Organising Events? How to get PROMOTED not FIRED. Secrets of corporate after dinner keynote speaker - worked with over 400 of world's largest companies

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Dr Patrick Dixon: Futurist Keynote Speaker - Futurist Keynote Speaker - Lectures and Slides

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I have spoken at major corporate events for over 400 of the world’s largest multinationals, often sharing the platform with their global CEO.  Here are some of the secrets of success.


Event organisers often get promoted or fired - here's why

Organising corporate events is a very risky activity (and so is speaking at them). Organisers are likely either to get promoted or fired.  

And a "brilliant" keynote speaker can become famous or be totally disgraced in a single evening.

The stakes are often extremely high to get events right.  

Social media means you need to capture and hold attention in seconds

In our mobile, social media world, 60% of an audience can be lost in the first 35 seconds - eyes-down, tapping away on emails or WhatsApp, or researching their next city break.

At your next event, wander around the back of the hall and count just how many people are using their smartphones.  Especially in panel discussions.  

Five people sitting almost out of sight to the audience in the back rows - usually low energy levels, low passion, no compelling visuals, no drama, little sense of urgency.

Yet panels can be electrifying when run well, with the right contributors, right topics, and the fast pace of a TV programme.

Transformational events totally change your future

A world-class event, with superb keynotes delivered with precision and professionalism, high on energy and passion, high on vision and strategic insight, is always by definition transformational.  

Such events accelerate change, speed up innovation, drive performance, weld teams into tribes, and set new trajectories for astonishing growth.  

You can hardly calculate the tremendous value to the longer term future of the corporation from such events.

When a client is really anxious - dig deep to find out why

I was booked to give a particular keynote at a big global conference recently, and discovered a very anxious client as I was preparing.

They wanted this, and that, and every tiny detail of the keynote to be scrutinised, even wanting to check every image I was intending to use (over 100) - in a way that was very unusual. 

I always expect very careful thought and close communication, to customise each keynote I give, and I always run through keynote content beforehand, but I could feel their intense fear and stress.

Why? What was the hidden story?

And then I discovered that a single keynote at their last conference had gone so badly that the three organisers lost their jobs.

The real costs of putting on a major event

Take a hotel industry event I spoke at recently: 800 CEOs of the world's leading hotels all in the same room, flying in from all over the world to a global team conference in Qatar.  

Just think of the cost of flights, hotels, food and drink, technical team, venue hire, event team, production team, guest keynote speakers and so on.  

Then add on the total daily rates for employing each of those 800, including all their add on costs.  

But that is only the beginning. Think of the damage to morale, CEO and top team reputation and so on, if the conference organisation falls over in some way, or if a keynote speaker fails to engage the audience.

Totally avoidable disasters often triggered by tiny things

And, believe me, I have seen some disasters in the last few years - all of which were totally avoidable, usually caused by small things with shockingly huge impact. I'm going to make an (anonymous) list some time - and explain how to avoid them.

Here's just one example (fortunately avoided at the last minute after my warnings).  

I discovered on arrival to give a Futurist keynote at a large event for a huge global company, when going once more through the final running order, that my session was now due to start 2 hours and 20 minutes after the conference began - with no break.

Audience comfort - easy things to overlook

Even if the conference started on time, and nothing over-ran, let's assume that a third of the audience last used a rest room 15 minutes before entering the conference hall, and 30 minutes before the start.  

That means after almost 3 hours, 33% may well be physically uncomfortable before I had even begun my own one hour keynote / q and a session. In what state will they be by the end after nearly 4 hours?

Answer: totally distracted, suffering physically, embarrassed at the thought of having to leave early, worried how long the session will last.

Or even worse, working their way along packed rows of seats during the keynote, having to make an urgent exit. Not only distracting, but easily misunderstood by others as a vote of total boredom.  

I pointed out the massive risks, the organisers recognised they had a major problem, the break was shifted, and I began my session with a totally fresh audience immediately after coffee and cake.  

Just as well, as the previous keynotes by the CEO and CFO, over-ran on the day by 30 minutes (as I thought might happen).  Afterwards they were all so grateful.

Key tests for any keynote speaker being lined up for a dinner event

So how do you get promoted, not fired?  

How do you make your own event a stunning success?

