It’s All On You: Will Your Keynote Speech Be a Home Run?

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It’s all been leading up to your 20 minutes on a stage…

The events team has spent a small fortune planning it…

The marketing team has spent six months promoting it…

And the sales team is waiting in the wings, eager to capitalize on it…

And all you have to do as the keynote speaker—is hit it out of the park!

Easy enough, right? Actually no. Most leaders say it’s one of the hardest things they’re asked to do. Few leaders like doing it, and no leaders like hearing the expectations described above. So, they wait too late to begin planning for it – and they strike out.

It happens more often than you might think. About 60% of all the keynotes that will be delivered in this upcoming conference season will fail in their main objective: positioning new opportunities for the company.

How can that be? After all, most company keynote speakers are senior executives with an entire support staff. So how can more than half of their keynotes fail to leave an audience impressed?

The truth is that most keynotes follow the same formula: the usual cliches to shine light on the brand, mixed with this year’s fresh coat of paint and a presentation about what you’re doing and why your customers need it.

And while this formula is easy to pull together by an internal marketing team, it rarely meets the expectations of what an audience came to hear. The audience wants a broader view. They want to hear industry insights and comparisons, they want perspective that is relevant and useful to their companies and their plans, and they want to be entertained by how the keynote speaker weaves it all together.

We’ve witnessed countless keynotes over the years, and this disconnect replays itself time and time again. A keynote speaker takes the stage to great fanfare and spends the next 20 minutes talking about their own company. They don’t connect the dots to marketplace issues, industry opportunities or their customers’ priorities. And the audience is left to figure out: does this matter to me?

It takes alignment on three key elements to make a keynote memorable and repeatable. And it’s why we developed our formula for a winning keynote:

A Clear Storyline + Memorable Stories + A Compelling Storyteller


The Storyline:

Impactful communication leverages the power and clarity of a storyline to lead listeners to a clear takeaway. It’s the right structure that leads listeners on an incredible journey with a blend of insights, discovery and a little fun.

The journey looks different from one keynote to the next, but great keynote speeches lead to big Aha’s. If there’s nothing new, the keynote just diluted the value of the entire conference. These are the headlines; these are the proof points, and this is the foundation that supports all the other sessions.



Audiences love stories because they’re repeatable when they’re told well. But only about 22% of stories that are told in business settings are memorable. And in our years of research on stories, there’s one pretty clear reason why: the story being told wasn’t aligned to the journey for the listener.

Successful storytelling ties together key points. We often say that a successful keynote can be measured by a listener who remembers your message and can validate it by repeating a story from your presentation.

Stories make a message real and bring complete ideas or data to life for an audience. But by themselves, their impact is limited. It’s the combination of stories within a storyline that gives a keynote its shelf life. Without a set storyline, stories entertain without leaving a lasting impact. And without stories, a storyline often struggles to bring points to life.

A keynote speaker needs both in order to make a message resonate until next year’s conference. And that leads to the differentiating element … the presenters themselves!


The Storyteller:

We tell many presenters that communication is a blend of head and heart. Good data points align with the brain and good stories align with the heart. Presenters who can engage both head and heart have a much better chance of connecting with an audience.

Great storytellers don’t just want you to hear their stories. They want you to feel the story and they inject emotion into stories in the way that they tell them. Think of a favorite speaker in business, comedy, politics, or religion. They all have a certain energy and conviction that seems to pull you in.

Most speakers aren’t willing to invest the time to learn how to do this well. They’re relying on the communication style they’ve had for more than a decade. And while it’s good enough for running a business meeting, it isn’t good enough to engage an audience from a stage. It takes coaching, it takes effort, and it takes the right blend of all three ingredients in our formula to bring it to life.

A Clear Storyline + Memorable Stories + A Compelling Storyteller


Conferences are back and bigger than ever. Your customers are giving you 2-4 full days of their time, and most companies are counting on only a few people to lead a journey that catapults everything else into place next year.

Are you one of the people they’re counting on?

It’s a lot of pressure, but we can ensure you’ll deliver on it. Invest the time and effort to improve your skills, and you’ll knock it out of the park.

If you’re the next speaker, commit to being the best one.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

Customer Conference Outcomes: It’s Harder Than You Think

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Customer conferences are back, and attendance is strong! The brief hiatus to virtual events didn’t hold up as a viable option. And the data proves it out. More than 70% of event planners say it’s too difficult to mimic a real-life experience virtually, and 67% say the brand narrative doesn’t come through. And that’s why 98% are back in convention centers, ballrooms and other venues to drive their marketing strategies.

