What is the Difference between a Plenary Speaker and Keynote Speaker?

Funny Motivational Speaker at Conflict Management Workshop

If you are planning a meeting you might be wondering, do you need a Plenary speaker or a Keynote Speaker? What is the difference? I've served as a funny keynote speaker at over 90 events per year for over 23 years. Plenary and keynote speakers tend to be used interchangeably. Ultimately, they both address the entire audience at a conference ( as opposed to a break out or workshop session that breaks off into smaller groups)

This blog is to help you clarify the difference between a plenary speaker and keynote speaker when you need to hire a speaker for a conference.

What is a keynote speaker?

A keynote speaker is meant to be the main draw to encourage audience participation and attendance at an event. A keynote can have name recognition, be motivational, be a funny motivational speaker, or be an industry expert.

The entire audience comes together for a plenary or keynote speaker. After the keynote, most conferences break the audience down into workshops or breakout sessions. 

To boost attendance and raise interest in an event, the keynote or plenary speaker needs to drive home a message that is relevant to the wider audience. 

Most conferences hire several  top keynote speakers. They are usually placed as an opening, luncheon or closing keynote speaker. An opening keynote speaker sets the tone for the event, whether it be motivation, humor or industry trends. The closing keynote speakers ends the event on a high note.

The Plenary Speaker

I find the motivational keynote speaker and plenary speaker are used interchangeably. Both speak to the larger audience and their message needs to be generic, yet relevant enough for the whole group.

A plenary speaker is usually an industry expert or is from within the organization. Meeting planners capitalize on the wider audience reach to share an important industry message. 

I've seen many plenary speakers, they play a critical role in an event to shape attendees minds about the future. For instance, if your industry is going through tremendous change, you need an industry expert plenary speaker or a thought leader to drive people in the right direction. You need a plenary speaker who can help straighten out the facts, create clarity, structure and predictability. The most common plenary speaker is from within an organization. It can be a CEO, Executive Director, Finance Director, etc.

This guest speaker may also be a politican, government official, organizational leader, thought leader or other industry specialist. Usually, this person does not make public speaking their primary job but something they are called on to give a specific message at a specific time.

PLENARY SPEAKER Placement on your Agenda

Often a plenary speaker is before, during or after lunch. The challenge with this spot is the audience is eating and often this makes them lethargic as their energy is diverted to the gut to digest instead of the heads to think. Plenary speakers usually have a pretty dense, serious message that includes a lot of information and is supported by PowerPoint.  For instance, a company CEO many speak about the organizations key challenges.

If the plenary speaker is relevant and somewhat animated, it can work out well. However, if the message is too heavy, it can backfire and send audiences back to their hotel rooms for a quick afternoon nap.

A plenary speaker can also be interactive with the audience to pull them out of their slumber and engage them in their message. Studies show audiences only remember a few key points in any speech. Thus, it's the quality of those points and how the guest speaker builds memory and meaning around those points that matters.

I've seen some meeting planners successfully have a funny guest speaker and follow this with a more serious plenary speaker.

When an audience laughs it makes them more ready to listen, pay attention and learn. A funny keynote speaker sets the audience up to be primed to listen to a plenary speaker.


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