I often get this question and I think it depends on the meeting planner, the audience and what people are used to. This blog is to help 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 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 speaker ends the event on a high note.
The Plenary Speaker
I find the motivational keynote speaker and plenary speaker are used interchangeably. The overall trend though is a plenary is usually an industry expert. 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.
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.
If the plenary speaker is relevant and somewhat animated, it can work out great. 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, its the quality of those points and how the speaker builds memory and meaning around those points that matters.