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What can training designers learn from a popular keynote speaker?

What can anyone who designs training learn from the way a keynote speaker designs and refines their presentation? Renowned keynote speaker, Jessica Kriegel, answers that question and more in today's podcast.

I’ve been to plenty of conferences and attended many a keynote session. I confess that if I only have the budget to attend one conference in a year, I may take the featured keynote speakers into account when trying to decide between several conferences. So what is it that makes a keynote session so popular? What’s the difference between what attendees should take away from a keynote as opposed to a 75-minute breakout session? And what lessons can anyone who designs training learn from the way a keynote speaker designs and prepares their talks?

Recently I had the honor of speaking with Jessica Kriegel, the Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners and an in-demand keynote speaker who has been talking about workplace culture (and generational differences in the workplace) for a decade. In our brief conversation, she shared her thoughts on all those questions and more.


Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn. I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder of a little instructional design company called Endurance Learning and conference season is descending upon us. I wanted to spend a little time today talking about the similarities and the differences between keynote speeches and skill-building training workshops. I also wanted to take a little time to think about what training designers can learn from someone who actually develops keynote speeches for a living, so today I am very excited to be joined by Jessica Kriegel.

Jessica Kriegel: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Six-word Biography

Brian Washburn: You are a highly sought-after keynote speaker and Chief Scientist of Workplace Culture at Culture Partners. Can you tell us in six words, what is your story? How would you introduce yourself in six words?

Jessica Kriegel: Researcher, author, keynote speaker, and mother.

Brian Washburn: All important aspects and thank you so much for joining. I’m excited to have this conversation. I’ve done some research in terms of who you are, but for those who are listening who would like to know a little bit more about how you got started speaking to all sorts of organizations and audiences near and far. You know, you’re a big deal when it comes to how organizations think about their people. How did you get started in this in the first place?

The Background of a Keynote Speaker

Jessica Kriegel: Well, thank you for calling me a big deal – that’s going to my head really quickly. But I started– I worked at Oracle for 10 years in their organizational development department, so I was doing culture transformation work internally with Oracle executives as my clients, which was just a dream job because the people there were really smart and working on interesting projects. And I got to help them in their talent development, in their organizational design, and ultimately, creating culture that led to results.

While I was there, I also got to go to school where I was doing my doctoral research on generational dynamics. Specifically, I had this idea that I was going to crack the code on Millennials and then become some famous consultant that would tell you how to handle Millennials because I was a Millennial. So I thought I’d get credibility pretty quickly, and as it turns out, my research found that all of – most of, at least – the “data” that we have on generational dynamics is lazy research. It’s bad, it’s generalizations, and it’s all just labels that are an excuse to stereotype people. So I started by feeling like I had discovered something in my research that people needed to know. I wanted people to stop using the label Millennial and Baby Boomer and now Gen Z to create distance between each other. And I needed to show them the evidence that it was a faulty narrative, anyway.

So I wrote a book based on my dissertation, which I thought was going to be a lot easier than it was. And before the book was even published, people started asking me to speak because everyone was interested in that. It was kind of a right time, right place kind of dynamic. Talking about Millennials seven years ago was all the rage, so that’s where my keynote career sort of took off.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And I think it’s such a fascinating yet cringy type of topic to say, well, “Why are Millennials lazy, and why can’t they be more like Boomers?” As somebody who’s in Generation X, I appreciate kind of being left out of the discussion.

Jessica Kriegel: (CHUCKLES)

Brian Washburn: So, but a lot of times–

Jessica Kriegel: Oh, you’re not that left out. You guys are apparently very cynical according to all of the fake news.


Brian Washburn: You know, that’s a whole other topic that I’m sure we could talk about for a long, long time. But for here, you know, lots of people listening have been to conferences. They attend breakout workshops, and they also attend the general sessions and the keynotes. What would you say are some of the major differences when it comes to what the audience can be taking away from a keynote session versus a 60- or 75-minute breakout session? Or even like a training session in their own organizations? It seems like sometimes people go in and think they’re going to take the same thing away, but do you have some thoughts in terms of what you’re hoping an audience will take away from like a keynote session versus like a training session?

The Goal of a Keynote Session

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, I– there are some generalizations I’ll have to make here because every conference is different and organized by people with different views about what each should hold.

Brian Washburn: Sure.

It should have that contemplation that you offer to the audience to take outside of the keynote to go do on their own time, or even giveaways that encourage them.

Jessica Kriegel: I will tell you that ideally, a breakout session would get into more application about the concepts that you’re learning about, whereas a keynote session doesn’t have that “…and now here’s how you can apply it in your life” moment. It should have those thoughts, it should have that contemplation that you offer to the audience to take outside of the keynote to go do on their own time, or even giveaways that encourage them. Sometimes you see the little cards that people have to fill out in a keynote where they can apply the lessons to their own situation. But a breakout session really should offer time within that session. If it’s 75 minutes or 90 minutes, there’s a little bit of lecture, then there’s a little bit of “No here, do this exercise and do this breakout conversation with someone that you’re sitting next to actually apply.”

That’s theoretically the difference most of the time. In reality, what you’re getting is a difference in caliber of speaker because breakout sessions are, you know– there’s a ton of breakout sessions at a conference, and there’s only, let’s say, two or three keynote slots. So that’s where the conference organizers are spending a lot of money, and so you’re getting really high-caliber talent on the keynote stage.