But it’s a little different this time around.

Historically, the customer conferences belonged to the marketing team. They built the hype and positioned new products and ideas on a big budget with lots of bells and whistles to create a fun event. Sales jumped in post-conference and scheduled customer conversations and visits to generate an opportunity. The marketing investment was measured by attendance, customer fun and sales follow-up.

In the last year, sales leaders learned the hard way that conference expectations have to go up.

Here’s why:

In-person sales meetings have plummeted by 52% since the pandemic, and over 70% of buyers no longer want to invite a sales rep into an office. The “pitch” has been reduced to a virtual format and is easily delayed or stalled until a company is ready to buy something. That diminishes the sales team’s ability to pick up where the conference ideas wrap up, and in many cases, it eliminates an opportunity for a positioning conversation.

That may be why groups are disappointed in the gap between the event investment and the sales revenue. It doesn’t mean the events aren’t a good use of marketing dollars. But it does mean that focus and format may shift as expectations go up.

As your group begins to think about 2024 conferences, now is the time to add a new lens on your event and adjust expectations with your planning team. And that’s where we’ve jumped in to help sales and marketing teams rethink their conference to ensure outcomes are more than just fun and games.

From our perspective, there are three opportunities for connection: messaging, people and takeaways.



All companies work on themes and topics. But only a few really connect the dots across all the storylines. In most companies, marketing sets a plan and then hands topics to presenters and gives them general direction to build their talk track. When communication teams get involved, the keynotes improve but the thread of ideas across breakouts, demo sessions and all presenters is rarely evident.

That used to just be a lofty ideal state. But now, it’s the only way to ensure that messages are memorable and repeatable. You’re arming the conference attendees with thoughts that they will need to recall months later to consider your salesperson.

It’s aligning all presenters to a narrow group of messages that support a theme. It means that each portion of the conference builds on what came before it rather than heading in a different direction. And it works. Companies that we’ve helped link all pieces together see better results in continuing conversations and generating sales.



This seems like an easy one, but your customers find it harder to walk into a setting where they don’t know people. And even when they’re on site, they make choices not to do it.

You can host a cocktail hour, but you won’t see the easy engagement from a few years ago. We’ve learned this the hard way as small group programs came back on our calendar. People are more reticent to jump in and network. It’s been an awkward reset that hasn’t happened easily.

You have to organize and plan connection. You have to impose opportunities on people. And you have to put small groups together with a purpose. Mini events inside planned events make it easier. Time and time again, we see that people like a plan for fitting in, and they respond well to an activity to do with a small group.

We’ve seen the “miss on connection” play out many times. Earlier this year, we were on-site for a conference that included evening events. In hindsight, the marketing team realized there was little communication about plans for the first night’s dinner. They invited people with a time and location, but they didn’t say anything about what would happen when you arrived. And that’s probably why 65% of their attendees didn’t show up. The marketing team was shocked, and the CEO was mad. I’d seen this hesitancy before and suggested a different approach for the second night. Through light-hearted comments from the CEO, we added details for the second night and shared plans for assigned seating, planned discussion and activity. 95% of their attendees showed up the second night.

Take the hesitancy and awkwardness out of joining in. Make it easy for people to lean in and feel included during the conference.



Once the conference begins and a group settles in, your on-site team needs to work much harder to frame the next steps while your customers are there. This can work in conjunction with a plan to impose engagement. But it often takes a structured plan and a little coaching to help your team execute this.

You need to take advantage of your customers’ willingness to spend 2.5 days with you. You won’t get it again any time soon. Create a 10:1 ratio between people attending and people you have on-site. Leverage every employee to run a playbook that helps you get two steps ahead with needs, ideas and timetables with customers.

Sales teams show up at conferences and see their lead role as entertaining. That’s too low of an expectation. You need to be able to forecast, prioritize and strategize based on the insights you get at the conference. Rotate your top people through these groups and find ways to gather good insight and timing on a customer’s plans in the months ahead.

All conferences use apps, but you may not be leveraging all the capabilities available. You can build small groups in apps; you can change small groups in apps. And you can send a personalized agenda to each attendee every night. It may seem overwhelming to manage hundreds or thousands of attendees. But your employees can easily manage a group of ten. Test different ways to engage and different times throughout the conference for 1:1 conversations.


