Keynotes vs. Workshops: a Primer for Speakers

Table of Contents

Introduction

Carving out a niche is often the biggest hurdle speakers face starting out on their business journey.  (We have additional resources for doing just that here and here). Once you’ve figured out your ideal niche, you need a “signature talk” or set of options to offer clients when you reach out to them. We call these offerings, listed on your website, in your speaker bio, or in the information packet you send potential clients, your “speaker menu.” Establishing this menu is another huge milestone on the road to gaining momentum for your business. For many speakers, this process involves figuring out what kind of  talks people get hired for. As you start researching speaking opportunities, you’ll see most fall into one of two categories: keynotes and workshops. 

Choosing between the two might throw you for a loop at first. Aligning your speaker menu with your plays a huge role in the success of your speaking business. Don’t you want to start out making your mark on the stage with what you’re best at and the audience you can serve best?

Of course– and that’s what we’re here for. Today we’re going through all the questions that are swimming around your head if you’re comparing keynotes and workshops. We’ll give a rundown of both kinds of talk along with the lifestyle and business strategy they involve. Then we’ll offer a few helpful criteria that can help you decide where to focus the efforts for the current stage in your speaking business. Still have questions about becoming a keynote or workshop speaker at the end? You can always get in touch with us here.

1. The Rundown on Keynotes. 

Keynotes are what most people think of when they think of becoming a speaker. You are the headline, the special feature–opening a conference or closing a summit. Maybe you are the event itself. You have to wear many hats– inspire, motivate, and entertain your audience while also getting a point across that contributes to the over-arching theme of the event. At bigger conferences and conventions, you have an A/V team shining a spotlight, projecting your slides, and even playing music as you walk onstage.

Sounds pretty glamorous right?  

Well…yes and no. It’s true–most professional speakers give keynotes at least at one time or another if not full-time. And some keynotes are pretty glamorous–there’s nothing like seeing on the faces of your audience that you have made an impact and transformed thousands of lives. But becoming a keynote speaker–especially one who regularly lands high-paying gigs at high profile events–is hard work. 

Keynote talks are usually about an hour long. Because of your position in the program, as a keynote speaker you are either setting or summarizing the tone of your event. There is a limited if any Q&A period, so your point has to come across without any clarification. All that goes to say: to make it as a keynote speaker, you have to have a killer signature talk. There’s no way around it–without crazy good good content and delivery, you won’t have much going for you, even if you’re the world’s foremost expert on your topic.

To ensure your signature talk appeals to the right clients, you have to get clear on your niche. No matter what kind of speaker you are, your talk should always solve a problem for a particular audience. Naturally with larger audiences, the problem you solve will probably be something big picture. Think “state of the industry” type presentations, addressing a looming question in the field, inspiring people after a tough year, or emphasizing one or another leadership trait that is the key to success. 

Many aspiring speakers who are enthused about the profession but unsure what to speak about latch onto the idea of keynotes right away. The most famous speakers like Tony Robbins and Simon Sinek seem like they can speak to anyone about anything. No matter what they say, it inspires millions. But all the best keynote speakers started out with a narrow niche. They built their brand on thought leadership and expertise in a particular industry. Before you commit to becoming a keynote speaker, get ready to start small and humble. Your time in the limelight will come, but it may take a few years!

Speaking is a relationships business, The kind of interaction and networking that happens organically at many workshops may require more extra time outside of your keynotes. Fortunately, if you deliver a stirring talk, audience members will probably be dying to talk to you afterward. By making an effort to talk to your audience members and genuinely follow up with their questions, you can build the networks necessary to maintain momentum for your keynote speaking business. We have a great podcast with international speaking dynamo Neen James on how to get more attention to yourself as a keynote speaker. And you can listen to some of our coaching tips for networking your way to more gigs here.

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2. The rundown on workshops. 

A workshop is an interactive talk on a specific subject to a small, tailored audience.  While keynotes offer a big picture solution, workshops offer implementable skills for a particular situation. They usually include discussion and problem solving in real time instead of after the fact. Speakers tend to find workshops especially fulfilling because as you lead them, you can see the tangible difference you’re making as your audience reaches an “aha” moment or asks a particularly incisive question. 

“Workshop” can mean many different things to different people. While the same skills (facilitating conversation, interaction, and problem solving within a group) are required, different industries and types of events have vastly different expectations for what leading a workshop means. We’ll start with workshops that occur at the same events as keynotes. These are small breakout sessions, usually about 45 minutes long, led by experts in niche topics.

Workshop attendees self-select into your session, which means you don’t have to spend as much time grabbing their attention. At the same time, it means your audience is usually very small. With a smaller audience, you have to remain engaging . The catch with these workshops is this–they often don’t pay, or at best pay very little. Sadly, the only sure way to get paid at corporate and association conferences is by doing keynotes. The only exception is if you’re a big name that event planners are dying to get as a guest in any way. 

If these workshops don’t pay, why do people do them? Well, they can form the launchpad for an incredible speaking business. Many aspiring keynote speakers use these workshops as a way to get their foot in the door for a particular topic. If you want to speak in a highly competitive field but don’t have the time to quit your day job, you can start out by leading a workshop here and there.