Brian Washburn: And it’s the draw, right? To the conference when people see the keynote lineup, that’s kind of what they’re looking at and sometimes deciding, “Should I go to this conference or this conference that’s focused on learning?” For example. And so, I’m going to get back to that in just a second, but before I get to that, I want to talk a little bit about this idea of organizational culture and how you weave it into places. So, organizational culture, it’s your area of expertise. You have a short and simple culture equation, right? You say strategy powered by culture equals performance. What role does learning – whether that means formal training or eLearning courses, or if it simply means being able to reflect on mistakes and receive some coaching to continue to grow – what role does learning play in a strong, healthy organizational culture?

What Role Does Learning Play in Organizational Culture?

Jessica Kriegel: Great question. So let me start by defining culture, because–

Brian Washburn: Yes, yes.

We define culture as the experiences we co-create which shape our beliefs. Those beliefs determine our actions and that is what's going to get you results.

Jessica Kriegel: Oftentimes when you talk to people about culture, I mean– I talk to CEOs all year long and I ask them about culture, and you get a thousand different answers for what even the CEO of organizations think. It’s not about the ping pong tables, it’s not about happy hours, it’s not about Hawaiian shirt Fridays as the movie office space would have you think. We define culture as the experiences we co-create which shape our beliefs. Those beliefs determine our actions and that is what’s going to get you results – the actions that all of your employees take. So we believe there’s a direct tie from the experiences to the beliefs to actions to results. Culture drives results, period.

So the role that learning plays in culture is it is an experience, and you’re going to have multiple experiences within one training session or within your career at one organization that you see numerous trainings within. You are exposed to many L&D opportunities, or you’re not. Or you’re exposed to asynchronous learning versus a facilitator learning. Or you’re facilitated to this plethora of options to choose from, or you’re not given options, right?

If you want people to care passionately about the work they're doing—and that's going to drive results because they're more proactive—you need to make them feel like you care, and L&D is a great way to do that.

I mean, all of those decisions in an employee’s L&D journey creates an experience for the employee that shapes their belief about how important learning is to the organization, how important they are as an employee to the organization, and the extent to which the organization is willing to invest in them. And the belief that you foster in that employee based on the L&D experiences they have is going to develop actions, not just about what they’re learning in the training, but actions about– I mean, this is really the difference between an employee who really gives a rip about the work you’re doing and who doesn’t. If I feel like you don’t care about me, I’m not going to care about this. And so if you want people to care passionately about the work they’re doing—and that’s going to drive results because they’re more proactive—you need to make them feel like you care, and L&D is a great way to do that.

Brian Washburn: That warms my heart as somebody who’s in learning and development. And I just want to take this idea and bring it back to what you were talking about earlier in terms of the caliber of speaker that you get when it comes to keynote speeches. I’ve spoken with several people who have had to put keynote sessions together. It’s definitely an art form. You know, these are usually the showcase elements at a conference, and the speakers generally strike me as incredibly polished, right? And confident and with slick visuals and well-rehearsed stage blocking and stage presence.

A lot of people who are listening to this podcast aren’t and won’t be keynote speakers, but they do design training and need to capture their audience’s attention, and I think that’s something that really good keynote speakers do – they capture the attention of the audience. What presentation design advice might you offer to someone listening and thinking, “Look, I just need to put together this compliance training on safety in the workplace, and I don’t need to put together a keynote-level talk, but I do need to engage people and have them take this topic seriously”?

How Do You Keep Listeners Focused in a Presentation?

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, I mean the keynote speakers that are super polished develop that over years and years and years, and they’re constantly working on improving what they’re doing. I mean, I personally, on any given year in my keynote career, which started 10 years ago, I am horrified and embarrassed about the keynote I was giving last year. I mean, it’s– and right now I’m embarrassed about the keynotes I was giving last year, and next year I’ll be embarrassed about the keynotes I’m giving now because it’s constant process improvement. And there’s so much to work on in a keynote, and I would imagine it’s the same– well, I know it’s the same – I was doing training in L&D in my very first job out of my MBA for Taleo. I was a Training Consultant and it was the same thing. It’s the practice of, not just how to command a room and facilitate how to gauge when people are losing interest, but also how to land the jokes that you know land and practicing your timing on things.

The key, in my opinion, to any great learning is storytelling and understanding how to present concepts in a framework that are simple to understand.

The key, in my opinion, to any great learning is storytelling and understanding how to present concepts in a framework that are simple to understand, and then to tell that story that helps really land the framework, make it memorable for someone because we learn in stories. We are storytellers as people- that’s always how we’ve processed information. And so understanding the right story to tell the message that you’re trying to let the audience walk away with is probably the number one tip I would give.

Brian Washburn: I love that tip. And so it’s something that a lot of times people will come to me and say, “Well, we have to deliver this training as it’s written. Somebody else wrote it. We have to deliver it as it’s written. How do we make it our own?” And storytelling is always the thing that I say is, you know, deliver it as written. If you have a story to help illustrate some of the concepts or some of the topics, put it in there and that will allow you to actually have some ownership over that as well.

Jessica, thank you so much for giving us some time. If people wanted to find out more about you, about your work with culture, or if they wanted to reach out to you and say, “Hey, we’d love to have you come speak at our organization, how can they find you?”

Jessica Kriegel: You can find me on LinkedIn. I also have a weekly newsletter called This Week in Culture, which you can subscribe to get any information that we’re sharing at the time. But Culture Partners website is, and you can find out information about me as a speaker, the other speakers that work with us, and anything around organizational culture.

Brian Washburn: Thank you so much for giving me some time. Thank you everyone else for listening. If you know somebody who might find today’s topic about comparing keynotes with skill-building sessions to be valuable, please do pass a link to this along. If you want to make sure that you are notified of a new podcast anytime it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe at Apple or Spotify, wherever you listen to your podcast. And if you’re interested in learning more about a broad range of learning and development strategies, you can pick up a copy of my book, What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training at

Until next time, happy training everyone.

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