Keynote Hate – Celebrity Edition

We all know by now that I’m not a huge fan of keynotes. While I’ve pulled back in recent years from the all out snark during industry keynotes, it’s nice to see that friends like Justin Warren (@JPWarren) and Corey Quinn (@QuinnyPig) have stepped up their game. Instead, I try to pull nuggets of importance from a speech designed to rally investors instead of the users. However, there is one thing I really have to stand my ground against.

Celebrity Keynotes.

We’ve seen these a hundred times at dozens of events. After the cheers and adulation of the CEO giving a big speech and again after the technical stuff happens with the CTO or product teams, it’s time to talk about…nothing.

Celebrity keynotes break down into two distinct categories. The first is when your celebrity is actually well-spoken and can write a speech that enthralls the audience. This means they get the stage to talk about whatever they want, like their accomplishments in their career or the charity work their pushing this week. I don’t mind these as much because they feel like a real talk that I might want to attend. Generally the celebrity talking about charity or about other things knows how to keep the conversation moving and peppers the speech with anecdotes or amusing tales that keep the audience riveted. These aren’t my favorite speeches but they are miles ahead of the second kind of celebrity keynote.

The Interview.

These. Are. The. Worst. Nothing like a sports star or an actor getting on stage for 45 minutes of forced banter with an interviewer. Often, the person on stage is a C-level person that has a personal relationship with the celebrity and called in a favor to get them to the event. Maybe it’s a chance to talk about their favorite charity or some of the humanitarian work they’re doing. Or maybe the celebrity donated a bunch of their earnings to the interviewer’s pet project.

No matter the reasons, most of these are always the same. A highlight reel of the celebrity in case someone in the audience forget they played sports ball or invented time travel. Discussion of what they’ve been doing recently or what their life was like after they retired. A quirky game where the celebrity tries to guess what they company does or tries to show they know something about IT. Then the plug for the charity or the fund they’re wanting to really talk about. Then a posed picture on stage with lots of smiles as the rank and file shuffle out of the room to the next session.

Why is this so irritating? Well, for one, no one cares what a quarterback thinks about enterprise storage. Most people rarely care about what the CEO thinks about enterprise storage as long as they aren’t going to shut down the product line or sell it to a competitor. Being an actor in a movie doesn’t qualify you to talk about hacking things on the Internet any more than being in Top Gun qualifies you to fly a fighter jet. Forcing “regular” people to talk about things outside their knowledge base is painful at best.

So why do it then? Well, prestige is one thing. Notice how the C-level execs flock to the stage to get pics with the celebrity after the speech? More posters for the power wall in their office. As if having a posed pic with a celebrity you paid to come to your conference makes you friends. Or perhaps its a chance to get some extra star power later on for a big launch. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve made a big IT purchasing decision based on how my favorite actor feels about using merchant silicon over custom ASICs. Wait, I can tell you. Hint, it’s a number that rhymes with “Nero”.

Getting Your Fix

As I’ve said many times, “Complaining without a solution is whining.” So, how do we fix the celebrity keynote conundrum?

Well, my first suggestion would be to get someone that we actually want to listen to. Instead of a quarterback or an actor, how about instead we get someone that can teach us something we need to learn? A self-help expert or a writer that’s done research into some kind of skill that everyone can find important? Motivational speakers are always a good touch too. Anyone that can make us feel better about ourselves or let us walk away from the presentation with a new skill or idea are especially welcome.

Going back to the earlier storyteller keynotes, these are also a big draw for people. Why? Because people want to be entertained. And who better to entertain than someone that does it for their job? Instead of letting some C-level exec spend another keynote dominating half the conversation, why not let your guest do that instead? Of course, it’s not easy to find these celebrities. And more often than not they cost more in terms of speaker fees or donations. And they may not highlight all the themes of your conference like you’d want with someone guiding them. But I promise your audience will walk away happier and better off.


Tom’s Take

Keynotes are a necessary evil of conferences. You can’t have a big event without some direction from the higher-ups. You need to have some kind of rally where everyone can share their wins and talk about strategy. But you can totally do away with the celebrity keynotes. Instead of grandstanding about how you know someone famous you should do your attendees a favor and help them out somehow. Let them hear a great story or give them some new ideas or skill to help them out. They’ll remember that long after the end of an actor’s career or a sports star’s run in the big leagues.

Keystone Keynotes

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My distaste for keynotes is well known. With the possible exception of Justin Warren (@JPWarren) there may not be a person that dislikes them more than I do. I’ve outlined my reasons for it before, so I won’t go into much depth about it here. But I do want to highlight a few recent developments that are doing a great job of helping me find new things to dislike.

