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As We Open, So We Close

The meeting attendees are on the edge of their seats. They’ve gathered from across the country and the energy in the room is palpable as the opening keynote speaker, a well known celebrity, strides confidently onto the stage basking in the welcoming applause.

Beginnings and endings are the bookends that can make or break a meeting

Mike Kerr

By Michael Kerr, CSP, HoF

The meeting attendees are on the edge of their seats. They’ve gathered from across the country and the energy in the room is palpable as the opening keynote speaker, a well known celebrity, strides confidently onto the stage basking in the welcoming applause.

Within 20 minutes, the speaker has somehow managed to drain every ounce of energy out of the room. People begin shifting in their seats. Heads slowly nod. And, somewhere…a meeting planner begins to sweat.
Even amateur speakers understand the importance of starting and ending their speeches on a strong note. The same holds true for a meeting – whether it’s a one-day, offsite retreat or a three-day convention, how you open and close has a huge impact on the overall success of your event.

The use of the term “keynote” in the figurative sense referring to a “leading idea” dates back to 1783. The phrase “keynote speech” first appeared in 1905, and although many use the phrase to refer to any main-stage presentation, the term technically applies only to the opening speaker, the one who will ideally offer a leading idea and set the “key tone” for the entire event.

Canadian Hall of Fame speaker Kit Grant, CSP, who has opened and closed hundreds of conventions over his 37-year-long speaking career, agrees: “The opening keynoter has a huge responsibility to set the tone for the entire event so people will say, ‘I’m glad I came for this.’”

Marnie Ballane, a director of business development with Speakers’ Spotlight, agrees. Her clients often look for someone who can “prime the audience to be open to new ideas and put them in the right frame of mind for the rest of the event.”

Ballane adds that the closer also plays an essential role. “It’s important for the audience to see the value in staying until the very end, so this slot is sometimes even more critical. Clients also want someone who is going to leave the audience empowered and excited with a strong call to action.”

Grant also believes the closer has a key role. “From a business point of view, the closing speaker plays an important role in whether or not people sign up for the following year’s event. It’s the last thing people remember, but neither speaker is more important than the other – meeting planners should appreciate that openers and closers have very different roles.”

Gail McHardy, CMP, director of conferences and events for the Canadian Society of Association Executives, agrees that the opener and closer have specific roles. “The opening has to have some real punch. The speaker must have a message that will get people thinking. Ideally, the topic should be current, thought-provoking and even a little controversial, but it must relate to the entire audience. The speaker must be well-versed on the group and be able to personalize the presentation to some degree.”

“The closer is just as critical,” McHardy believes. “The closer needs to send folks away on a high. They need to be inspirational, motivational and have a positive message that will resonate and linger with audiences.”
My survey of close to 30 meeting planners shows a trend toward placing more emphasis on the closing speaker than there used to be. Several meeting planners expressed the same perspective on the closing slot: “We’re beginning to appreciate more and more that, because the closing speaker is the last thing attendees remember, the closing speaker colours attendees’ overall view of the entire meeting experience. So we really try to get someone funny, memorable and upbeat because that’s the feeling people will leave with.”

Regardless of the slot, message is still king, according to McHardy. “We consider the message first and foremost when booking a speaker for either slot. Will the topic resonate with the audience? Does it conform to our objectives for the session?”

Although the opener and closer are key slots, McHardy stresses that you can’t discount the importance of filling the challenging middle slots with excellent speakers as well: “Just because they’re in the middle of the schedule, doesn`t mean you can book middle-of-the-road speakers!”

Starting and ending on a high note will continue to be a challenge to which meeting planners must rise in order to ensure a memorable event.
Perhaps the best measure of success might be when the meeting attendees ask that the convention closer kick off next year’s event?

Michael Kerr, CSP, HoF, is listed as one of Canada’s most in-demand speakers. Surf over to his website to discover how to put humour to work for more success in your organization. www.mikekerr.com

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Summer 2014 Edition

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