The Art of Conference Reunion: Keynotes and Keynote speakers

Will you rather invite Bill Gates as a keynote speaker or your good, old friends?

Will you rather invite Bill Gates as a keynote speaker - or your good, old friends?

A conference or business meeting side trip in a fancy location is half the fun when you’re alone. Food, scenery, culture and adventure are best enjoyed with friends. However, not all of your friends work in the same business. Neither do they have travel budgets. Or, for example, the academic merits to get accepted on a scientific conference in the Dutch Antilles.

This article will initiate you in the Ancient Art of Conference Reunion.

Keynote speakers – what was that about, again?

A keynote is the note used for tuning in an orchestra, a choir, or an instrument. Keynote speakers are used to arouse attention for a topic, or for an event. They tune in the audience (or at least the conference registrations), to phrase it that way.

There are several classes of keynote speakers:

  • Celebrities and other famous people
  • The well-known experts, veterans of nobel prize winners, known for a topic or a field
  • Educational or motivational speakers
  • Humorous speakers, used to loosen up the audience

Keynote speakers are, first of all, invited to travel to a conference to make an event look more attractive to prospective paying participants, the press, or other groups. Second, a paid-for keynote speech is a good way to shake hands with those famous and important people out there in front of the whole conference that otherwise would never talk to you. Third, keynote talks are a cool way for you and your friends to make sure that you keep partying together on various occasions by providing keynotes to each other’s events.

Choosing keynote speakers right

The event dictates the best use for a keynote speaker. Political events often place the speaker at the end of the conference, such that his or her appearance is staged by the other speakers, with the celebrity, or most important person, appearing at the end as the event’s climax.

Scientific and technical conferences and work meetings often begin with keynote speeches. Some conferences, particularly such where many good friends who are members of a particular organization meet might have keynote speakers opening every conference session on an arbitrary topic. Yes, there is certain inflation in keynote speakers – and surely you’re already sensing where this article is headed.

If you’re able to control the conference program, then you’ll have a serious word on what topics, and which persons should get on the keynote slots. If the event is part of an association, then it will be generally easier to place friends who are members of the association (e.g. “we must distribute keynotes proportionally, otherwise some members will be unhappy”). Sign up for membership!

On the other hand, any no-matter-how-irrelevant-conference-on-the-future-internet-in-twenty-years will happily accept any IT industry speaker from the reality quadrant, preferable from a company with a known name. Any bit of theoretic or irrelevant research looks better with a token practitioner sponsoring the conference, or throwing a visionary keynote speech. Make sure your industry friends will be able to use PowerPoint in the most pathetic ways!

Getting invited

Keynote invitations are your own free ticket to cool events. Check your assets – market share, turnover, patents,  citation index, or, if nothing else available, the professor title on your business card. Professor beats Dr., unless the latter is employed in a famous research institution. Find out what favors can be traded for keynote invitations!

Proven tactics are:

  • Trade favors with other friends, inviting each other for keynotes on some association’s conferences. Result: Lots of international travel!
  • Trade favors with industry (e.g., provide subsidies to them through commonly executed research projects), and expect in return invitations to those fun industry conferences with umbrella drinks and fancy dancers.
  • Recommend public administrators of your choice to their bosses, and expect to be put on public conference panels in return – free travel to various capital locations, such as for example  Bruxelles!
  • Pick conference communities in constant hunger for public recognition (Open Source, Linux, NGOs), and provide your academic or other title that might beautify their program. Get a free trip and travel to their conference town in return.


Be aware that after a while, you will get seen as a keynote slut speaking around for everybody and on every topic. In academic circles, people might become well aware that it’s you and your friends who keep meeting and keynote speaking on this conference series all the time. And most likely, they will start gossiping, too, e.g. about the astounding facts that, even though the articles get reviewed “blind”, it will always be the keynote speakers’ and their friends’ PhD students who get accepted to the conference.

Do customize your keynote presentations! If you keep traveling around with the same bunch of old presentation slides or Power Points, while explaining that “what matters is what you say along the slides” … you might find yourself running out of travel budget and travel excuses soon (unless you’re Steven Jobs, of course)!

Know your goals – scientific reputation, maximum press impact, or maximum airline loyalty mileage!

And finally… consider the risks of the Researcher-in-the-Middle-Attack before talking all too much about other people’s results and achievements!

And now for something different…

Scheduled to give the keynote address at an important convention, the CEO asked one of his top employees, Schwartz, to write a punchy, twenty minute speech for him.

After the big event, the CEO returned and he was furious. “What’s the idea of writing an hour long speech for me?” he bellowed. “Half the audience got up and walked out before I was finished!”

Confused, Schwartz replied, “Sir, I wrote you a twenty minute speech. I also gave you the two extra copies you requested.”

And yet another one…

A famous mathematician was to give a keynote speech at a conference. Asked for an advance summary, he said he would present a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem – but they should keep it under their hats. When he arrived, though, he spoke on a much less interesting topic. Afterwards the conference organizers asked why he said he’d talk about the theorem and then didn’t. He replied this was his standard practice, just in case he was killed on the way to the conference.

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