A love note to keynotes

Once toward the start of my librarian career I set three different alarms so I wouldn’t miss an early-morning conference keynote. I sense I should be embarrassed by this, as keynotes and keynoters are now spoken of with the genteelly horrified disdain Wodehousian elders reserved for unmarried chorines, but it’s still true, and I am not ashamed.

The conference was Texas Library Association’s annual gathering, the keynoter was the phenomenal Isabel Allende, and I didn’t want to miss a single syllable. Allende’s dauntless talk surpassed expectation. By turns wistful, raunchy, and full of raw pain, her words forced me out of my ordinary workaday perspectives into a broader, scarier world that through her verbal alchemy was entirely recognizable as the world we have created with our common humanity and our all-too-common inhumanity. Not to mince words, Allende’s was a perfect keynote.

Well before joining librarianship’s ranks, I heard C.M. Sperberg McQueen deliver another brilliant keynote at Markup Technologies ’99. Called “Extensible stability, open standards, and other cameleopards,” the talk drew on its audience’s shared experiences with standards development and use to drag well-known frustrations and thorny dilemmas out of the shadows for public consideration. In a minor miracle, McQueen aired standards bodies’ dirty laundry without causing bitter offense—indeed, his openly satirical framing and wry delivery repeatedly dissolved the entire auditorium in noisy laughter. I remember that feat so well that I tried to emulate it myself. I don’t think I succeeded, but I also don’t think I could have survived publication of that article if I hadn’t tried.

If only every keynote were that good! I’d settle for my own keynotes being a small fraction of that good, for that matter. Yes, I am one of those vile unspeakable creatures known as “keynoters;” I’ve given three conference keynotes in the last year, and I have another already scheduled for 2015. To make matters worse, I’ve helped out with conference planning, including keynoter selection, and will do so again in 2015–16. So I have been thinking quite a bit about what keynotes are for and about keynoter selection processes lately. I’ll share what I know and what I suspect, hoping for better keynotes everywhere.

Conferences are a competitive industry. A conference that can’t attract attendees and sponsors is a conference that won’t survive long. This unpalatable anxiety looms especially large over keynoter selection, since keynote titles and keynoter names figure heavily in conference marketing. The odd thing about this is that the quality of any potential keynoter’s public speaking is the least salient selection criterion from a conference-marketing perspective. Will this person, or the topics this person is known to speak about, attract registrants? Then that’s a hot prospect, even if the person is a crashing bore—or worse.

Conferences concerned about keeping their base of regular attendees often rely—in my opinion, too heavily—on reliable known quantities. Some such conferences invite the same people year after year. Why not stay with a winner, after all? Any alternative can feel risky. At all costs, these conferences must avoid a keynoter who alienates their base—there is always another conference to attend! Sadly, that too encourages playing it safe, especially for conferences whose regular attendees are known not to be terribly openminded or amenable to challenge or change. The larger the conference, too, the larger the temptation to stay on the safe side of the podium.

One of my dearest hopes for the relatively recent wave of discourse around how to make library conferences more welcoming to diverse participants is that it will jump-start diversification at the speaker’s podium. My speaking career will not benefit particularly, as I’m the practically-paradigmatic middle-aged white straight cis-female abled-for-now librarian, but if I lose speaking gigs to those who are different from me on any or all of those axes, that’s exactly as it should be. I will have this hope firmly in mind as I start on my next conference-planning duties, and I exhort all conference planners to do likewise. The status quo is a style of “safe” librarianship cannot afford and must not continue to tolerate.

Can too-safe conference keynoter selections be changed? Yes, but only from within, which is the rub. Conference attendees can exercise voice via those annoying “how did we do?” surveys, and if they speak up in sufficient numbers and with sufficient vehemence they will be heeded, because the conference can’t afford to lose them. How likely is that? Well, I have to admit, I haven’t yet heard of it seriously tried, much less working. The other fix-from-within is volunteering to organize the conference, which presumes an awful lot of spare time and energy. Some corporate or privately-managed conferences do not even make this possible, which in my book is reason to eye them with some suspicion.

Small conferences, as well as conferences of any size that are fishing for new audiences, are likelier to take a chance, either on an unknown or on someone edgy. Part of this is that mainstream speakers courted by large conferences are liable to be too expensive for small conferences. Part of it is that small conferences market largely through word of mouth, so taking a risk on someone who turns out to be both unusual and memorable means an extra-large benefit to the conference. The small-to-midsize conference taking a chance on “edgy but memorable” has been my own niche as long as I’ve been keynoting, and I am probably too risky and unpredictable a speaker to leave it, which is fine by me.

So if listening to keynotes hasn’t been as satisfying for you as it mostly has for me—I admit, I too will forever remember one or two keynotes I’ve seen for their stunning awfulness, but in general, I enjoy both giving and watching keynotes—it may pay to look at which conferences you’re going to, how big they are, how and by whom they’re organized, and the predictability and homogeneity of their previous speaker slates. If you don’t like what you see, pick another conference: vote with your wallet and your feet. The good keynoters, the keynoters who make you laugh, who draw you out of yourself, who force you to think, I believe they’re out there. Find them and reward the conferences that invite them, and there will likely be more of them.

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”