By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®

Introducing The Interactive Keynote (Or Keynote + Workshop Elements)

Perhaps the greatest way to leverage your investment in a keynote speech and keynote speaker is with a workshop—from an additional 2/3 hours to an additional 2/3 days—which takes the potent mix of cutting-edge ideas and audience engagement and puts them to work on driving concrete impact. Workshop elements can further amplify the impact of a more experiential and immersive approach to keynote speaking.

Combining keynotes with workshops encapsulates the ultimate participatory package. The seamless blend of inspiration and application furthers comprehension and capacity building. Insights not only resonate but become actionable assets in the delegates’ toolkit.

When a speaker incorporates interactive elements such as in-depth Q&A sessions (with audience members invited to become vulnerable and authentic with what they ask), role-playing, working on live business and cultural problems, the introduction of powerful transformation tools, and well-guided group discussions, they not only enliven the presentation but also tailor the content to the immediate interests and needs of the audience and the business. This dynamic approach can empower participants with practical insights, takeaway techniques, and actionable strategies.

The Benefits Of Interactive Keynotes

With such an interactive keynote (that usually includes workshop elements), the keynote itself becomes more than a talk: it becomes an anchor to ground the transformational journey, a North Start to guide it, and an emotional context for the initiation of growth, learning, change, and/or transformation in an atmosphere of psychological safety and trust.

A keynote used in this way can help align people cognitively around a complex topic and difficult challenge so everyone has a shared sense of what it is, how it works, and any specific language or terms needed. The keynote can also help people align emotionally and so enter a resonant space where they feel safe, seen, and heard.

The interactive keynote speaker must be dynamic and highly attuned to their audience’s signals, fostering a seamless flow of engagement and interactivity that makes a difference to all. They must be adept at reading the room and adjusting their tempo and tactics in real-time to maintain audience engagement in the workshop exercises and tasks at hand. This could include varying the complexity of activities based on the audience’s response, adeptly managing time, and ensuring that each segment seamlessly integrates with the overall theme of the event.

After the keynote part, the speaker—assuming they have the IP, tools, and facilitation skills (which should never be assumed)—can introduce specific tools and techniques that take the big and bold ideas in the keynote and land them in the organization. The tools and techniques—I have created tools from everything from defining business purpose to storytelling for leaders—turn theory into practice and big ideas into actionable changes that make a lasting difference.

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Massive Mistakes Are Easily Made

But caveat emptor: a lot can go wrong with an interactive keynote, particularly if shortcuts are taken and due diligence (on all sides) is not done. You cannot get a massive ROI without significant investment in care, attention, and collaboration.

To own my own power, I will state that people have told me that most experiential and interactive keynotes I have given have been amazing. A few have been tough, either because the client was confused about their needs (and their implications) or because they did not understand how to leverage the experience properly in their event. A few failed to launch due to problems with contracting that stemmed from clients (and burea bookers) using old habits, evolved to buy more transactional 45-minute keynotes, to book innovative keynote formats. This is a mismatch and a regular cause of failure.

At the start of my journey to innovate new formats, I was still in experimentation mode myself. I was trying out all kinds of new techniques. Some didn’t land. Some audiences are more receptive than others. Some practices only work if one has primed the group well or within specific types of company cultures. I did not always have the courage to challenge clients about why and how they were using these formats, which led to more mistakes than was necessary.

It is really, really easy to make these mistakes. These mistakes can undermine the client’s own goals and, far worse for change agents like myself who have a duty of care when doing change work, leave audience members “in process”: frustrated, confused, disappointed, or dejected. Just like when baking a cake, we must avoid leaving audience members feeling or being emotionally and psychologically half-cooked.

Just as a therapist or coach has a duty of care to take care of their client’s emotional and psychological needs when intervening in their lives, so too does the quarter of event producer/conference owner, HR/culture owner, bureau booker, and keynote speaker. I am not sure many people realize this, and ignorance of how change happens best in people can have dangerous consequences.

Remember: the more impact you want, the more you will need to intervene in people’s lives: their established (but often outdated) mindsets, their coping behaviors, and their emotional landscape. Therefore, it is my sincere belief that inexperienced event managers, HR reps, and bureau professionals need support from more seasoned players—who really get the difference between a straight keynote and something more powerful—to get the most out of these innovative formats and to avoid costly errors and psychological dangers.

