I go to a lot of conferences. If you ask my co-workers, I probably go to too many conferences. Going to a lot of conferences, I get a chance to see a lot of keynotes, closing keynotes, and plenary discussions. Different conferences have different keynotes, but the one thing that sticks out in my head is that the keynotes and opening talks at a conference set the mood for the entire event.
Conference organizers, take note: we form our impressions based on the first things we see. For first time visitors, the first thing they see at a conference is frequently the keynote. It sets the stage for the learning they’re about to experience. Three conferences stand out this year for their high quality keynotes: OSCON, CodeMash, and Surge
What Makes For a Good Keynote?
I don’t know what makes for a good keynote, but I do know that it should reflect your conference. The keynote sets the mood; attendees get a feel for what their day is going to be like at a conference based on how they feel after the keynote. Bombard them with two hours of marketing material and they’re not going to feel good about the rest of their day. Reward them with two hours of intellectually stimulating content and they’re going to look forward to another six hours of learning.
Attending OSCON is a heady experience – there are concurrent sessions on different topics. I could go from a talk about Big Data to Go, Google’s new programming language, to a talk about HTML and CSS in a two hour time period. The keynotes were no different. They showcased both the breadth of interests present at the conference. Talks ranged from DIY biotech startups to open source community to launching robots into space.
Surge featured a keynote from Bryan Cantrill talking about various failures throughout his career. As a conference of operations staff and professional generalists, Bryan’s remarks rang true with all of the attendees. We’ve all been in an “oh shit” situation where millions of dollars hang in the balance based on the code we’ve written and the actions we’re about to take. Bryan summed up the feel of the conference and set the stage for the next few days of learning.
CodeMash is a great event that’s run outside of Cleveland in the winter. If you’ve ever been to Cleveland in January, you’ll know that the primary reason to visit Cleveland in January is to remind yourself why you live somewhere else. There was several feet of snow on the ground and my car was indistinguishable from a snow bank. CodeMash is renowned as a fun and educational conference. Chad Fowler delivered a hilarious and topical keynote about moving beyond hearsay and misunderstanding and opening your eyes to the world around you.
What Do All Three Conferences Share?
The common theme is that all three conferences are community conferences. Sure, OSCON is put on by a huge book publisher but it wouldn’t be a success without the people who volunteer to make it a success. OmniTI support Surge, but they aren’t the only sponsor; Surge was a vendor agnostic event. And CodeMash is put on by a non-profit group with the goal of making the event as cheap as possible for attendees. These three events are built for the community.
All three keynotes opened my eyes to the conferences. I knew what to expect: the stage was set. A good keynote sets the expectations of attendees. A keynote doesn’t have to be timeless, there is a place for a product demonstration, but a keynote should say something. When a keynote says “We have you trapped, watch this demonstration,” attendees notice: they shuffle papers, they play games on their phone, they do anything possible to mentally escape from the situation. Unfortunately, it does a disservice to the conference because most attendees won’t remember who gave a bad keynote, they’ll just remember that a conference had a bad keynote.
When a keynote is good, people notice. They sit up and take part. They cheer, they clap, they tweet, and they blog. The most important part, though, is that a good keynote draws the audience in account and makes them more than a passive set of ears; the audience is brought into the fold and becomes a member of an exclusive community open only to the people in the room. Nobody else can take part. A good keynote – like a good conference – embraces, entertains, and educates.
A bad keynote is a commercial that I can’t turn off.