#20: How To Deliver A Great Keynote with Conor Cunneen

It was such a pleasure to have Conor Cunneen join me on the podcast. If you enjoy Irish accents, witty humor, and topnotch advice on delivering effective keynotes, I know you’re going to enjoy this episode as much as I did.

Beyond being enjoyable, Conor shares a refreshing perspective on creating keynotes that can move audiences to action. But don’t take my word for it. Join us as we explore the fascinating world of public speaking.

From VP to business owner

Conor came to the US around 20 years ago. He was the VP of Marketing with Best Foods (otherwise known for Helman’s Mayonnaise). Conor focused on getting their products into different restaurants and food venues primarily through marketing.

After his lengthy stint with Best Foods, he went out on a limb and started his own business that he runs to this day. Irishman Speaks helps people prepare their messages so they can impact change in their listeners.

Conor Cunneen Headshot.jpg

Defining a great keynote

A great keynote according to Conor typically does one of three things:

  1. Encourages listeners to DO something

  2. Inspires them to CHANGE something

  3. Gets them to ADD something to their life when they get home

Depending on the stated purpose, some keynote speakers may not want to inspire change, but in the fields Conor works with, change is a primary emphasis.

In most cases, your audience should leave with a smile and a memorable takeaway to improve their work, performance, family, or community.

Affecting change isn’t limited to keynotes, though. All marketing content whether visual media, audio, or written word should drive the audience to take action. That’s the key to effective marketing strategies.

How to put together a smashing keynote

Great keynotes are built on clear messages. If the message isn’t clear in your mind, there’s very little chance that the audience will know what you’re trying to say. You first need to believe that you have something to communicate that will make a difference.

Before you write a word of your keynote, you need to articulate in one sentence the objective of your presentation. Once you have a good message and can clearly express it, you’re on the right track to creating a powerful keynote.

Often your theme will be drawn from personal experiences and observations. Everyone has exciting, dull, fabulous, and interesting life stories. These are the moments that people can relate to and learn from. Understanding what’s influenced you is a major part of helping other people change, too.

Keynotes dive into someone else’s unique perspective - letting the audience live life through their eyes for a few minutes. As long as these experiences are relevant to your listeners and you can communicate actionable tips, it’s valid material for your keynote.

Keynotes the Mark Twain way

Conor is a huge Mark Twain fan. After studying Twain’s books and life, he’s discovered a lot crossover from Twain’s material and effective keynotes. As an author himself, Conor has created an acronym based on Twain’s name. You can use this when creating and evaluating your keynotes.

M - Message Preparation

A - Audience

R - Relate to Your Audience

K - Know Your Objective

T - Tickle (in other words, use humor)

W - Wait

A - Anecdote

I - Involve or Inform

N - Narration

When discussing the “Message Preparation” step, Conor noted that Mark Twain was known for his phenomenal impromptu speeches. However, many of these speeches were written WEEKS before he delivered them. He simply tweaked these pre-written speeches for his audience.

So learn from his example, and be prepared. Your audience deserves it.

Developing a purpose for your talk

Your keynote should change attitudes, persuade your listeners, or inform them to take action. Conor gave a real life example of how he does this using his most popular speech, “The Gift of GAB.”

GAB, of course, is another acronym referring to goals, attitude, behavior. Conor gave three scenarios in which he’s used this speech. The first was in Connecticut at a business seminar. Because of his audience, he altered this keynote to teach leadership concepts.

He also delivered this speech in Wisconsin. His audience was a nursing organization. This time he focused on helping nurses develop positive patient experiences using the SAME speech.

The last example was in Nashville. Speaking at a sales conference, he leveraged this same keynote to teach salesmen how to land more deals. Three speaking engagements, three totally different takeaways.

The whole point is this. You can use the same framework for different audiences. You just need to adjust the nuances, stories, and call to action based on your audience.

Practical ways to connect with your audience

Draw on audience context

One way Conor connects is through humor. For instance, he referenced an anecdote he typically uses about getting pulled over by a police officer.

When he was in Connecticut, he simply said, “The police officer was checking to see if i was a member of the Irish Republican Army or even worse... a Patriot’s fan.” Fast forward to Wisconsin. He used the same joke, only this time he said, “or even worse… a Packer’s fan.”

See what he did there? He contextualized to his listeners’ sense of humor. These simple little tweaks don’t take a lot of time but make a HUGE difference in audience connection.

Get insider perspective

For most of his speaking engagements, Conor tries to have at least one good conversation with the event planner. During these discussions, he tries to understand where his audience is coming from. Here are the main questions he asks:

  • What challenges are they facing?

  • What’s morale like in the organization?

  • Who’s in the audience - age, gender, income level?

Once he gathers this information, he can craft a message and a takeaway appropriate for that particular audience. In short, insider perspective is invaluable for connecting with your audience.

How to overcome stage fright

Some people are shy of the spotlight. For instance, growing up in a musical family, some of my siblings could handle performances super well, and others of us couldn’t. I asked Conor to speak into this phenomenon.

He shared that some of the best actors and keynote speakers are actually introverts. In his experience, public speaking has less to do with being introverted and more to do with consistent practice. Just like toddlers developing mobility, you have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. It’s a step by step process.

Start small. Test your material in a friendly environment before you jump into the big bad world. Rotary clubs, for example, look for speakers on a weekly basis. These are great environments to try out your material and develop your skills.

Toastmasters are another great place to get experience. Conor noted, however, that you need to ensure that you’re going to get solid critique from the club you join. In other words, you want evaluations that challenge you to improve.

Prepping for your first speaking gig

According to Conor, keynotes are a building process that look something like this:

  1. Know your objective

  2. Understand your audience

  3. Practice in friendly environments

  4. Follow the Mark Twain framework when delivering your speech

As was already mentioned, once you’ve established your objective, you must get to know your audience. Just like in writing, knowing your audience is key for creating great content and driving home your point.

As far as delivery, Conor said most new speakers forget to wait. They fear silence. Rather than letting their audience sit and think for a second, they blaze on to a new point. Instead, make efforts to let your listeners catch up. Brief pauses are your friend

What do most people do wrong?

In Conor’s experience PowerPoint is the top fail when it comes to public speaking. PowerPoint is meant to be a SUPPORT for your material, not to BE your material. The most common powerpoint mistakes Conor has seen are (1) too much content on a slide and (2) talking about something totally different than what is on your slide.

When Conor speaks, he typically puts up one slide that says, “I do not use powerpoint.” However, if you’re going to use PowerPoint, here’s how you should create your slides. First, write your keynote. Then, and only then, do you create your powerpoint. Slides should be limited to a couple keywords and nothing more.

Must-read book

Conor has written several books. Other than his book based on Mark Twain, his other favorite is Why Ireland Never Invaded America.

As was already mentioned, he is a self-avowed Mark Twain fanatic. Of Twain’s books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his absolute favorite. It depicts almost every human emotion in such a realistic and gripping way. If you don’t have time to sit down and read it, you should at least listen to it. It’s well worth the effort.

Want to connect with Conor? Find him here:

Speeches - https://youtu.be/o35qNgAynJM


Twitter: @IrishmanSpeaks


Email: cc@irishmanspeaks.com

If you’re interested in attending one of his keynotes, email him for his schedule.

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