How To Get An Interactive Keynote Right

  • Context Is Queen: Without deep and broad context, high-impact interactive keynotes with workshop elements are impossible to get right. If you don’t have time or inclination to fully brief your speaker and then let them go deeper by asking penetrating questions so they really grasp the context they are working into, this format is probably not for you. Likewise, if the speaker is neither curious about nor able to handle the complexities of your business and people context, they are probably not right for this format.
  • Coherence Is Essential: Without internal alignment and then alignment with the event producers, bureau bookers, bureau ops people, and keynote speaker (and their back office), failure is likely. This can be both embarrassing to the client and damaging to top participants. If the speaker/facilitator (and ideally seasoned bureau booker) is experienced, let them help you to find coherence around the purpose of the event, the ambitions for the engagement, and the ideal outcomes required so that the format and design are fit for purpose.
  • Do Due Diligence On The Speaker As Facilitator/Workshop Host/Change Agent: Make sure the speaker is an expert facilitator of large (and not just small) groups. It takes years to be able to hold space for a group of smart people to come together and engage in big and bold ideas and then leave with some kind of closure and action agreement. It may look easy when done right… until one participant is cynical or another tries to derail the process. Just as a driver makes it look easy to handle a Formula 1 race car on Netflix’s Drive to Survive, seasoned facilitators make it look easy. It is not easy, and much can go wrong. Any fool can wing it once and succeed. It takes years to ensure each session, no matter what business or emotional issues arise (and they need to in order to have a real impact), succeeds.
  • Select A Speaker For Business & Emotional Acumen: Your speaker (and event team) should have the cognitive capacity to engage fully in your business strategy, commercial issues, business model, industry specificities and constraints, and emerging tech, as well as the emotional capacity and wisdom to engage fully in your team, cultural, and leadership dynamics. Otherwise, how can they contribute to solving either business issues or the cultural ones that are usually part of the problems? Many keynote speakers are subject matter experts but cannot bridge into business matters, let alone emotional/cultural ones.
  • Optimize The Audience Experience: This means paying meticulous attention to detail, from the seating arrangements to the sound and lighting to the digital platforms used for interactions—as it all contributes to the atmosphere that makes the experience valuable rather than merely enjoyable. Remember, the objective is not just a “wow factor” but to inspire lasting transformation and action—sometimes, things that sound good on paper or look good on TV (Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank, anyone?) actually do the opposite of what you want in terms of mindset and behavior change.
  • Embrace Mindset & Behavior Change Techniques With Care: An interactive keynote hinges on active engagement and change technologies that should be thoughtfully integrated into the program. Techniques might include real-time collaborations, simulations, role-plays, or problem-solving exercises that relate directly to attendees’ real-life challenges—but bear in mind that these require different levels of care and planning than typical event programming. There is nothing more worrisome to me than leaving an audience “half-cooked” or without proper closure. This can leave a ticking time bomb of fear, psychological unsafety, and unresolved complaints rather than planting the seeds of positive change and transformation.
  • Consciously Shift From Transaction To Co-Creation: Whereas a classical keynote, and even an experiential keynote, can be fairly transactional (1-2 briefing sessions > delivery), as soon as you are dealing with real change, the speaker/facilitator needs help from the industry experts—you the client!—to land the right tone, design, and language and so deliver big. This requires a co-creation mindset, where both parties respect each other’s expertise. It usually requires some proper engagement from the executive or senior leadership team (and it is a major worry when they don’t have the time or care to do so). A co-creation mindset also means trusting the speaker/facilitator—given you have done your due diligence—to do things in ways that their experience tells them will get the most ROI for you.
  • Protect The Speaker’s Independence: You’re booking a speaker because they are not an employee. They have independent minds that allow them to be thought leaders. So make sure you are aligned on the goals and behavior change needed and that they are comfortable supporting your ambitions as an independent thinker. You want their genius and reputation as a thought leader to amplify and accelerate your goals earnestly, rather than either the speaker secretly worried about what they hear being said or them paying lip service just to get the gig.  Most audience members will sense if either of these is happening, and this will diminish everyone.
  • A Speaker Who Can Serve Not Just Dazzle The Audience: Your speaker must be able to master two very different modes of leading an audience. The first is the jazz-hands keynote speaker performance, in which they dazzle and wow the audience. ideas are flying fast. There are gasps and giggles. But pretty quickly, the speaker has to transition to be a facilitator, guide, and coach, serving the audience according to their needs and the music in the room. This requires the speaker to come off the pedestal (or stage) both literally and metaphorically and put their need to be applauded and respected well after the needs of the group for change and safety. Many professional speakers cannot make this transition.
  • Allow Yourself To Be Challenged: If you are looking to go beyond a transactional keynote into what is essentially “consulting lite, you want a speaker/facilitator who can respectfully challenge any outdated ideas or design notions you have that they think will undermine your goals or even damage your audience. As one of my first clients (an SVP at Microsoft) told me: “We pay you to tell us what we don’t want to hear (or simply cannot see), not to confirm our biases and tell us to double down on mistakes.” So leverage your advisor’s insights and experience fully, which always requires some humility, openness, and a real (as opposed to much talked about) “growth mindset”
  • Design & Plan With Requisite Care: Everyone needs to be clear that as soon as you are shifting from wanting to entertain or educate an audience with a classic keynote to wanting to change their mindset and behaviors, a duty of care (akin to a therapist or coach) is paramount. This means much more care must be taken not to fail the participants (and so undermine your own ambitions and goals). This is serious stuff, and it means spending the requisite time (and therefore budget) on briefings, co-creation, design, discussion, nuancing, etc. More functions and senior leadership folk should be involved. Without this investment in care and collaboration, no speaker/facilitator can deliver gold and cannot be expected to. In other words, don’t try and create a life-changing event/workshop in a slapdash way, on the cheap. It can easily backfire and leave people more upset, frustrated, disturbed, or doubtful than when you started.
  • Ensure Participants Know What’s Next: The most senior person in the room, as well as their functional support such as HR/L&D and Org Dev, should have a plan for what comes next and how the effort and contribution made by each audience member during the event will be harnessed for good rather than frittered away or never mentioned again. If they are the right speaker/facilitator, they will have some ideas from past experience…

