The Muppet Show, or the problem with Keynotes…

Okay, before I start this (mild) rant I’ll give you a little context.

I speak at conferences and struggle with it every time. Why? Insecurity? Yes for sure. I also always wonder if I really have something interesting to say. And don’t like to give the same talk twice and get bored with my own story. I do feel comfortable being on a stage though. I’ve played in a band for many, many years and I’ve done stand-up comedy (all pre-YouTube & Facebook… thank goodness ;-) ). I like it up there.


But as usual I ask too many questions. For one, I don’t really understand why people go to conferences and sit in stuffy rooms listening, or pretend to listen, to people on a stage do their sales pitch… (Yes they are always selling you some thing or some idea). I understand the ‘networking’ in-between the talks… but really, come on… don’t you get a sense that the traditional conference model died long time ago… don’t we need to tell someone?


Or maybe it’s just me. I simply can’t concentrate for very long, so my mind starts wandering off… I’d rather have coffee with the speaker, or someone inspiring, and have a good conversation. And guess what, this actually happens in-between the talks… or even during the talks. And I suspect that’s why we go. We can watch the keynote on YouTube…. And the book is always better anyway. Right?


The list of speakers is just a way to help us justify, to our boss or our spouse, the mostly outrageous ticket prices we need to pay. While all we really want to do is spend time with old friends, and hopefully make some new ones.


I have friends that go to the DMI conferences, always hate the quality of the conference, sit there complaining like a bunch of Statlers and Waldorfs (Muppets), but will go back every single time... like a bunch of.. yes... Statlers and Waldorfs. It’s really just a fun few days with friends, away from work and family, in a beautiful city, eating in good restaurants, drinking too much locally brewed hipster beer and having a blast dissing anyone who dares to be on stage. They come home energized and filled with stories. It’s worth every penny. Mind you, a ticket will cost you $1600,- as a member… next one is held in Berlin (

Okay so… the problem with Keynotes….


Well the main problem is that they are repeats… there should be a little R in the upper right corner. A well-prepared and high quality keynote is a bit like seeing the repeat of an exciting football game…. This can be good… but seeing the game live is a lot more exciting… On top of this most keynotes will be repeated at other conferences many times over. So when you’re an avid visitor of conferences there’s a good chance you’ll see the same keynote more than ones. That’s like watching the repeat of a football game more than once… and when do we watch a football game over and over again? Only when it’s a truly historic and legendary game.


I’m not sure about you, but I haven’t been in a conference room, listening to a speaker thinking; ”OMG, this is history in the making. I need to see this again! Preferably in slow motion!”… Although that could be fun.  But no. And from the speakers perspective… there are no girls screaming outside the dressing room. I am sad to report. Often there is no dressing room. Often there are only Statlers and Waldorfs.


Yes… I speak at conferences… I confess. But when I go on stage I, like many of the keynote speakers I know, want to break the mould. But I think we are sometimes afraid that people really like to have things the same way they have always been. They are happy being comfortably numb. And that when we wake them up from their coma they’ll go into shock. I might be exaggerating.

I try stuff out. I always pass a wireless microphone to the audience with the instruction that “if you get the microphone just hand it to your neighbour”. It’s my wandering microphone. I use it to keep people on their toes. It also forces me to involve the audience and introduce a totally unpredictable element into the talk. I like it. It screws up my plans every time. It helps me make jokes and have a talk with the very people trying to hide. However, I often find that a lot of people really do not like to be involved, to be put on the spot. They just like to sit there and be left alone.


End of rant.

The reason I’m writing this post is because I’m preparing for a next round of keynotes. If you want to see me try and fail break the mould you can come and cheer me on. Maybe come and see me struggle at the Dare Festival in Antwerp? ( ). It's one of those new-school events trying to innovate... At least the name of this conference is hopeful. It should be good.

So wish me luck with at Muppet Show.

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Comment by Arne van Oosterom on August 11, 2015 at 17:34

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the reply :-)

With your awesome Global Service Jam you are obviousness one of thé innovators.

I am surprised how tenacious the current model is... 10 years ago I thought the model was broken.

But still we go and listen like to the pitches like conference zombies ;-)


I did what the Dutch call "Cabaret" which combines stand-up with theatre & music.

Comment by Adam StJohn Lawrence on August 11, 2015 at 9:14

Arne, in many ways I agree. I find conferences to be too much talking and not enough doing... imagine that. ;) So I tend to prefer other sharing formats like bar camps and of course Jams.

The drawback of those formats, though, is that they don't give people a shared experience to kickstart discussions. That's why as well as supporting Jam tracks at conferences I especially relish mixed formats like the Service Experience Camp in Berlin. This starts off with one or two keynotes, shifts into spontaneous barcamp mode for two days, and ends with a keynote for shared closure. I think it works very well.
PS I didn't know you had done stand-up. :)


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