Drop The “Interviews”

When you walk into a keynote ballroom or arena and see two comfy chairs on stage, you know what’s coming. As someone told me recently, “This is when I know the next hour is going to suck.” The mock interview style of keynote speech is not good. It’s a thinly-veiled attempt to push an agenda. Perhaps it’s about innovation. Or transformation. Or some theme of the conference. Realistically, it’s mostly a chance for a keynote host (some form of VP) to provide forced banter with a celebrity that’s being paid to be there.

These “interviews” are rarely memorable. They seem self serving and very plastic. The only ones that even stand out to me in recent memory are the ones that went off the rails. The time when Elon Musk was “interviewed” on stage at Dell World and responded with clipped answers and no elaboration. Or the time Richard Branson was hitting on the host at Cisco Live. Or the Cisco Live when William Shatner started taking shots at Cisco on stage!

It’s time to drop the fake interviews. Let the speakers tell their stories. Kevin Spacey at Cisco Live 2016 was a breath of fresh air. He was compelling. Invigorating. Engaging. People around me said it was the best keynote they’d heard in year. It was easily the best one I’d see since John Cleese in Orlando in 2008. Give the people who spend their time telling stories a chance to shine. Don’t inject yourself into the process. Because actors and celebrity storytellers don’t play. They live their stories.

All By My Selfie

If the keynote involves talking about community or the power of the user base or some other contrite platitude, you can almost guarantee that the host VP is going to pause at some point, usually during the big celebrity interview, to take selfie with their guest and the whole audience in the background. It’s a nod to how hooked in and in the know with the community. Think back to Ellen Degeneres and her infamous Oscars selfie:

Except it’s not. It’s a big steaming pile of patronizing behavior. Hey everyone that paid $1,500 to hear our transformation strategy! Let me take a picture of myself on a stage with blurry, badly lit faces in the audience! Let me post it to Facegram and Instabook and Snapfilter Stories! Let me have my social team repost it and heart/like/favorite it as many times as it takes for me to look like I “get” social. And after the conference is over, my InstaFaceSnapgrambookfilter feed will go back to auto posting the content fed to it by a team of people trying to make me seem human but not be controversial or get us sued.

Don’t take a selfie with 4,000 people in a hall. Meet those users. The ones that paid you. The ones that run your hardware even though your competitor is knocking on the door every week trying to get them to dump you. The users and customers that are supporting your efforts to cut your nose off to spite your face as you transform yourself into a software company. Or a cloud provider. Or an app company. Don’t pretend that the little people matter in a selfie that needs Super Troopers-style ENHANCE to find my shining freckles in the dark. Be a human and take a selfie with one user that has stuck by you through thick and thin. Make their day. Don’t make yours.

Distrupting Disruption

“We’re like the Uber of….”

No. You aren’t. If you are a part of the market, you aren’t disrupting it. You may be shifting your ideas or repositioning your strategies, but that’s not disruption. You still support your old equipment and software. You’re not prepared to jettison your existing business models to move somewhere new. A networking company building networking software isn’t disruption. A server company buying a networking startup isn’t disruption. It’s strategy.

Uber is the Business School case study for disruption. Every keynote in the last two years has mentioned them. Expect their disruption of the transportation market is far from total or completely impressive. Sure, they are farming out taxi services. They’re also cutting rates to drive business to increase profits without helping drivers with new lower rates. They are bullying municipalities to get laws passed to protect them. They’re driving other companies out of business to reduce competition. Does that sound like the Disruptors of Taxis? Or does is sound like the very cab companies that are getting run out of business by the very tactics they themselves have used?

Don’t tell me how you’re disrupting digital or accelerating change. Tired cliches are tired. Tell me what you’re doing. Tell me how you’re going to head off your competitors. Tell me how you’re addressing a shrinking market for hardware or a growing landscape of people doing it faster, cheaper, and better. This is one of the things that I enjoy about being an analyst. These briefings are generally a little more focused on the concrete and less on the cheerleading, which is a very pleasant surprise to me given my distaste for professional analyst firms.

If you’re tempted to say that you’re the Uber of your industry, do us all a favor and request one to drive you off the stage.


Tom’s Take

Does my dislike of keynotes show yet? Are some you sitting in your chairs cheering? Good. Because it’s all a show for you. It’s a hand-holding, happy hugging reinforcement of how awesome we are. Outside of a few dynamic speakers (who are usually made CTO or VP of Technology), we don’t get the good stuff any more.

If you’re sitting in your chair and getting offended that I’m picking on your event, you should know two things. First, I’m not singling anyone out. EVERY keynote I’ve seen in the last two years is guilty of these things. And if you think yours is, you’re probably right. Fix it. Transform and Disrupt your own keynote. Let story tellers talk. Cut down on the attempts to relate to people. Tell your story. Tell people why they should be excited again. Don’t use cliches. Or funny videos. Or cameraphones. Get back to the business of telling people why you’re in business. Ditch the Keystone Keynotes and I promise you’ll have happier audiences. Including me.