Tag Archive for: keynoters

Some conference keynotes are great, inspiring, and difference-making; but too many are filled with exhausted cliches, empty entertainments, and low-importance ideas.

Okay, everybody knows that. A more nefarious problem is that hardly any keynotes are designed with learning in mind. Fortunately, I have a radical solution, which I’ll share below.

First, let’s analyze why keynotes fail. I’ll use my Training Maximizers model, which is based on the scientific research on learning and training.



We’ll take these one at a time.

A. Valid Credible Content

Most keynotes are okay on this…not always great in providing valid, important content, but okay generally…

B. Engaging Learning Events

Most keynotes are great at this…not all, but most are at least somewhat pleasing and attention grabbing.

C. Support for Basic Understanding

Most keynotes are pretty good at helping people comprehend the main points, often through story-telling.

D. Support for Decision-Making Competence

Most keynotes completely fail in this regard, never asking audience members to make decisions or relate the learning to real-world decision-making.

E. Support for Long-Term Remembering

Most keynotes are poor in this regard. Supporting remembering requires such learning factors as (1) utilizing contextual cues during learning that will be later encountered on the job, (2) providing learners with substantial amounts of memory-retrieval practice, and (3) spacing repetitions of key concepts over time. Most keynotes provide near-zero learner-relevant context, absolutely zero retrieval practice, and only minimal spaced repetitions.

F. Support for Application of Learning

Most keynotes do absolutely NONE of this.

G. Support for Perseverance in Learning

Most keynotes do absolutely NONE of this.


Most keynotes completely fail to provide learning that will survive the trip back to audience members’ workplaces.

And keynotes aren’t the only problem. Many regular conference sessions also fail as learning events.


One Radical Solution

Most keynote speakers are simply not capable of making their pearls of wisdom relevant to audience members’ workplaces. Why? Because more than 95% of keynoters come from outside the industry to which they are speaking. They don’t know the day to day reality of the audience members. Yes, some keynoters make attempts to connect, but though they may know the broad outlines of relevance in an industry, they can’t know the situational cues or issue sets that are relevant. Without this insider knowledge, keynoters can’t provide the following:

D. Support for Decision-Making Competence

E. Support for Long-Term Remembering

F. Support for Application of Learning

G. Support for Perseverance in Learning

Before I come to my final glorious point, let me debunk a myth, because I know some of you are thinking, “to hell with learning, I pick my keynoters to sell tickets to my event.” Just this month, I was speaking to Jeff Hurt of VelvetChainsaw, conference-industry guru, who told me that conference organizers don’t believe that people choose conferences based on big-name keynoters. In the most recent survey research, only 28% of respondents said that big-name keynoters were critical to drive registrations.

But Dr. Thalheimer, smartypants, why is learning so important in conferences? Well, the assumption is that people who come to conferences not only want to get jazzed with ideas, booze, and networking — they also want to take new ideas and skills back to their workplaces and implement them successfully. Without such value-creation, the cost-benefit calculus of conference costs and the time investment just won’t compute for prospective attendees. Without learning-to-performance value, the conference-industrial complex folds tomorrow.

Now, on to my radical keynote solution. The problem is that outside keynoters just can’t create the kinds of learning supports that insure job-relevant value creation. So, instead of hiring outsiders as keynoters, hire insiders! Yes, insiders — people within your industry — probably won’t be as motivating, sexy, etc., but their weaknesses can be compensated for, whereas outsiders weaknesses (D, E, F, and G above) cannot be easily overcome.

How could this work? Simple, you take the gobs of money you’re going to save by not hiring outside keynoters, and you hire learning coaches for your keynoters! Impossible? No! Think TED talks. Those folks are coached out the kazoo to be much better speakers than they normally would be. Yes, we’re talking about going beyond the idea-sharing methodology of TED talks, but the point is the same. It’s probably cheaper to train up your insider keynoters than to hire outsiders. And insiders can be so much more persuasive because they are authentically similar to the participants.

Am I available to train your keynoters? Absolutely! I’ll also recommend Jeff Hurt, who is just brilliant at thinking about conference learning design.

More Radical Solutions

By using the Training Maximizers Model, other solutions will suggest themselves. For example, suppose you do find a great outside keynoter. Given that you know they’ll be bereft of D, E, F and G; you can hire a facilitator to guide decision-making practice, support remembering, support on-the-job application, and support perseverance in learning.

Am I available to help you do this. Absolutely!

Am I available to provide a keynote that provides all seven of the Training-Maximizer steps? Well, in the workplace learning field, I’m absolutely ready!


Sorry for the shameless plugs (but even sharp, good-looking people have to make a living — they tell me). The points you should remember are these:

  1. Most keynotes are not supporting learning, remembering, and on-the-job application.
  2. Thus, most keynotes are not maximizing benefits to conference attendees.
  3. Thus, most keynotes are not providing maximum value to conference owners.
  4. Moreover, most keynotes are not helping associations meet their educational mission.
  5. Keynotes can be made more effective by hiring industry-insiders and coaching/supporting them.
  6. Keynotes can also be augmented with other learning supports to make them more effective.

Feel free to contact me at 617-718-0767 or at info (at) worklearning (dot) com.