KeyNotes – A Lame Show and a Thing of the Past?

Keynotes, for any of us who can remember the early 1990s and obscure Australian TV, was a music based quiz show hosted by Australia’s favourite Puzzling Star, Richard Wilkins. (Puzzling Star, as in – how the heck is he still on TV?) It was a show so mediocre that no-one has bothered to make a Youtube video of any part of it – just this one page of some startling early 90s fashion. Keynotes are also the most promoted and hyped part of any education conference. They usually feature an educelebrity – a person who can wow people with powerpoints, prezis, videos – whose job it is to dare people to dream. About something. Anything, really. Then, the rest of the day is filled with people going to workshops that may or may not involve butchers’ paper. Though, these days, the butchers’ paper has been replaced with Smartboards or somesuch. (Of course, then there is TED, which is a day of keynotes. Woo!)  Keynote speakers are a vexed issue for any body that organises conferences. The people who organise the these conferences spend many a day trying to find the best, most inspiring people.  This is reinforced by the belief that Keynote speakers get participants through the door with their hundreds or thousands of dollars.

I think this is all absurd. My attendance at a conference has never hung on the identity of the Keynote speakers. To me, keynote presentations are somewhere between a American Televangelist sermon and a book launch. Promoting your yee-hah idea and then being humble about that idea. Though, as TED fever hits the keynote scene, I can see the whizzbang starting to overwhelm the humble.  I usually find Keynote speeches interesting for about 10% of their length. There’s the key ideas and a couple of good anecdotes, a couple of usable ideas and that’s it. The other 90% has been filled with a wide array of edufiller, mostly where we see that the Keynote speaker is just one of us – the one of us with a microphone, but one of us all the same. The filler often comes from the following array – some self-deprecating story of Where I Did Something Wrong and I Learnt From It ; When I Heard Someone Else Say Something Really Profound ; You Know, Stuff in the Past Wasn’t That Bad ; It Really Isn’t Your Students, It’s How You Engage Them ; All Students Want to Be Creative, You Just Need the Key ; Sometimes Your Students Are the Best Teachers and so forth.  And then I remember vividly the American educelebrity Gary Stager (whose Twitter name throws in the Ph.D, just so you know), who harangued people at the ACEC 2010 conference for “allowing” the National Curriculum to be written and spending the rest of the time generally telling people we needed to get with the times. And 1:1 laptops in classrooms will save the educational world.  The organisers at ACEC then got more bang for their $10,000 when Stager proceeded to roll his eyes at the work being presented during at least one workshop.

ACEC 2010 was my first ever big, expensive education conference and all I remember thinking from the Keynotes was Stager’s Rant, Sylvia Martinez’ GenYes idea being excellent (but, even so, was the 10% I liked of her keynote) and the best Keynote speaker by far being the Australian Chris Betcher, who didn’t charge $10,000, I would imagine. Betcher, like Britain’s educelebrity Stephen Heppell in a presentation I saw a year or two before, presented practical ideas, didn’t harangue people, didn’t act to “inspire” people and then was approachable afterwards. But as good as Betcher and Heppell were, the workshops and seminars were the main attraction at ACEC, as was meeting fellow educators. The same has gone, for me, at ETA Conferences. This is why I feel vaguely resentful that all participants at conferences are herded in to see the keynote, as if that person really is the Most Important Person to hear. It’s also telling when some people look askance at people who dare to tweet and web surf during keynotes, as if that is rude. Almost as if you were tweeting during a sermon or homily. It is at such conferences that you won’t see Twitter backchannels being shown on screens in the presenting hall – because more than likely someone doesn’t agree with a. the keynote presenter or b. the fact that everyone has to listen to them for the hour.

I thought I was alone in being annoyed by Keynotery until I went to a TeachMeet in Castle Hill recently, and Summer Charlesworth (@EduSum) was less than enthusiastic about them.  The entire set-up of the TeachMeets gave me an insight into just why Keynote didacticism and even the old conference model might be a thing of the past. The speakers only spoke for a short time, presented practical ideas and no-one was looking daggers at those of us who were tweeting and web surfing during the presentations. And instead of the 10% good stuff, 90% filler ratio, it was all the good stuff. There was a teacher in Yorkshire, Nick Jackson (@largerama) who spoke of Digital Leaders, which is the same type of program spoken of by Sylvia Martinez at ACEC.  His talk, delivered via Skype, was just as inspiring and helpful as the 10% of Martinez’ talk – except he didn’t charge a cent, didn’t need to put up in a hotel and got to the point quickly.

