How to Talk to Your Keynote Speaker

I do a lot of speaking at conferences these days. A common format is a 45 minute presentation, followed by 15 minutes of questions from the audience, followed by a break.

Photo: We made it out of the Amazon and into the jungle of the biggest management conference in Brazil...quite the production! Big stage, small Andy.

With this flow, it’s natural for the speaker to come offstage and talk to people during the break. And I’ll speak for keynoters everywhere when I say that we like the post-stage conversations we have with people. They’re a chance to keep talking about the ideas that brought us to the event in the first place, which is great.

But not all of these conversations go well; they can get stuck in a few unproductive, or downright painful, ruts. So to close out the week I’d like to offer a few tips on how to interact productively post-stage with someone who’s just given a talk or a presentation. Follow these to increase the chances that your keynoter will engage with you and walk away from the conversation thinking great things about you. Ignore them and it might all go horribly wrong.

A general rule: keep in mind that your keynoter is buzzing with energy as he (I’ll use my gender’s pronoun here) comes off stage. He’s been concentrating hard on delivering a good talk and projecting passion / enthusiasm / whatever. Public speaking is a form of live performance, and when the performance ends energy levels don’t immediately return to baseline normal. They stay high for at least several minutes afterward.

This means that your keynoter is not wired for long or deep conversations  right when he comes off stage. Instead, he’s primed for short, bursty interactions. Keep that in mind and most of the rest will fall into place. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

Introduce yourself, briefly. “Hi, I’m Joe Bloggs. I work in analytics for Novartis in Cambridge.” Is great. “Hi, I’m Joe Bloggs. I support gene sequencing research for a big pharma company and what you said about genomics data is, man, we generate a ton of data and they just don’t give me the budget I need to buy hardware even with Obamacare, which is already having some impacts that no one’s talking about…” is really not great. “Hi, I’m Richard Branson. I’m recruiting for my tropical island paradise of supergeniuses” is about as good as it gets.

Ask a question. We’re still in Q&A mode as we come offstage, and so are primed to keep that going. If you didn’t get a chance to ask your question, or didn’t want to in front of the whole room, now’s your chance. Here again, the ground rule is to keep it short and sweet.

Be confrontational if you like, but be polite. We like getting challenged about our ideas. “I read Blink, which was about trusting your intuition. But you said that we shouldn’t. So do you disagree with Gladwell?” is dandy. Note that this question also has the virtue of being pretty specific. “But what about the human element?” doesn’t have this virtue; it’s too general for your keynoter to get a good grip on. (p.s.  Don’t Blink)

Highlight something new. “Hey, have you heard about…?” is also great. If my talk reminded you of a fascinating recent case study or research result, please do share it. We’re always hunting for more good stuff on our topics of interest. You don’t need to walk me though the whole thing, though; just outline it and give the punchline, and let me ask follow-up questions.

State your business. “Are your slides available?” “When’s the new book out?” “Can I have you speak at our annual retreat, which takes place every year at Cannes during the Film Festival?” are all lovely and welcome. Especially the Cannes one.

Please, don’t ramble. The second most painful post-stage interaction is with somebody who doesn’t really know what they want to get out of it, so they just keep talking. It’s disrespectful to the other people waiting, and downright painful for your keynoter. The adrenaline in still in our system, so it’s hard for us to stand there and listen to an apparently endless stream of words. In MBA classrooms it’s known as ‘dieseling’ when a student keeps talking long after any and all points have been made, and it’s a dire phenomenon. You can easily avoid it by thinking for a couple seconds about what you want to get out of the interaction, and so what you want to say.

Don’t present alternate theories. “Let me tell you what’s really going on…” is the most painful post-stage interaction. Your keynoter is just not in the mood or frame of mind to listen to alternate theories on innovation, the disappearance of the middle class, or anything else that he’s just talked about. This sounds like arrogance – like we smart guys aren’t interested in the ideas of the hoi polloi — but it’s not. It’s just the reality of the post-stage frame of mind. Please, go easy on us. Ask a question, bring something new and cool to our attention, follow any of the other advice here, and most of all keep it succinct.

Say “Nice job.” I always like it when someone gets my attention as I’m walking past and says “Thanks — I really enjoyed your talk.” When I was at TED earlier this year I went out of my way to track down the speakers I really liked, just to shake their hands and tell them they were great. Your keynoter, like all other humans, likes positive feedback. Go ahead and give it to them.