Best Practices for Virtual Keynotes

Storytelling in Organizations
Lessons Learned: Best Practices for Virtual Keynotes

Like many organizations, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Organization (USPTO) had to move all of its training online. The biggest challenge that the training and development specialists at the USPTO faced was converting its bi-annual four-day Leadership Forum from an in-person event to entirely online. All four keynotes and 52 plenary sessions were broadcast through WebEx to nearly 1,300 managers and supervisors.

There were plenty of technical challenges, last-minute schedule updates, and the bandwidth issues that everyone is familiar with in our new world of virtual meetings. The evaluations are still coming in, but early results show that the Forum was a big success. Especially the four keynotes. What made the keynotes so effective and popular was excellent storytelling.

The Power of Spoken Word Poetry
The first keynote speaker was Sekou Andrews, who is an award-winning performer of spoken word poetry. He recorded a dynamic performance video full of stories linked to the USPTO’s mission and service to the American people. His presentation, “The NEXT, Next Thing,” was about how transformational leaders can help their people through the COVID-19 crisis.

Using Self-Awareness for Influence
The second keynote speaker, Jen Shirkani, talked about the power of leaders’ emotional intelligence to help the leader connect with their employees. Using stories to highlight how emotional intelligence works, Ms. Shirkani demonstrated how leaders could use stories to build empathy.

Leaders Share Their Umbrellas
Dr. Brad Shuck, the third keynote speaker, is a world expert on employee engagement and compassionate leadership. His was a simple presentation in which he sat at his desk at home and explained his research findings through personal stories. Stories such as when he took his pre-teen daughter and three of her friends to a concert to demonstrate how people are engaged differently. Another story was about his gigantic lunch at a famous Texas restaurant to illustrate the difference between transactional leadership and transformational leadership. His most compelling story demonstrated the power of compassionate leadership with the metaphor of sharing an umbrella.

Leadership Lessons from Stories
The final keynote speaker was Captain Mike Abrashoff, author of It’s Your Ship. Captain Abrashoff used several stories in explaining how he turned the worst ship in the U.S. Navy to a high-performing team. He had many tips on becoming a transformational leader, but, according to the post-event evaluations, his stories brought his tips alive.

In the New Online World, Stories are Still the Best Way to Engage an Audience
I learned many as the program manager for the 2020 Leadership Forum. However, the most important lesson is the power of stories – even more so in online events. Each of the keynote speakers used a variety of digital technologies: video, chat rooms, broadcasting from studios, or well-designed graphics. But their stories resonated the most with the virtual audience.

Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at

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