Having seen this model work so smoothly, what is emerging for me is two alternative versions of the educational conference. The traditional form, keynotes and all, may well be under threat. I missed the ETA Conference in Sydney this year, largely because I didn’t hear about it.  Emails didn’t appear, faxes may have been sent – I don’t know. Twitter is largely quiet about such conferences. Twitter was silent even during the conference, when only three attendees out of the hundreds who go tweeted during the conference.  In addition, ETA Conference attendance is a vexed issue when schools have tight PD budgets and often don’t like the prospect of having to pay for casuals in addition to the entry fees. Staff often have to choose to have only one PD experience a year, and many might not want to spend it listening to a keynote speaker.  In addition, planning and approvals for attendance has be done months in advance. On the flip side, having been part of the organising of such conferences and being a presenter, I appreciate that there are a lot of costs involved – not the least being the conference location, the food and the keynote speakers.  I can also appreciate that people would be resentful about having information from the conference being made freely available to tweeters outside the conference, who haven’t paid a cent.

TeachMeet, however, is a different, more flexible arrangement. They occur frequently, in a number of locations throughout Sydney, in schools that are provided free. Food is often supplied via sponsorship or BYO. They are also tweeted about – with the backchannel shown for all to see – are free, was easy to attend, there is no paperwork to be filled out.  They also more casual and welcoming, in terms of the format as well as in who can present.  It is much less confronting to someone to present a 2 or 7 minute idea than a 50 minute presentation. And no keynote.

I’m not suggesting that the traditional conferences don’t have their place or even prestige – they do, and will continue to have pride of place for many teachers. I still get lovely feedback on the material I prepared for Run, Lola, Run for a 2008 ETA Conference, which was created partially because it was my first presentation and I was desperately nervous. However, they might have to change their stripes in order to survive. The first thing to go might be the Keynote address, simply because they present lovely, challenging ideas, but ones that we hear all the time in education. What people crave at conferences is support, inspiration, useful things for classrooms, a friendly atmosphere. The special location, gourmet food and imported keynote presenters provided at traditional conferences are unnecessary trimmings. Concepts like TeachMeet will become more and more attractive for time poor teachers who need small courses served often, rather than the wagyu steak (or, in some cases, overcooked roast beef) served once a year.



  1. There is something very magical & special when caring (that word passionate is being overused) educators choose to get together, openly share, explore, discuss and inspire. No set meeting. No compulsion. Just intent on improving their learning and those in their care. I am so glad you enjoyed the Hills teachmeet. May there be many more!

  2. Hey Mark,

    Thanks for the post, and the kind mention. I think I agree with you; many of the keynotes I’ve seen over the last few years at conferences are really not adding enough to the overall conference program to make them worthwhile. As you say, it’s not uncommon for them to miss the mark completely, or misread the audience, and just state the obvious or preach to the choir. Some keynoters seem to rehash the same old stuff every time and dont really evolve their message enough to keep it relevant. At ISTE in Philadelphia this year I only bothered going to a couple of the keynotes… one was excellent (Chris Lehmann) and the other was so bad I walked out of it (Steven Covey).

    I got asked to do a keynote at a conference for the first time back in 2008 for the CEGSA conference in Adelaide, and was very excited to be asked. I prepared SO much for that talk, and thankfully it seemed to be well received and got good feedback from those people attending. Since then, I’ve been asked to give a number of conference talks (keynotes) and while it always feels like a real honour to be asked to do them, I certainly feel a great responsibility to try and say something of value that might be of use to those listening.

    I think you’re right in suggesting that the best part of a conference or gathering of educators is the face to face conversations and the group workshops, etc. Heck, for a lot of the conferences I’ve been to lately (and there’s been a few!) the best parts are not even the workshops and the sessions… it’s the conversations over lunch, the talk over drinks in the bar afterwards, the sharing in the hotel lobby… In many ways, I even find the TeachMeet model overprepared and over structured too.

    As someone who has done some keynotes, it’s a tough gig (to try and do it well anyway) Your task is to try and set the theme for the conference, be entertaining enough that people enjoy the talk, informative enough that they learn something from the talk and brief enough that they will listen to the talk. The whole model of having someone stand on a stage and talk to several hundred or several thousand people at a time, quite literally being the “sage on the stage” may fly in the face of contemporary teaching models, but as long as the whole conference is not structured that way I don’t know that it is necessarily a bad thing. Done well, a well paced, well delivered, well constructed keynote can be a great way to focus the thoughts of the assembled delegates before they go off and get their hands dirty with more practical activities. The trouble is that there are many people who simply are not good at giving a well paced, well delivered and well structured talk, but who still get asked to do so.

    Like you, I’ve observed many of the keynote syndromes you mention in your post, and I’ve often found myself biting my (twitter) tongue to not be too publicly vocal about the speaker’s failings.

    I attended the Learning 2.010 conference in Shanghai last year and it had no keynotes at all. Funnily enough, in the delegate feedback afterwards people noted that they felt it really needed one, just to get the whole thing on track and give it some focus. In 2011, I didn’t attend but I hear they included a few very short “keynotes” from different people to try and do just that. I believe it was well received.