Choosing The Right Keynote Format For Your Event Ambitions

Navigating the various keynote formats is critical to the success of your event, especially once you understand the constraints and limits of the conventional 45-minute keynote. Selecting the appropriate keynote format—and so keynote speaker—establishes the frame through which your event will be seen and hopefully remembered. You have the choice to move from inspiration (classic keynote) into immersion and reflection (experiential keynote) or individual and collective action (interactive keynote).

The classic keynote’s simplicity, shortness, and formality are well-suited for disseminating high-level insights or thought leadership in a time-bounded and rapid manner. They are easy to book and easy to succeed with. But the impact is limited by nature. Experiential keynotes, when meticulously crafted and performed, can transcend passive listening to deliver a memorable, impactful journey that also allows participants to explore complex topics without forcing the problems/solutions to seem overly simple. Interactive keynotes—when designed and delivered to fit the context of the company or conference—can invigorate action, help solve the concrete pain points of the audience, and drive collective change.

Navigating the various keynote formats is critical to the success of your event. Consider the objectives, audience profile, and context to determine whether a classic, experiential, or interactive format best aligns with your goals. Then, book the right kind of speaker, whether transactional or transformative (see my tips on booking a transformational speaker). A trusted speaker bureau can help, as long as they, too, understand the critical shift that occurs when one moves from a transactional 45-minute keynote to an experiential or interactive format that is essentially a powerful change intervention (and should be respected as such).

Innovative forms of keynote speaking can resonate well beyond the finite event timespan, embedding enduring wisdom and planting seeds of change that unfold and unfurl in real time as soon as people leave the room. Thus, keynote speaking can be truly transformative and elevate and accelerate bold event ambitions. But you can’t achieve all this outsized ROI if you don’t push the limitations of the conventional mode of keynote delivery and allow for the innovation of new formats that deliver new gains.

The successful deployment of innovative interactive and experiential keynote performances hinges on respectful and open/authentic relationships between the client, bureau, and speaker, co-creative and collaborative skills where all parties are working for a win-win-win with the audience, and a speaker who is not afraid to customize, create, and listen.

The speaker cannot just dust off the same keynote deck they have used a hundred times. They have to tailor and design the experience to fit the context and the purpose. Context-based customization—with the keynote speaker diving deep into your true needs and the headspace the audience will be in on the day—serves as the conduit to empowerment, momentum, traction, and so action!

A keynote speaker who can go far beyond the classical keynote to leverage participation, facilitation, coaching, and consulting can leave a lasting positive impact on a business challenge or event ambition. If you want to leverage an event—and the keynote at its heart—to drive fundamental cultural change, unleash momentum and traction, or unlock innovation or business transformation, be prepared to invest in nurturing and harnessing that magic.

Experiential and interactive keynotes can be surprisingly magical—and so deliver outsized returns on your investment, in obvious and as yet undiscovered ways, that live on for years in the hearts and minds of your audience.

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