Thoughts on Keynotes

I’ve been helping a conference or two lately on the topic of invited speakers and keynotes.
I enjoy conferences where there are no keynotes and no parallel sessions (often because I can’t often tell my interest in a paper presentation from reading a conference abstract) but I also enjoy an inspiring speech.

Some of my favourites have been:

I’ve seen more famous people speak, philosopher Daniel Dennett, architect John Andrews, a couple of Noble Prize winners (3, I think, astronomer Brian Schmidt was genuinely awe-inspiring), and Apple’s Steve Jobs (most incredible business presenter/seller ever). But the first three mentioned really set the mood, key and tone of the conference.

So what is a keynote speaker for?

  • To inspire and prepare attendees for the future
  • To survey and inform attendees of with what has been done (personal projects or overview of field, startling or unusual or little known discoveries, inventions, crises and projects)
  • To critically examine..

In other words, what has been done (and why), what must or should be done, what could or will be done..

I seldom hear the why, or the must be done or the (what we think) will be done..

Often keynotes are invited because

  • They are famous and will lend gravitas to the conference
  • The program chair wants to meet them and bathe in their reflected glory
  • They are famous for being keynote speakers..

I know of 2 or 3 who are invited so often to keynote, they give ever more and more polished versions of their original talk.
Rather than just an individual’s projects, in general I think I’d like to hear more from #3 and also from younger, fresher researchers, but too often what really happens differs from what I’d like to see happens…

Some hopefully useful links



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