Let us look at the most challenging type of keynote of all: a dinner speech.  

As an event organiser, you need to be 100% sure that the keynote speaker you are intending to risk your own reputation on is actually going to perform....

So here are some tips - for both keynote speakers themselves, and for all the event organisers who have the challenge of choosing between them.

Be entertaining as well as sharply relevant

Here's example of a keynote I gave to 4,500 event organisers - "engage, entertain, educate". Highly customised content for a specific audience, in Las Vegas (pace faster than with a multinational audience).  Raising vital and urgent issues for every successful event organiser - in a compelling, memorable and life-changing way.

If it is true that every keynote speaker needs to entertain, it is even more true of a dinner keynote speaker.

Dinner guests are in a relaxed mood, and the announcement of your keynote has just interrupted their conversations.

Your guests are weary after a long day, loaded with alcohol - and probably very hungry if you are being asked to speak before they have had their main course. 

Your Number 1 job is to relax and entertain, but you also need to deliver astonishing insights, one after another.

Make them laugh in the first 30-60 seconds

Make them laugh in the first 30-60 seconds with a powerful truth or fact, which is so funny, sharp and relevant, that they will remember it for the rest of their lives.

Make friends with the front tables

As every comedian knows, the front row are your best friends: they provide electricity, instant feedback, and can become part of the conversation. 

Know where your friends are before you start a keynote. 

Never embarrass anyone or pick on anyone in a way that they may find uncomfortable.

Make friends with the back tables

Dinner audiences are always spread out a long way, compared to people sitting in rows.  Huge round tables, gaps between for serving. 

Remember that in a theatre, people will pay a fortune to sit just 3 metres closer to the stage, so pay attention to those at the back.  Pay a visit.

I almost always at some point jump off the stage unexpectedly and charge right into the audience, weaving around the tables as I go, bringing them right into the conversation.

Research your audience deeply, including guest list

This is a Number One requirement for any world-class speaker.  

You should be inside their minds and hearts before they even walk into the room.

Meet your guests and pick up on their own stories

Spend time as your guests walk in.  

Look for the amazing anecdote, the personal insight, the gripping statistic…. 

Your audience will love it and the person you profile will be delighted you have honored them in this way.

Get “One Big Thing” from the global CEO or most senior person

Be certain who really is owning the meeting – may be very different than you thought at first.  

Make sure you have made friends with the most important person in the room.  

Ask them what the One Big Thing is that they want resonating in people’s minds as they leave the dinner – and ALWAYS make sure you end on that note.

Make sure most VIPs are in line of sight

Your VIP guests give you the right to be there and are validating your message. 

Keep them in line of sight, befriend them before you start, know what their roles are, so you can throw comments in their direction and enjoy their smiling, nodding heads. 

Use that same energy to bounce these insights right across the room with added force and conviction.  

And if they look puzzled, explain, clarify, make it work.

Get used to being in the spotlight 

Never, ever hold up your hand to shield your eyes, peering into the darkness – light is your friend, and the darkness in the audience is to hold their attention.

The brighter the lighting on you, the better.

Think of theatre.

Be very visual

They are loaded with alcohol, tired, and their brains hurt from session after session all day - plus jet lag, and trying to juggle all their emails and messages.  

Make it easy. 

At least one great image or video clip every 30 seconds in your keynote, preferably more, and cut most or all of the words onscreen. 

Take a look at a TV ad and count the number of screen shots in 20 seconds. 

Make sure they’ve had something to eat

Dinner speakers can be a form of slow torture:  your audience may be hungry when your host has fixed you to speak. 

Make sure they have enough brain fuel to be comfortable and concentrate. 

Try to negotiate speaking after the main course, rather than before the starter - with hundreds of people staring at their empty plates.

Make sure you’ve had something to eat

Eat before the meal begins.

Chances are you will be called away during the meal for final microphone checks, or will be so distracted by your own adrenaline that you won’t want to eat right then.

Low blood glucose is fatal to sharp witty delivery, especially when you are running around the stage.

Never, ever touch alcohol before you speak

It’s right there. Everyone else is drinking hard, but you need every neurone firing at the speed of light. 

Alcohol slows down the circuits in your brain, relaxes you when you should be fired up, and dulls your wits. 