Conferences are at an all-time high, and customers are showing up in record numbers. But your sales team needs more than just interest and entertainment as a takeaway. It’s a different playbook that drives the ultimate connection through messages, people and takeaways. And we can help you get there.

Let us be your sounding board as conference planning gets underway.

We’re here when you need us!

Want a free 15-minute consultation with us to see how we can help you or your leaders? Book a call now!

Sally Williamson & Associates

How to Talk About Yourself

We all do it. We’re asked to step into the limelight from time to time. Most times we’re asked to give presentations on topics we know a lot about. Sometimes we’re asked to give speeches on topics we’ve led or direction we’ve set. But eventually, the journey for all communicators leads to the hardest topic of all: ourselves.

Nobody wants to give this speech. Everybody shies away from this topic. I think it’s because this is the topic we fear will disappoint a group or not live up to assumptions or expectations. And if you don’t consider your career path an incredible journey, you assume it isn’t worth telling. If your experiences can’t fill a best-selling novel, you assume we don’t want to hear them.

But that isn’t so. Everyone has a story or two within them. Talking about yourself helps people get to know you and trust you. Your stories make you real. They also make you vulnerable.

And that’s another reason people don’t like to talk about themselves. Career journeys aren’t limited to successes. In fact, most journeys have more challenges than successes. They’re crooked paths with dead ends, roadblocks and even a few falls. But that’s what we love about them. The career journey helps us relate to someone and potentially see a glimpse of what we have in common.

So, why is it hard? Because many people worry that sharing more about where you’re from, what you’ve tried and where you’ve failed may not justify the success you have now. It may not add up to the spot you’re in today. It doesn’t matter. It’s your journey, and you are where you are for good reason. What does matter is that you understand how to tell your story in a way that’s interesting to others.

And that’s where most people struggle. They don’t know how to tell their stories.

Case in point:

A few years ago, I was giving a keynote at a conference and was scheduled to follow a well-known business founder. I was intrigued to meet him and actually wondered how I would get a group to shift to my topic after his story. I shouldn’t have worried. Unfortunately, he bombed telling his own story.

Here’s why.

He told his career journey in terms of the big things he had accomplished. And he had accomplished a lot. But instead of talking about the challenges that led to accomplishments, he focused on his heroics. For thirty minutes, he went through step after step of building a very successful business. And not once, did he relate anything he said to the people sitting in the ballroom.  It felt like a canned speech, and it sounded like a homage to a hero.

The reason to share your story is to make it relatable to a listener. The people sitting in his audience didn’t relate to him as a successful founder or entrepreneur. And I kept thinking that within his glory, there must have been some failures or a few stumbles that they could relate to.

This is the core element of storytelling. The connection with the listener isn’t through great outcomes or success. It’s always with the challenge or the unexpected curve.

And that’s part of why it’s hard to tell your own story. You’re focused much more on the successes. That’s what you want the group to know.  It’s “How I Did This” or “How I Built This.” But the points of connection are always the struggles. It’s the little steps that make you human and vulnerable.

It’s hard to map it out because you lived it and you don’t always see it.  It’s less a chronology of everything you did; only your Mother cares about that. It’s more the cumulative learnings that shape who you’ve become and the stories you use to bring those learnings to life.

We’ve helped many managers and leaders tell their stories through a three-step process.

Here’s how we do it:

First, we map the journey.

We want to know what you’ve done and where you’ve been. We start from the early days and track every step leading to your current role. Sometimes we do this on a map; sometimes we do this on a timeline. We build the full picture so we can see the highlights and low-lights in perspective.

Second, we interview you to get more details about your journey.

We dig deeper to understand the experiences that seemed to matter the most. It’s never the same. But there are often patterns that help us color in the experiences that have shaped you. We call those your key learnings, and we sometimes identify them as the traits of your leadership.

And finally, we take those experiences and we bring them to life with specific stories.

Every journey has stories, but not all stories are worth sharing. Many communicators make the mistake of trying to tell too many. We focus on helping you get to three or four stories that will intrigue a listener. And we help you tell those stories really well.

When it’s complete, it’s no longer the dreaded career speech. It’s your story told in a manner that adds interest and meaning for listeners. It has highs and lows that engage a group and make you seem more “normal” than they might have assumed. And that’s pretty inspiring to any group.

So, when you’re asked to talk about yourself, let us help you do it. We’ll find those stories within you that can paint a picture of who you are and where you’ve been. And, I think you’ll find it more fun than you might have imagined.

We’re here when you need us!

