For many thought leaders, the draw of building a career as a professional speaker is strong. On the surface, what's not to like? Book a gig, pop in and deliver your wisdom, enjoy your standing ovation, and get out. Of course, if it were that simple, every expert would be making a living as a speaker. While some speakers sell courses that make it look easy to become tomorrow's next big keynote star, most professional speakers spend years honing their craft and building the content, connections, and reputation that create the foundation for a professional speaking career.
One of the frequent questions from the authors/speakers I work with revolves around using their book content to build their speaking programs, and how to decide which type of program to build with their book material. A keynote address is quite different from a breakout session, and depending on your personality and content, you may be more inclined (and better equipped) to deliver one over the other.
Smart speakers are able to fold both types of content (and more) into their speaking repertoire, but for now, we'll focus on four key differences between keynote and breakout programs.
Scope - You vs. Them
Think of a Tony Robbins speech and how he uses story and charisma to command the room and pump up a crowd. That's the power of a strong keynote. The keynote superstar is exactly that - the focus and star of the program. This person is dynamic onstage with a powerful story that moves people. You feel GOOD after you listen to this program. You most likely bought into an idea or an emotion presented by the keynoter.
In contrast, a breakout session speaker will design content that's intended to solve a problem for the audience. In extended form, this type of content is also known as a training program or workshop. The speaker is going to teach you something, and it will probably require more from you than just sitting and listening. In this type of program, the speaker is there to facilitate and guide the audience's learning.
Length - the Long and Short of It
In our era of ten-minute Ted Talks and quick online reads, lengthy and expository keynotes result in people resorting to their phones for more engagement or outright leaving the room.
A powerful keynote is delivered succinctly and quickly, often in 20 minutes or less. Breakout sessions, on the other hand, can be an hour or longer in length given their deeper dive into addressing challenges and teaching something new.
Interactivity - Show or Tell
Nobody wants to be held hostage by a boring speaker bumbling through a speech being read from slides. A keynote speaker's material is short and dynamic enough to keep you engaged for the condensed time that he or she is onstage.
A breakout session is typically more interactive, which makes a longer session more tolerable. The first part of the session will probably be instructional, followed by a guided audience exercise or two intended to help the group apply the new concepts being taught along with some feedback from the speaker/guide. This brings audience engagement and active learning, which increases the likelihood of the attendee finding value in the session.
Tools - Professor or Guest Lecture
If you think for a moment about the most effective interactive breakout session you've attended, my guess is that it was not pure lecture and random exercises. Just as your college professors leaned on outside material to support their courses, good breakout speakers will acquire permission to provide appropriate tools and resources to further your learning objectives.
A keynote speaker will sometimes lean on outside statistics or case studies to underscore a point, but remember that this speaker is the star of the show, so they are likely to keep outside material to a minimum in the interest of not diluting the presentation of their agenda or idea.
Meeting planners work diligently to load their events with both keynotes and breakout sessions, with the balance often being dependent on the budget, tone, and industry vertical being served. These four basic distinctions will help you to consider your own onstage personality and the nature of your content when determining your primary focus, whether it's keynote or breakout presenter. Begin with one or the other, get it right, and then work to modify and expand your program to encompass the other type of speaking. This will make you a versatile and nimble speaker who can adapt to any meeting planner's needs.