If you need alcohol to perform on stage, get a life and find another job.

Never, ever, ever, ever tell a joke

Don’t even think about it for a second. 

Telling jokes is the fastest way to get the person who invited you fired.

Especially if you tell one that appeals to only one gender, or ethnic group, or religious group, or political group.

Jokes are always specific to culture, so are likely to misfire with 1-10% of every multinational audience, even assuming they all have perfect English.

Because jokes have a formal punch-line (usually), you also face the risk that the audience knows when YOU are expecting them to laugh – and if they don’t, your reputation is doomed. 

Your act explodes and disintegrates in public humiliation, and your evening dinner keynote speech will never recover.

I have watched it happen.  A deeply embarrassing sight - a car crash in slow motion.

Never ever, ever make people laugh at someone else in the room – except at you

You are there to make every single person feel great about themselves. 

Don’t fall for cheap tricks.

Keep points short and sharp

Attention spans are a short as those of an insect during any corporate dinner. 

Made worse by the fact that some in your audience may have seriously mis-timed their need for a comfort break.

Respect them by making every second count. 

If a single dinner guest looks at their watch, you may already be facing a near-emergency and need to crash-land fast.

Stop while you are winning

Keep every audience longing for more. 

Never overstay your welcome. 

One day you hope you will be invited back.

You want them to be delighted to hear you giving a keynote again.

Reference events earlier in the day

Maybe you were not there, but always try to sound like you were.

Too many speakers are lazy – pulling the same script out, with only the faintest references to the company they are with. 

Honour your audience by referencing comments made earlier in the day. 

Integrate every part of what you do into the narrative of their whole event.

Dinner speakers are often a natural bridge between Day 1 and Day 2, so make sure your keynote does just that.

Name-drop key company people

Do it properly and for a good reason.

For example: “I was talking with Barnaby earlier about your innovation awards last night. He was saying that“ .....Barnaby being the CEO.

But of course make sure you have permission, don't reveal too much, get their name right, and confirm that they are happy about the way you describe them.

Clear the stage – no notes.  No lectern - I mean nothing

No stand-up comic or actor needs a written script or teleprompt or furniture.

Put the stage monitor behind your audience or use a mirror.

Stage monitors mean you have to look down, and every audience is searching your face for clues about every single time when you need a helping hand, because you cannot remember your own material.

Create magic by placing any visual feedback way out of their sight, preferably at the back of the room. 

A favourite trick of mine is to use the mirrors at the back of a ball room as my visual guide to what is on the screen behind me. 

I don’t need to read my own slides – I use few words anyway.  But I do need to know precisely what is happening behind me for exact timing.

Use a great screen and lights

The best screens are ones you can go to, and which become part of the act, preferably touching the bottom of the stage and extending full width left and right. 

That means that whatever image is on the screen becomes the backdrop of your own personal mini-theatre.

Talking about retailing, walk around the shop.  Talking about airports, walk around the departure lounge.

That means back projection or an LED high quality screen. 

Front projection is almost useless because you can’t walk anywhere near the image without casting a shadow.

Keep audience in near darkness

In a theatre, all the light is on stage for a reason. 

At a dinner you don’t want or need people using light to make notes, to eat or anything else. 

Turn off the video live feed – this is theatre, not a TV chat show

When was the last time you saw a comedian stand up act using a live video feed – unless the audience is thousands?  The same for an actor on stage. 

Command a presence by who you are, how you move, your body language, tone of voice, and above all by your content and story. 

Don’t rely on a camera feed.

You want eye to eye contact, all the time, second by second – and the only thing they should look at is the image that supports your message right behind you.

The live feed will also slow you down, because the camera loses you if you walk around too fast, unless it pans out to a distance shot, in which case what is the point?

Wear light clothes and dump the jacket

Dinner events are usually lit less brightly, so stay visible and mobile.

Make sure no waiters are wandering around

Make sure all plates are cleared, and your audience is settled with chairs turned right around towards you.

And remember....With first fact or laugh, the audience visibily relaxes, and enters the moment of your flow. 

Ah!  We are in for a fantastic time. 

For more: Secrets of all Keynote Speakers - 30 things you MUST look at before booking ANY keynote speaker.


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