I’d like to take a moment to talk about keynote presentations. Anyone that has been to a major event in the last hundred years has had the privilege of hearing a keynote address. Keynote comes from literature, where it describes something that sets an underlying theme. Keynotes set the tone for everything that follows and serve as a framing mechanism. At a conference or other gathering, a keynote is usually delivered by an important figure, either a high executive from the conference sponsor or a celebrity of some kind. The celebrity can be used as a way to generate excitement or publicity about the conference, as people not otherwise interested might sign up just to see the keynote speaker. Except, there’s just one issue…
I don’t like keynote addresses.
Nope. None of them. I’m not singling anyone out here. I don’t like the idea of a keynote, period. At most of the conferences and Tech Field Day events that I attend, we have a small mix of people listening to presentations and giving honest and real-time feedback about what they are hearing. It’s not all that dissimilar from an honors class in college. Smaller groups that debate topics and ask deeper, probing questions that might not be as welcome in a larger class. I can specifically remember in my microeconomics class back in college spending two weeks building a utility-based theory of demand. Once we thought we had our theory nailed down, the professor asked a couple of deceptively simple questions that pulled the rug out from under us and forced us to examine all the hard work that we had been doing for the last two weeks. He gave us the rest of the day off to think about why we were wrong and when we came to class the next week, we started forming a proper demand theory that addressed all the shortcomings that had been brought up. It was a fascinating exercise and we all learned a lot from it because we were allowed to take our own path and ask our own questions. My friend in the larger non-honors section of the same class with the same teacher was simply told how the theory needed to be constructed on the first day of class. No investigation, no construction. This is how things are and how you will see them.
Keynote addresses, to me, are much the same as the large class sections. We have a speaker who holds some importance, whether they be a CEO, CIO, or other famous celebrity. They get to stand up and spend 45-60 minutes talking. Their presentation is carefully constructed to display a certain message. It feels like being in a car wash. Things are happening around you, but you are locked in for the ride, unable to interact with anything going on. Questions aren’t invited during a keynote. You aren’t supposed to provide feedback to this important CxO/celebrity. Your job as the audience is to sit there and accept what is being spoonfed to you. That’s what I dislike the most. I’m a vocal guy, especially when I disagree with something that’s being said. At smaller gatherings, I can express my dissatisfaction. Many times, we can have an interesting discussion about things, and often times I can either change my mind or at least see where the speaker is coming from. In a keynote, I don’t get that opportunity. I can lean over to the person sitting next to me and say something. I can take to social media outlets and express my opinion, even if it is limited in character space. Yet none of that will likely ever reach the person giving the speech. If I disagree with their assessment or opinion of things, it’s a good chance that others do as well. If we aren’t allowed to make our feelings on the matter known, then the speaker will likely never understand the dissension to their ideas.
Think about the definition of keynote for a moment. It is something that is supposed to frame the discussion. It’s a leading talk at the beginning to direct people to a goal. What is the purpose of a closing keynote then? These are usually the celebrity talks. They involve an interviewer asking leading questions of someone not usually associated with the field in a way to make their opinions and observations relate to a topic at hand. Almost as if to say “See? Musicians and movie stars know about information technology too!” Ask yourself this question: When’s the last time your heard someone exclaim, “I can’t wait to hear <celebrity>’s closing keynote! I’m interested in their take on data center fabrics.” Usually, the closing keynote will just serve as a way to generate interest and keep the attendees all the way to the end of the conference. People want to see the movie star or the famous director talk. They could care less if that person read numbers out of a phone book for a hour.
I can’t really stop keynotes. I’m going to have to live with them at every conference I attend, with some notable exceptions. What I can do is tell people how much I’d rather have a frank and open discussion about things. It’s very easy for a CxO to stand in front of a captive audience and dictate policy and vision. It’s an entirely different atmosphere when said CxO instead spends that time fielding questions and having frank discussions with people. Would you rather hear about sweeping changes and visionary statements? Or would you rather ask questions and get the chance to hear honest feedback? I know which I’d rather have. So while you might see me sitting in a keynote address from time to time, know that I’ve got something else on my mind entirely.