advice · empowerment · keynote · openness · skills development

Keynote! Tips for presenting to a big crowd

I gave my very first keynote lecture, two weeks ago, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI), in Victoria. It was in a giant lecture hall, that was too small, so there was also an overflow space in the foyer, with a live feed. In all, there were several hundred people listening.

Holy shit, that was scary!

That’s only the middle third. Holy crap. Add two wings and an overflow room.

It was scary because, well, that’s a lot of people. But it wasn’t really the size of the crowd that had me insomniac for several weeks before the event. What was really scaring me was that I suspected that doing a keynote was not like doing a longer conference paper for a bigger group of people, but something entirely different. Something I didn’t know how to do, and that I couldn’t find rules for. Ultimately, I asked advice from some people who had done keynotes before, and mostly I just reverse engineered keynotes that I liked and ones I didn’t to try to determine the patterns.

Maybe you’ve never done a keynote before, and you don’t know the rules either. Maybe you do lots of keynotes, and you have it all figured out and are itching for a venue in which to share this information. I’ll lay out my ideas here, and you can take or add as you wish.

Do not go over time.

This is crucial. I mean, no presentation should ever go over time, but there’s something that’s the absolute WORST about a long lecture to a big group of people that seems like it’s not going to end. And if there’s no time for questions, people get mad, and rightly so. My time slot was 50 minutes long. I calculated 10 minutes for two sets of introductions, and tried to make my talk 35 minutes long, leaving five minutes for questions. My talk came right before an open bar reception, so you’d better believe I knew that everyone had their eyes on the clock. As it happens, I talked for 38 minutes, and we started a couple of minutes late, so we had exactly one minute for questions, but we walked out the door on time, dammit.

Rift in the space-time continuum.

The bigger the crowd, the slower you have to talk. That is, the more people there are in the room, the fewer words you can say. This is true. There’s something about the bigness of the room, and the amplified shuffle-in-seats, doing-Twitter-backchannel, occasional-cough background noise just makes speaking more slowly imperative. So if you can get through 2500 words in a 15 minute conference paper, for a 35 minute keynote, don’t go over 5000. Where did the extra five minutes go? Cough, tweet, shuffle, fuzz of amplification through big speakers.


One great keynote I saw laid it out at the beginning: “I’m going to talk for 40 minutes. There are three topics. Here they are: the first two give the context, and they’re pretty short. The last one is the argument and it’s a bit longer, but there’re lots of pictures.” And he did exactly that. It was soooooo easy to follow as a result and I also didn’t get restless because by giving us the blueprints, the speaker allowed the audience to build the mental memory house into which to slot everything we heard as we heard it. I just totally stole that idea and used it. It also helps people live tweet, I see from the backchannel transcript of my talk.

Be yourself, no matter what group invites you

Some keynotes flub it because they try to write the paper that they think the inviting group would produce, if they were writing it. But you’ve been invited because of the work that you do. Don’t try to master someone else’s field and give a keynote on that. Because a) you’re not going to master it and b) as a result it’s kind of simplistic and insulting. But also c) they invited you to talk about what you’re an expert in. So do that. I got totally balled up on this DHSI keynote for MONTHS because I was trapped in the ontological weeds: what is DH? Do I do DH? I need to write something for all the different kinds of DH that will be there! Oh God, I’m a fraud. Ultimately, I made the case for my own book project as a kind of DH. The best feedback I got was from this researcher who does computer stylistics (pretty much the opposite of what I do)–he told me he was listening and was like, “nope, nope, nope … oh, wait, hold one … that’s right … yes … huh! I didn’t think of that … cool!” We still do radically different things, but now he understands what I do, and we can talk about it.

Be yourself, though, for that goup

Like using fewer words for a bigger crowd, consider how to frame your ideas at a higher or more accessible level for a keynote crowd. You might give conference papers to an audience of the only eight people in the world who’ve read everything you’ve written, and vice versa. The keynote group is not that crowd. Include everyone by pitching to the kind of experts described in the conference theme or call: the DHSI group knows about some field in the humanities, and they use digital tools. In my paper I gave a solid gloss of affordance theory and applied it to interface design / self-narration problem. I did NOT go into the internal debates in the field on that theory, but I could’ve if it came up in questions. Which it didn’t. Would’ve framed the same part of the talk very differently for a design studies conference, or for a literary studies audience.


A keynote is more of a performance than a conversation. And it’s more theatre than film: be bigger and broader, generally. I used a remote to run the slides so I could stand in the middle of speaking area at the glass podium instead of hiding in the corner behind the computer. I gesticulated. I marked in the text where to look up at the audience. I marked in the text where to slow down to deliver the punchlines to maximum effect. (This also allows people to live tweet better; they’re better able to quote you correctly.) When people laughed, I waited for them to stop, and I smiled at them. I also managed my slides in the same way I’ve done for years, but which many people on Twitter stopped to remark on: I show blank/black slides in between content-laden slides. I don’t know about you but when there’s a slide and someone talking, I compulsively try to relate the image to the talking. So if I just want people to focus on what I’m saying, and there’s nothing I need them to look at, I just black out the screen. Pictures when relevant, blank when not. Apparently, not a lot of people have thought of this, and it was very popular.

Be present

I have always been very impressed when the keynote at a conference has been around and participating in the whole conference, and making an effort to connect with people. I am way less impressed when they fly in two hours beforehand, talk, and then go to dinner with the big wigs or their friends from grad school before flying home. I’m no bigwig but it is now the case that I’m senior to a lot of people, and that many people want to meet me. So I walked around with a smile all week and made a special effort to meet at least five people every day that I didn’t know before. Some days I met ten. It was a weird thing to see people get weirdly tongue-tied and nervous and talk too fast when they come up to me. I know what it’s like to BE that person who’s nervous, not be addressed by that person, so I’m learning how to be very friendly and engaging and not scary for people. I’ve met such nice people!

Keynote selfie in a keynote about selfies. #metaselfie #humourme

I will be a lot less scared and nervous and anxious and insomniac if I ever get asked to do another keynote. As it turns out, it really was the fear of the unknown genre that was making it all so stressful. I hope these notes might be useful to you for YOUR first keynote. And of course, if you are a keynote habituée, please add any further advice in the comments below!

8 thoughts on “Keynote! Tips for presenting to a big crowd

  1. Aimée, I love this post! Mostly because I also think that so many of your tips here could be applied to a regular ol' conference paper. I'm not going to be giving a keynote anytime soon, but I still found this remarkably informative and helpful in terms of crafting my next draft of the conference paper I'm currently writing. Also, I already told you this in person, but your keynote was fantastic!!


  2. Thank you Alysia, and thank you Jana — I didn't note that another scary thing was knowing that there were so many people in the audience who I personally knew that it felt like the highest stakes speaking engagement of my life. Like EVERYONE I KNEW WOULD UNMASK MY STUPIDITY AT THE SAME TIME. That didn't happen, and you're very nice to say such kind things to me.


  3. Among the things that make this post (and the keynote) so great is your willingness to engage communities and to be open. I'm taking away a zillion AM-notes to be integrated into my approaches to the world.


  4. I gave my valedictory speech in front of 1500 people in a huge lecture hall at the age of 17 in the USA. It was a daunting experience but after that, all presentations seemed like a piece of cake.


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