Workshops also offer more time for networking as workshop attendees are potential clients themselves. Keynotes rarely allow for the type of interaction that workshops involve. If you can walk someone step by step through the pain points of their problems, you’ve already done most of the job of selling yourself to them as a speaker. The more general, inspirational conversations that happen during keynote Q&As rarely allow for this relationship-building. We highly recommend leading workshops if you’re trying to break into keynoting for a major industry but haven’t quite built up your reputation with event planners. 

But what if you don’t really want to be a keynote speaker? Can you make money leading workshops? Not only is it possible, but in light of certain 2023 speaking trends,  there has never been a better time to be a workshop leader. Certain complex, sensitive, or particularly unique topics are well-suited to workshops. These workshops are not limited to free gigs in side rooms at a convention center. In fact, they are the “main event” for which industry event planners seek speakers. Some such topics include mental health, workplace culture and HR, relationships, ESG , and the creative fields. Especially with politically charged ESG topics like DEI, broad keynotes that barely touch the surface can come across as lip service. By requiring effort by the participants as well as the speaker, workshops ensure that ideas are put into action.

In these industries, you can build a successful speaking business without delivering keynotes–though it’s likely you’ll be invited to give a few! Your clients might include small businesses, teams, corporate leaders, or individuals. Bigger clients might hire you to speak to a particular team or group within their organization. Running educational workshops also sets you up to expand your business into longer seminars (e.g. day or weekend-long intensives).

If you like the more in-depth focus of workshops but prefer larger audiences or longer events, you can also consider leading seminars and corporate trainings. Seminar leaders are often hired by companies for a pre-established topic or curriculum. If you want to develop your own trainings, leading workshops is a great way to test out your ideas, interface with a variety of audience members, and build your network with potential clients. (You can find a helpful comparison of different kinds of in-depth small group speaking settings here). These types of seminars also lend themselves well to virtual events. Webinars and online trainings allow you to maintain the comfortable atmosphere of a workshop with a larger audience.

Finally, some speakers who are branching out into speaking from another established career just go ahead and organize their own workshops. Authors, creatives, and micro-celebrities within their own fields all do this with great success. We have a couple podcasts with speakers and coordinators that touch on organizing your own event–listen here and here).

If you want to primarily offer workshops on your speaker menu, you’ll love episode 442 of The Speaker Lab podcast. Listen to our TSL coach Nanette Hitchcock offer tips for developing a dynamic workshop here.

3. So how do you choose between workshops and keynotes? 

Choosing between keynotes and workshops is not a zero-sum game. Most speakers will deliver both during their careers. If you’re reading this, you’re more than likely choosing the proportion of keynotes vs. workshops that you want on your calendar. Ultimately, a few factors will determine the balance you strike:

  • Where you are in your speaking career. If you’re just starting out, workshops are a great way to get traction and experience different events and industries. These workshops are a low-commitment (but also low-paying) way to get a feel for different audiences and network with speakers or event planners. Are you a a seasoned speaker who knows your lane and prefers delivering keynotes? Well, workshops might not be a particularly good use of your time. If you have a family or still work a 9-5, you might only want to take the highest-paying gigs, which could in some industries exclude workshops. 
  • What kind of topics you speak about. Certain topics are better addressed with a smaller, more interactive audience. Some fields, like faith and spirituality, relationships, and DEI have an entire ecosystem of conferences that revolve around workshops. In such an industry, workshops don’t just supplement or kickstart a career as a keynote speaker. You can in fact build your career on them! On the other hand, Corporate industry and association clients often gravitate more toward keynote speakers. To succeed in such fields as a workshop leader, you will want to target individual businesses as well as their over-arching groups. This means learning pitching your workshop as essential to the workplace, employee morale, or leadership improvement. 

  • How and where you travel. No matter what kind of speaker you are, at some point you will be asked to travel. Some speakers only travel to high-paying gigs in places they want to visit. Do you want your tickets and hotel covered so you can sneak in some sightseeing? Keynote speaking will probably get you there.  Traveling might be harder on a workshop leader budget, but it’s not impossible! Consider booking several workshops with different clients on the same day or within a few days. This requires some intensive research into the locations you’re traveling to–or a lot of recommendations from the first client you book there.

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Conclusion. 

As TSL podcast guest Marcus Sheridan (a veteran keynote speaker and workshop leader) put it (listen here), just because you’re good at keynotes doesn’t mean you’re good at teaching workshops. It’s important to be realistic about the work involved as you decide where to put your efforts. If you have a great groove leading workshops, you enjoy it, and it’s earning you steady income? There is no reason to pivot to keynotes just because you feel unglamorous. On the other hand, if you do crave the big stage, you can definitely use your workshop experience to move upward. You just might have to learn a few new skills along the way.

You can learn more about how to become a keynote speaker at our blog here. We also have a blog that covers more differences between keynotes, workshops, and other types of guest speakers here. And as always, we encourage you to get in touch for any additional guidance regarding your speaking career.

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