Crafting a Product Keynote

Creating keynotes for Atlassian Summit was probably one of the hardest thing in my career. It hopefully looked quite simple when watching the speakers on stage. Behind the scenes there was a lot of stuff happening. I learned a lot by putting together 4 product keynotes.

Plan the story

You want to indicate what big announcements you’ll be able to do at your event:

  • Can you pre-announce a feature or product?
  • Is it alright to announce a product in private beta?
  • Will it be publically available before or at the keynote?

If you decide to announce a new shiny thing it will probably add some pressure to the product teams. We called this SDD (Summit Driven Development).

In order to get an idea about the inventory (possible announcements) we used a slide deck. Each slide represented a different feature and had the following symbols:

Than we used the light table function in Keynote to get an overview over the stuff that could possibly make it into the keynote.

To be honest: We normally knew what the big stories were that we wanted to tell. But we also didn’t want to miss something exciting. From here we identified the major announcements. It was a collaborative effort. We shared the deck, the product managers added their feature announcements, and I filled out the metadata. As a keynote content team we came together and identified the big exciting new things for the keynote.

At the same time we were working on a second block of content: What story do we want to tell? There was a 2-3 year larger story that we had in mind. We wanted to inspire our customers and take them along our journey for the future of the products without scaring them with a too big vision.

Sure, each keynote has a theme that was not just carried out through the 2 hour presentation but through the whole event: Breakout sessions, showfloor activities, etc. We wanted to create a coherent experience for the attendees.

Back to the keynote: The announcements and the bigger story need to be aligned. That eliminates some of the smaller features that didn’t work with the bigger story.

Customers on stage

Even a product keynote does not only have an inspiring story where the company is going and what new features your customers will soon be using. It’s also about the present:

What amazing thing are your customers doing with your products? Getting a customer on stage can be great but make sure they have a great story to tell and is an entertaining speaker. Bonus points if your customer has participated in a beta program and can talk about a new feature that you just announced. A customer on stage justifies the value of your products and can highlight a use case that others in the audience are keen to learn more about.

The problem: I’ve seen lots of keynotes where the customer was the weak part. I also saw some presentations where the customer really inspired the audience. If you’re not sure if your customer can entertain your audience for 3-5 minutes do a scripted interview. It’s less preparation and you’re more in control of the story.

Live demos

Demos are a pretty powerful way to show your newest shiny feature in action. The audience want to see the product to make sure it’s not marketing BS.

Here’s the thing: The damage a failed demo is creating can be huge. Think of Steve Jobs and his famous iPad demo where he asked everyone to turn off their wifi. Or Elon Musk when presenting the undestroyable windows of the cyber truck. He had to do the rest of the presentation in front of 2 broken windows.

Two things for demos in keynotes: Keep the possibility of a failed demo as low as possible. Have a backup system, laptop, or (my favourite) video in place that you can pull out pretty quickly. Try it once, try it twice, switch to the backup, move on.

Demos can create a great moment and a big a-ha effect. A screencast of your new feature can almost create the same thing. Consider moving demos to smaller breakout sessions and raise the possibility that your keynote runs smooth without any major hiccups.

Speakers

I’m a huge fan of having a diverse speaker team. Just one person speaking for 1-2 hours can be quite boring. Having different people present different products, features, and stories shows the diversity of your teams. It adds to the dynamic of your presentation.

A host

A host is great. A host can hold the glue between the different speakers together and can open and close the keynote. Maybe the host comes back for the transition from one section to the other, maybe not. Sometimes it also makes sense to bring the host back on stage for a huge announcement. The host is often a rock star for the audience, the CEO, CTO, or head of product.

Demo presenters

Having special people for a demo is also a way to bring in dynamic. It’s an easy split of responsibilities. The demo person is seen as the expert. A different speaker can talk about the value and explain the product or feature.

Speaker pairs

We tried that once. You need to create a dynamic between the two speakers. Done right, this is a great way to explain different features of a product. Also if you have some inexperienced speakers this could help since they’re not on stage alone. The downside: Since there’s a lot going on stage, it could drag the attention away from your products and features. Balance these things out.

How to split?

That depends also on how many good speakers you have that can represent a section and also how many sections you have. If a section is just 2-3 minutes and you’re planning for having different speakers there’s a lot of going on and it can be quite hectic. At least plan for walk-on music and don’t forget to introduce the new speaker. Whether you do a high five, hand shake, or nothing for the transition is up to you but please be consistent.

The details and flow

We used a Trello board to plan the details of the story arche. You get a good overview of your announcements, stories and depth. You can plan your demos, speakers, and transitions. We often used the Trello board to see how mature a section of the keynote already is and which parts are still in flux.

Read The Art of creating a Talk for more about how to create great stories that resonates with the audience. Whether you have one team working on the story or you have different teams responsible for the different parts the Trello boards helps to get an understanding of the whole story.

Section transitions

You don’t want to make your keynote just a collection of topics or features. It should feel like a natural flow. Try to tie back to your bigger story in your transition so it feels like a coherent presentation. Whether you bring a host on stage for that or you let the section speakers handle the transition depends on how big the gap is that you need to bridge.

No matter what: Don’t just jump from topic to topic but guide the audience through your presentation. Put it extra effort to nail these transitions.

Videos

Videos are a nice break. It could be about a customer using your products or highlighting a new feature. A 2-3 minute video is a nice break in the flow. A keynote can be quite long when one person talks for 2 hours in a row. Tlak early to your customer, video, or product team about what can be done.

The goosebump moment(s)

This is the hardest thing to predict, but you really want this “a phone, an iPod, and an internet device… it’s one device and we call it iPhone” goosebump moment. Actively plan for those. There are different methods:

  • have a video the reveals your new feature (music can create strong emotions)
  • have special things on stage (like the couch in the iPad presentation)
  • we once turned of the lights to simulate a system failure in order to introduce a new incident management tool

Think out of the box. Make it clear that something new exciting is currently happening. You probably don’t want that moment to just pass by and no one noticed. I’ve experienced this myself when a presenter has just announced a cool thing but no one started to clap. Consider to have 3-4 clap moments in your keynote and don’t rely on the audience to get those. Plant people into the audience that can break the silence by start clapping. You also want spontaneous applause so keep the panned ones to a minimum.

Razzle Dazzle

This is how my former boss, Atlassian co-CEO Scott Farquhar called it: Putting on a show that excites the audience. We tried a lot:

  • Daft Punk opening the keynote. They took off their heads and boom – it were our co-founders
  • A group of dancers did an energetic opening – one of them was our co-founder
  • Another group of dancers in front of an animation

If your company is up to it and it fits to your culture this can go from crazy to ‘just’ open with an animated video about your services.

All other things

We were lucky to have a program manager helping us getting things done and keeping us accountable. There is much more to plan a product keynote than just the content, slides, and speakers:

  • the production crew needs to work with you on lights, sounds, videos, etc
  • the PR team needs to know the announcements to write press releases and blog posts
  • the legal team needs to make sure that all numbers and facts in your presentation are actually true
  • the events team needs to work with you on timing and logistical things
  • you need to coordinate speakers for rehearsals and maybe hire a speaker coach
  • you need to align with the video crew on timing and message
  • the product designer need to help with screenshots and demos
  • and much more

Don’t freak out. The important thing is that your keynote is inspiring, informative, and entertaining for the audience.

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