The ‘Why’ of Conference Keynotes

A few months ago I was discussing a conference with a staff member at my school, she had recently been to her first ‘edtech’ conference and I was asking her for some feedback. The topic of Keynotes came up and she quite innocently asked me what the point was of a Keynote, it was an interesting question and one I found I could not answer her fully but just give my opinion. The fact that she felt compelled to ask the question made me think that the Keynote must not have been successful.

Now think for a minute. Remember the last Keynote you listened to. Did it do this? I have sat through many a conference Keynote and some have been more successful than others. I have left feeling inspired by new ideas, had my thinking challenged and for me, most importantly have been left with more questions than before. On the other hand, I have been left feeling bored, uninspired, grappling at the choice and relevance and disappointed. I have sat through Keynotes where some ‘big names’- even celebrities have stood on stage and delivered speeches that I could have found on Google and YouTube. Even worse, they have spoken about so called ‘new ideas’ that my peers and I had been doing for years. Given my somewhat bias opinion I took to Twitter and asked the same question.

The responses were varied but some key ideas I liked were:

  • Future thinking
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Urgency for change
  • Element of story

A particular response I liked and that made me think was “make me stop Tweeting and listen”, this is something that resonated with me. I am a huge fan of back channelling and I love to Tweet during conferences but I’m not sure if I have EVER stopped completely and just listened and taken it all in.

I think an important thing to note is that a Keynote needs to go far beyond being inspiring. Any good entertainer can stand on a stage, pump people up and ‘inspire’ them but for how long? An hour? Until the days end? Will they have the courage to actually go, persevere and enact change in their schools?

Check out the Storify below for more responses. What are your thoughts? What do you want from a conference Keynote?


2 thoughts on “The ‘Why’ of Conference Keynotes

  1. Hi Bec,
    I’ve often pondered the same question and discussed with colleagues the merits of particular keynotes. The ones that have actually managed to make me stop tweeting, listen carefully, grapple with ideas… are also the ones where I’ve gone on to research other presentations of this individual, buy their books, read their story and sometimes, connect with them on social media.
    Then there have been times where the same overseas presenter has done a “tour of down under” and ended up saying the same old same old at a variety of venues and expected to be paid large amounts for rehashing the same material that the Internet gives us access to via some footage from another overseas conference. From those I have come away disappointed – wondering why we bother to allow blow-ins to treat our edu-audiences like that… in essence with disrespect. I do think that we still have a “tall poppy” thing happening with our Oz edu-innovators and should be more supportive of our home-grown potential keynote speakers. I have had quite a few educators I know go all the way to ISTE only to find that there was nothing new to hear because things are crest of the wave right here at home.
    Much to think about regarding attendance at any edu-conference… especially considering the investment – in time, money, preparation for being away from school, travel hours… sometimes it just isn’t worth all the effort… except if we get to touch base with our PLN and spend time with like-minds!
    Thanks again for another thought provoking post.
    Kind regards, Deb Hogg (@debhoggoz)

  2. We are currently planning an annual ed tech conference for the international schools in Beijing, and the almost unanimous opinion of the organizing committee based on staff feedback was to not have any type of keynote speaker. Teachers want to learn something they can use tomorrow in their classes. Not some theorists view on where education will be in 10 years no matter how charismatic they are.

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