#SCICOMM 101: The killer keynote

City Tree conference, 2014. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons.

City Tree conference, 2014. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons.

Attending two conferences late last year back to back – one devoted to science communication, the other on ecological restoration, has given me plenty to think about. Out of the wide selection of keynotes delivered – which ones left me inspired and engaged rather than wanting to hurtle out of the room… silent screaming…? why?

Keynotes are more than just opening presentations. They set the mood and tone as well as inspire and unify the audience with a common purpose that relates to the main theme of the event. They should motivate the audience to stay and listen – not check Facebook or watch cat videos.

Based on sitting through many, many keynotes at both ends of the killer spectrum, here are a few things I recommend for killer (in-a-great-way) keynotes. It’s really a list of ‘notes-to-self’, given I also do a fair amount of PowerPoint supported talks. Yes, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Plenty.

Keep it relevant

International presenters give kudos to an event, but if the content doesn’t resonate with the audience, it’s a waste of time. So, who is the audience? Find out. Locally specific information is fine so long as it’s contextualised. Analogies help understand things like size, location and distance. So does making contrasts with the host country… but only if that’s where most where most of the audience is from. At the far end of the totally irrelevant (and eeeeeuw) scale, a male presenter at conservation conference announced ‘now I will open my kimono and show you the jewels’. Unforgettable, for all the wrong reasons.

Make it local, make it global

One presenter showed an intriguing time series of a forest plot images spanning several decades. Using himself as a scale, we saw the trees grow, while he evolved from hirsute hippy to grey cropped gent. This was a local study and he was clearly passionate about restoration. It could have just been presented as an isolated case study, but wasn’t. He shared what he’d learnt from the plots, and then how this knowledge had been applied to other projects around the country. Importantly, he also paused to reflect on international restoration needs and initiatives, highlighting the significance that local initiatives can have when multiplied across the globe. While giving us a window into his own work, he also made us feel great about the restoration/research projects we’re involved in. That was a killer keynote, for all of the right reasons.

Give it personality

Stories, stories and more stories. Google ‘how to give a great TED talk’ and tips will invariably include storytelling. Well-chosen stories diversify content and underscore key messages. They also help ground the presentation and give it personality. Delivery is part and parcel of storytelling – so use voice modulation and strategic pauses. If you think you already do this well enough, record yourself delivering a presentation, get over the cringe factor and listen critically. Most likely you won’t sound as lively as you think you do, and you speak too fast unless you are (a) extremely experienced., or (b) had a former career as a radio presenter.

Be honest

You don’t need to have the audience reaching for their hankies, but honesty even about your failings etc. helps provide a realistic picture of life full stop. Everyone appreciates that even gods and goddesses may have had crap jobs/had a hard time/made bad choices but those are also building blocks for their personal narratives. Research can be boring, and it can go horribly wrong. Share learnings from your experiences. If you don’t have any, then just turn it into a great story. Let the audience laugh at your expense.

Don’t read… speak!

Don’t read off a page. Just DON’T. 99% of the time it doesn’t work because there is a massive difference between written and verbal communication. It flattens delivery and provides way too much information for the audience to make sense of. It’s hard to engage with the audience when your eyes are following words off a page. Phrases like ‘oh hang on I just lost my place’ are just annoying. Practice, practice, practice, and practice some more so you don’t become reliant on pages of text.


One memorably killer (in-a-bad-way) keynote showed endless images of young female research assistants measuring plots of invasive grass. After a while, it was just kinda pervy. We’ve all seen pixelated pics and irrelevant pics… Photo-sharing sites like Flickr are amazing for sourcing great images. Pictures support the narrative and help to make your presentation memorable. I could go on and on about unintelligible graphs. Miniscule fonts. Ugly fonts. Tables crammed with data and quotes that go on for ever. Retina-searing colour combinations… but I won’t. You should just know better.

Getting feedback

Yes, getting feedback from your peers can be useful. However, their own presentations are likely to include many of the no-no’s outlined above. Additionally, their feedback may not be particularly helpful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. There’s definitely an art to evaluating content and delivery. Toastmasters will teach you how – see below.

Lastly, a couple of plugs

There’s always room for plenty of improvement. So, if you’re a university student, entering the 3-minute thesis competition (3MT) is the best way to cut the dross and share the nuggets of your precious research.

Unless you speak in front of an audience regularly (e.g., as a lecturer, trainer, or at a church or marae), Toastmaster’s clubs are for you. They provide a venue where you can have on-going practice at public speaking and receive useful feedback in a supportive environment. And that’s from personal experience.

So, once you’ve prepped, practiced and practiced some more, go forth and communicate effectively!


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