Sally Williamson

From Conference Events to Virtual Conference Experiences

As companies begin to talk about returning to work, one big decision they’ll have to make is around their customer conference or their year-end events. Big events in second quarter were canceled or shifted to a virtual format. Third quarter events seem to be shifting to virtual, and most fourth quarter events are still on the fence. It’s a tough decision with valid points on either side of it. We’ve been a part of the transformation as many events shifted to a virtual format and just two months in, the shift has generated great discussion, key learnings and a new set of best practices.

Here are seven best practices that we’re using to help our clients reset the conference experience.

1. Shift your thinking from a virtual event to a virtual experience.

When your customers gather on-site for a conference event, you’ve created a total experience from the look and feel of the venue to the added elements of meals, activities and socializing that are woven throughout the event. When the conference goes virtual, you have to recreate the experience as something on a screen.  And you have to help viewers participate in order to keep them active in the event. The shift from attendees to viewers is the best way to rethink the conference experience. And in most cases, it’s best to start with a clean slate and create a different kind of experience.

2. Imagine the viewers setting during the experience.

The predictions are that most people will be back at work by third quarter. So, your viewers are likely to be back in an office setting. Consider whether you’re building an experience for an individual or a team. Can you create activities that teams will do together as a part of the virtual experience or are you focused only on an individual experience? It makes a difference in the viewership you may get with customers. Many companies are finding the virtual setting is a good format to double their attendance because it’s much easier for multiple viewers to attend. And, it may create some live feeds into your event from a customer’s setting.

3. Bring it to life for viewers in advance.

Just like you build hype for attendees, you’ll need to build hype for viewers. Shift your investment in swag from things given away at a conference to things that viewers will receive in advance. Send a box of things they’ll need during the experience. Break them up and send them one at a time to build suspense. Get every viewer intrigued and invested before the virtual experience begins. Consider partnering with a food vendor for coupons or delivery to add something to the setting in advance.

4. Build an experience to pull viewers through rather than disconnected content to push out.

Just as you imagine the big ballroom at the center of the on-site experience, you need to start with the screen and the online experience. Shift the investment in the grand scale of things to the activity and movement of things. Viewers won’t watch for hours, but they will participate for hours. Think of the difference in someone who watches a video versus someone who plays a video game.

Map the experience on a screen.  Think through the interactive components that will keep a viewer involved and interested in what’s ahead. You don’t have to gamify your event, but you will need an interactive role for viewers.

We’ve seen great ideas emerge around games, an animated MC, a chat room on the side, and virtual events that pop-up throughout the day.

5. Limit keynotes and expand the short segments.

The big ballroom presentations are the keystone of big conferences. Virtually, they aren’t as impactful. Simplify and limit the number of keynotes and streamline the messaging delivered in this format. The impact of keynotes comes through with the energy created in a large setting with a large audience. You can’t create that feeling virtually, so don’t try. Instead, focus more on short segments that can be repurposed and leveraged after the conference.

6. Lighten up the format, the content and the visuals.

PowerPoint doesn’t translate well on video. It’s a flat medium; video is not. Avoid the traditional role of presenters and lean into the dynamics of conversation. Video is a great medium for short, succinct and impactful messages. Consider powerful images and music to add energy in a different way.

Viewers prefer the talk show format. It takes energy to pull viewers in, and it helps for communicators to have a partner to help build this energy.

7. Add sizzle, surprise and reward.

You can keep viewers interested with a format that includes surprises and giveaways along the way. If you want viewers to participate throughout the day, incentivize them to do so. You’re competing with things that are happening all around them. You want to keep their focus on the screen or pull it back to the screen repeatedly.

One client knew the virtual format would require breaks. And, they were worried about getting viewers back after breaks. So, they made breaks longer and called them “walk abouts”. They kept talking, but they used light conversation to loosen up the format and keep content flowing. They never really disconnected with viewers, but it made it very easy for someone to leave a desk or chair and wander around for a period of time. These became some of the highest rated elements of their conference!


As we’ve worked on this new format, we’ve seen a lot of creativity and a lot of learning. And, I know we will see companies leverage the virtual channel very differently as we move ahead. We’ve also seen many challenges with this format. It isn’t an easy transition for a communicator, but it can be an impactful one when you learn the skills of structuring for a virtual viewer and connecting with an invisible audience. There’s no doubt, the time is right to add this skill to your toolkit.

Let us know if you need help with a virtual conference or a virtual meeting.

And as always, we’re here when you need us.

Sally Williamson