    Earlier this year I gave one of the keynotes at the Interactive Teaching and Learning Masterclass on the Sunshine Coast. Most of that event was about small workshop and cohort groups, and it was a very practical based conference, but we did start each day with a short (40 min) keynote just the set the stage. Stephen Bradbury, the Olympic Gold medal winner spoke on day 1 about the notion of peak performance in sport, and what that looks like, and then on day 2 I tried to speak about peak performance in education and teaching and what that might look like. Take together, and combined with the face to face stuff during the rest of the 2 days, I could see how those two talks were strategically placed to create a theme and a focus for the conference and I thought it worked well.

    Done well, a keynote can, I think, add something to a conference. Done poorly, they can be a complete waste of time. I’ve been on the organising committee for the AIS Integration conference for the last few years and I can tell you we agonise over trying to get the right people for they keynotes. And yes, we’ve also argued and debated the idea of whether we really need to have keynote speakers at all, but the delegate feedback each year every always comes back very strongly in favour of wanting one. I guess as an organiser, you try to keep people happy and give them what they want.

    The truth is probably that there is a place for both styles of events, the bigger more structured conference style event with keynotes and workshops, etc, and the smaller more intimate TeachMeet style unconference event where people can get more face to face and hands on. One is not righter or more virtuous than the other, and you could argue that there is a need (or at least a demand) for both.

    Finally, as far as speaker costs go, you’re absolutely right in guessing that I wasn’t paid $10,000 for talking at ACEC! 🙂 In fact, I was paid nothing for that talk, although my flights and accommodation to Melbourne were covered. As it turned out, because Promethean was a major sponsor of ACEC they were given one of the keynote spots and because I have a good working relationship with some of the folk at Promethean they asked if I would be interested in filling it. I told them that I would but I’d make no promises to talk about IWBs in general or Promethean in particular, but if they were ok with that, then sure, I’d love to give a talk. If you were at that keynote you’ll know that I didn’t talk about either, although when I spoke about the value of online communities towards the end I did mention Promethean Planet briefly. Other than that, I was free to talk about whatever I wanted, and it really was just a few things that had been on my mind lately.

    You can argue about whether the $10,000 keynoters like Stager are worth it, but I guess something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay. Ken Robinson, I’ve heard, charges $100,000 for a keynote. Nice work if you can get it. Under normal circumstances I would certainly expect to be paid something to give a keynote although obviously nothing like those numbers. In defence of the speaker fees that are paid to keynoters, to prepare a decent talk, come up with the ideas and find the right images or videos or resources to support the goals of the presentation takes a LOT of work… I would spend at least 20 hours putting together a 1 hour keynote, to to mention the time and energy usually required to travel to the conference to give it, so no, I don’t feel bad getting paid something for my efforts. I’ve certainly done a lot of presentation stuff using Skype or Adobe Connect or other virtual technologies, but there is still a place for going somewhere you can interact in person. I do a number of conference gigs each year and I try to get paid for the major ones but if something comes up that i think will be interesting I am happy to do it for nothing. I was chatting to Stephen Heppell at Christcurch airport last year as we waited on flights and he told me that he makes sure that he dedicates a certain amount of his time each year to doing pro bono work that interests him… he sees it as his way of giving back as well as keeping himself open to things that really interest him and not always doing things just for the money. I think that’s a good way to be.

    Sorry for this becoming such a long ramble, but you raised some good thoughts in your post and I guess this was just my way of thinking it through in public.


    1. I agree with pretty much everything you are saying there. I do see the value of some keynotes – especially shorter ones, based around a theme. I also appreciate that keynote speakers need some recompense for the work they undertake – considering the amount of work many keynote speakers do. However, it is the Educelebrity concept that bugs me – Ken Robinson, Gary Stager, et al, being paid a bomb and telling us stuff that we can already get from their other talks.

  3. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Mark, and Chris for your elaboration. I do think there is a place for conferences (even if the most effective part is sometimes the lunch conversation, Chris) and I have heard some brilliant keynote (and some that bored me to sleep or web surfing, IF there was even internet available!). I agree though, Mark, that with so many excellent options available for teachers to engage in their own choice of professional learning (often at a more convenient time, free, ongoing and organised by teachers themselves) conference organisers need to think long and hard about how to make their events worthwhile and meaningful.

  4. Interestingly since I read a tweet this week, regarding who an educational conference in Sydney should ask to be their keynote speaker next year, this very topic has been on my mind. I was even considering blogging myself about it. Luckily from reading your interesting post I can see that I have no need to, as you and your commentators have pretty much covered all points of view! I am so with you on the messages keynote speakers seem to want to push. Last year I was lucky enough to attend ACEC and ULearn10 as well as the AIS integrators conference. So I have certainly heard many highly paid experts passing on their gun-ho messages.
    I am convinced that the best part of a conference, un-conference, TeachMeet or edCamp is the social interactions, networking and workshop learning that occurs. With the increase in TeachMeets across Australia, it will be interesting to see just how or even if, the educational conference market adapts to this new form of learning.
    I am so glad you enjoyed TeachMeet Hills and hope we can meet at others in the future.

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