5 Secrets to a Successful Keynote


The best keynote speakers have tremendous stage presence, harnessing the power of both verbal and nonverbal communication. The biggest reason so many fail is they rely on words alone. More than 60 percent of communication is done through the body, face and voice, and this matters far more than verbal messages. Over the past year, human behavior research lab Science of People recorded volunteers’ reactions as they watched hours of TED Talks, looking for patterns and insight into what distinguishes a good speaker from a great one. How can you make sure your keynote will wow your group? Here are five things to look for:

1. It’s not what they say; it’s how they say it.

We found there was no difference in ratings between people who watched the TED Talks on mute and people who watched them with sound. This means we rate someone’s charisma, credibility and intelligence based on nonverbal signals. Over and over again, we find that how we say something is more important than what we say. The question then becomes: How do we say something well?

2. They let their hands do the talking.

When looking for specific nonverbal patterns the top TED Talks had that were different from the lower-rated speeches, one thing quickly became clear: the more hand gestures, the more successful the talk. The less-regarded TED Talks used an average of 272 hand gestures during the 18-minute time frame, while the best-reviewed TED Talks used an average of 465 hand gestures (that’s almost double). Speakers Temple Grandin, Simon Sinek and Jane McGonigal topped the hand gesture charts with more than 600. Our hands are a nonverbal way to show and build trust. Studies have found that when we see someone’s hands, we have an easier time trusting them. Also, when people use their hands to explain a concept, we have an easier time understanding them.

3. They use vocal cues.

Nonverbal communication isn’t only about body language; it’s also about vocal cues. Our evaluators rated the TED speakers on vocal variety, or the amount of fluctuation in their voice tone, volume and pitch. Again, the relationship was clear. The more vocal variety a speaker had, the more views they had. Specifically, vocal variety increased the speakers’ charisma and credibility ratings. Speakers who told stories, ad-libbed and even yelled at the audience (like Jamie Oliver) captivated the audience’s attention.

4. They find something to smile about.

Studies on smiling have found that leaders typically smile less than nonleaders. Nonverbal scientists believe smiling is actually a low-power behavior. However, we found the longer a TED speaker smiled, the higher his or her perceived intelligence ratings were. Those who smiled at least 14 seconds were rated as more intelligent than those who smiled for less. Even when TED talkers were speaking about a serious topic, like Sheryl Sandberg on women leaders, smiling still helped her intelligence ratings.

5. They make a grand entrance.

According to our ratings, people had already made their first impression and decision about the entire talk in the first seven seconds of the video. Researcher Nalini Ambady calls this “thin slicing.” She says that for efficiency purposes, the brain makes very quick judgments within the first few seconds of meeting a new person. Typically, this happens before any words are exchanged. So yes, speakers should think about their opening line, but also about how they take the stage, how they acknowledge the audience and how they deliver their first line.

Vanessa Van Edwards is a keynote speaker and lead investigator at Science of People, a human behavior research lab. She is also a Huffington Post columnist and published author. Follow her on Twitter, @vvanedwards.

Photo credits: Marla Aufmuth/TED; James Duncan Davidson/TED; Ryan Lash/TED