Confessions of an Accidental Keynote Speaker

Accidental speaking means going out of your comfort zone – and that’s a good thing

April 20, 2017


I’m writing this from the back of a taxi on my way back home from Dublin. I had to stop and think for a moment whether or not I delivered a keynote there, but I didn’t. That was two days ago in London and last week in New York City. Travel starts to bleed together a bit when you book too much of it at the same time – and I’m pretty tired at the moment. How’d they go? The NYC gig was okay, I guess. I didn’t make the top nine moments at the show. But Tuesday in London I absolutely nailed it. How do I know that? It’s a feeling, an unmistakable feeling. You just know.

The title for this blog post came to me on the plane back home tonight – and I had to write it quickly, in the back of this car, because it’s the most honest expression I’ve yet come up with of my relationship to speaking. I have a confession to make, you see. I’ve bombed quite a few sessions and keynotes in my time and you never quite get over that feeling. It’s like when I go to shoot my favorite band, in the evenings that I spend as a concert photographer, and miss that one shot I was going for. The only cure for getting over it is to wait for the next gig, the next opportunity, and nail it. That’s pretty much how it goes with keynotes as well. That negative feeling never quite goes away; it just gets re-classified as a learning experience when you turn things around triumphantly the next time you’re up. That’s what I had on Tuesday in London, but it’s only going to stick around until the next test.

Why keynotes are tougher than hair metal

As I prepare for my next gig, I’m reminded of how difficult this all is and how it’s a good thing that I don’t like to sleep, because I don’t get much of it. You see, I’m not really supposed to be a keynote speaker. The only stage experience I have is from my 80s hair metal band days, and then I could hide behind my bass guitar, my long hair, and my zebra-striped spandex. We could totally suck, but as long as we looked good doing it, we were rock stars (in certain zip codes anyway).

Keynote audiences may try to be as forgiving – but they’re not really. You can sense the disappointment when something fails to land, fails to resonate. I’m discovering this as I go along – because speaking is not my career, it’s just something I’ve naturally grown into as an expression of what I’m doing in my career. There’s a beneficial feedback loop to life as a content marketer. However, if I’m honest, the real thrill is discovery: discovering what you’re capable of and discovering for yourself what works – and what doesn't. That rollercoaster emotional ride between New York and London has got me thinking about exactly what fits into either category.

You never grow out of the need for a mentor

I’ve never had any formal training, but I’ve studied the best and read a crapton of books on the topic. I’ve gone to countless numbers of conferences and watched the greats of my B2B marketing field in action: Ann Handley, Scott Stratten, Mitch Joel, Jon Miller. I’ve connected with them off-stage to try and figure out what makes them tick – and offered to help them out in any way they like, in exchange for the opportunity to learn.

Tonight, staring out at London as I head home, I’m thinking back to those early days and how any would-be speaker needs a mentor. Books and theories are great – and soaking it all up gave me a fantastic start. But it’s the insight you get from someone who’s walking the walk all the time that really counts. Did I say any would-be speaker needs a mentor? The truth is that any actual speaker needs a mentor. I miss having one. That's something I intend to fix – I’m sure plenty of other accidental keynote speakers would benefit from doing the same.

Leverage the advantages of accidental speaking

Eventually I started getting small gigs. From the start, I was proud to be an accidental speaker. I have a team to manage and a content strategy to lead, and those two things are always going to be most important to me. I’ve always treated speaking gigs as an opportunity to tell people what I’m doing in my day job – and share what I’ve learned about digital marketing during my time at Marketo and LinkedIn. As I got more comfortable I started adding in my personality, my love of music, my love of Seinfeld, and my instinct
that what my audiences really wanted to hear was practical advice.

I wanted to get beyond the self-congratulation that a lot of digital marketing keynotes seemed to engage in. It was easy to see right through the self-styled thought-leaders who delivered them, because there was a ton of fluff. Unlike my heroes and mentors, they weren’t in the digital trenches actually doing; instead, sitting back on a nearby mountain top and philosophizing about things. They were feel-good, inspiration types, the sort of speakers you need to suspend belief and practical experience to enjoy. And
while I do think there is a time and place for speakers like that, I didn’t want to be one of them. As an accidental speaker, a speaker who didn't make his living by speaking, I knew that I could bring a difference.

How to play Potato Head with your keynotes

Five years on, I’ve probably delivered 100 or more sessions, keynotes and workshops. I have roughly 17 different decks I’ve used over the years, pulling them apart and putting them back together more times than my two-year-old daughter’s Mr. Potato Head. And much like that toy, the pieces rarely go back in the original place. That’s a part of the process as well. I’ve evolved from submitting ideas to a far-flung network and soliciting their views, to developing them with smaller, more intense, more focused groups. It’s inherently less formal, faster moving, more like the way ideas form inside your head when you’re thinking them through alone. I’ve focused on keeping those groups quick-moving, spontaneous and fun – because that breeds the honest, instinctive feedback that you really need.

Besides being relocated, those Potato Head parts can often be stolen and borrowed by other of my daughter’s toys as well – the hats turn up in some very strange places. Keynotes are the same – and that’s fine with me as well. I share every slide internally and externally, because I feel that’s their real purpose. If my ideas and the way I present them can help someone, have at it.  

Memorize meaning – not words

I was debuting a brand new keynote in New York, one that I’ve never presented before. I practiced and rehearsed and memorized but I know that success doesn’t really come down to these things. The only way to truly deliver a memorable, informative, entertaining keynote is to live and breathe the story you are telling; the story you’ve argued with people over, picked apart over drinks, beat yourself up because you didn’t think it was good enough, but also the story which suddenly, when trial, error, research and ideation come together, works! Seemingly out of nowhere, it flows and it’s
freaking awesome.

I’ve learned over the years that this isn’t some strange magic – it’s the result of a process that’s become so natural that I barely notice it. I know that memorizing slides means that, at best, you’re an actor. The audience knows that you’re putting on a performance and, although they may enjoy that performance, it doesn’t necessarily connect in the life-changing way that a keynote worth its time slot really should. When you memorize the meaning of slides to you personally, the reasons they matter; you aren’t just repeating words, you’re repeating conviction. It doesn’t matter so much how the sentences come out. As a human being you will find the way to communicate the meaning in the most compelling way for that audience and that moment. However, you can only do this if your brain has memorized that personal, emotion-rich meaning to begin with.

Accidental speaking means going out of your comfort zone – and that’s a good thing

I’ve got a pretty full year ahead of me for the rest of 2017. And to be honest I have more offers to speak now than I can ever accept. I’d like to say ‘yes’ to them all, but I have to remember, I’m not a full-time keynote speaker. I’ll always be proud to be an accidental one. I choose gigs that align with my priorities at work – and the real advantage of that is that it pushes me out of my comfort zone on occasion. I’m incredibly excited that my speaking will be focused on Europe this year (that NYC keynote will be my only one across the Atlantic). Adapting my presentation style to the cultures of different countries is a challenge – but it’s a challenge I want. Can my ideas travel? And how will they change when they do? It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.