I am a student of languages. I love to figure out where words come from and how their meanings change and develop. I guess this makes sense since language is such an important part of my work. I spend a lot of time speaking and writing. As a sales and marketing type I rely on language to get the point across and to convince people. As a business leader I rely on language to help the people I work with make the best contributions to the business goals that they are capable of making. I have had the privilege of being the keynote speaker at several events and I realized I have never looked at the origin of “keynote speaker”. That is a little odd.
I assumed it related to the concept of a “keystone”. The keystone is the first big building block that a stone structure is built from. It is the base of the foundation for the whole enterprise. The keynote speaker is usually the one who speaks on the main topic of a conference or event. The keynote speaker’s topic is then used as the building block for the breakout sessions, seminars and resource materials for the conference. So I accepted the connection to a keystone although I thought it might be an incomplete understanding.
I also thought it might have to do with taking notes. We all sit and scribble little notes to ourselves or tap notes into our hand-helds while listening to speakers. When we get home we have the notes that we no longer think are significant and the notes that we will use to build some plans from. The keynote speaker might be the one who gave us the key notes to take. These would be the notes that we can use to build the outline of the entire conference, so when we get home, we can make sense of our jottings and come up with some “take-aways” we can put into action. I didn’t really believe this explanation, but I thought it was a cute connection.
None of these theories were really bad ones. They were in keeping with the importance and influence a keynote speaker has in regards to a conference or seminar. But I wasn’t quite happy with my theories. So I looked in the dictionary. I know that might seem a little extreme. But don’t you love dictionaries? They are kind of like the instruction booklets for your spoken word. So when you are not doing well without directions, you can look at the instructions and see what you should say next.
Anyway Keynote is both a noun and verb and it comes from a musical use. The keynote is the note given to the choir or the orchestra to tell them what key they are singing in or playing in and helps everyone get started on the same note.
Isn’t it interesting to think of the keynote speaker in terms of music? He or she is the person setting the tone of the meeting or conference. He or she is giving everyone the note that we are starting with. You might think of the keynote speaker as the one who gets the attendees all thinking and feeling on the same vibration. If you know anything about music at all, you know there is a very different feel depending on the key and the starting note. A piece in G Major sure feels different than a piece in D# Minor. So I guess the question a meeting planner might ask after an event might be, “Did the keynote speaker hit the right note for the audience?” Or perhaps the question would be, “Did the keynote speaker set the right tone for the conference?”
Based on this musical connection “keynote” as a noun also means the main idea or main policy. This is the understanding most of us have. The keynote is the main idea of the conference or the main policy of a company or political group. We are used to the main speaker at an event talking about the theme of the meeting or conference. When you layer this on top of the musical reference, I think you find a much deeper meaning. This is because a conference or meeting really should have an emotional component and an emotional impact. Deep learning might be stimulated by reason and logic and information, but it only takes root or becomes the fuel for action when it strikes an emotional chord and creates some emotional vibration. So if a keynote speaker says some interesting or even enlightening things, but fails to strike the right chord or does not send the right vibrations out to the audience, one might find the presentation interesting, but there will be no lasting effects and no action coming from it.
Since we are looking for some action to come out of a seminar or conference, perhaps this is a good time to talk about keynote as a verb. As a verb, it means to give the note to the choir or orchestra so they can get started on the right note and in the right key. So when you are a keynote speaker acting as a verb, you are making the initial action which gets everyone else singing the main theme of the conference. I’d say that is a pretty good visual, seeing the keynote speaker as the one who gets all the attendees singing the right song in the right key.
This makes me think about the saying: “preaching to the choir.” I guess when you give the keynote and get people singing a familiar tune they believe in, you are indeed preaching to the choir. But many times people will attend a function to hear the choir sing. One of the most popular events in any city is the annual Handel’s Messiah concert. Everyone who is a fan knows the work and the fans keep coming. New people discover it each year, because the choir keeps expanding. So maybe it is okay to preach to the choir, as long as the keynote you give them is in a good key. If you have ever known anyone who sings in a choir, you now they are only as good as their directors and conductors. So if you don’t preach very well to the choir, they are not going to sing on key, nor are they going to have the enthusiasm or dynamics that they will need to rock the house.
The other verb use of keynote is related to giving the speech. “I keynoted the conference …” might sound better than, “I gave the opening talk.” Or maybe that is an awkward way of saying it. Again, if you use the musical reference, keynoting as a verb sounds pretty good. “I was the one who got the singing started.” Sounds like both an honor and a privilege.