problem solving. You will do this best if you believe that there’s enough to go around, enough to share. If you want to make a name for yourself, take this opportunity to introduce yourself around the event and find your way to make your mark.
Example: Here’s a clip from my keynote address at the opening general session for the Association of College and Technical Educators. My goal was to get them hungry for the rest of the program content and eager to connect with each other.
I’d love to open your next conference or convention. Please suggest me to your meeting planner or speaker bureau agent. For more information, contact me.