Unconferencing: How should we select our Keynote speakers?

Posted by  Andrew Rixon —November 1, 2005
Filed in Fun

It seems to me that there is a growing dissatisfaction with the standard conference model of panel presenters and an audience full of possibility who are just listeners.

I’ve put together the following (very incomplete) timeline:

Sitting in conferences I have often looked around at the audience and thought about the incredible opportunity for discovery which lies within. Unconferencing certainly looks a great model for engaging this potential. One key question which I do wonder about is: what is the role of the keynote speaker? I do like The Gang of 3’s idea of keynote listeners, however I’ve also seen the impact that great keynote speakers have had on audiences (and hence the conference) too….

About  Andrew Rixon


  1. Ton Zijlstra says:

    Hi Andrew,
    On the role of key notes I wrote something in Jan 2004, out of dissatisfaction with the usual conferencing format:
    You also mention Nancy White’s report on the BlogWalk in Seattle. We started BlogWalks in March 2004, to have a vehicle for conversation different from the conference format. ( ) Didn’t call it an unconference then yet, though 🙂

  2. Andrew, we did an “unconference” in Chicago in April of this year. We brought together 50 lawyers, academics, consultants, accountatns, speakers, technologists, and small business people to brainstorm on “Building the Perfect Professional Services Firm.” We have another event coming up in two weeks. Check out for details.
    Matthew Homann

  3. Nancy White says:

    Hey Shawn, good stuff as usual. First some data: I co-hosted the Seattle blogwalk with Lilia Efimova. She, Ton and others have not only created the form, but have nutured it with a great deal of care which I think is important. To some degree but with much fewer events under our belts, John Smith and I invented the “muckabout” form. (We intend to do more write ups, but hey, still have to put bread on the table!)
    What strikes me everytime I seek to support or create an alternative form or encourage others to do so, two factors challenge us:
    1) Alternative forms which ask for a greater degree of engagement from participants go against our market model of “I pay, you deliver.” These new forms are about delivering together. There are still costs associated and often the organizers eat them (hm, come to think of it, I ended up with the unpaid portion of our costs at Blogwalk — even with full good intent of all!). So there is some trepidation on the part of organizers to challenge the old paradigm. In other words, it’s a financial risk.
    2) Getting beyond the same set of talking heads risks your marketing cachet. People come to hear people they know and have some expectations about. They don’t come to hear people like themselves, even if those people represent wisdom and knowledge. We have the cult of the expert and celebrity. This is further crippled by the fact that organizers tend to draw on their own network and pretty soon, its the same set over and over again. Reaching out again represents a risk.
    SO to me, the way to break the log jam is to support risk takers!

  4. Good points Nancy. Have you ever seen a hybrid approach with some speakers and the rest discussion? Your observations really help explain why the commercial providers are reluctant to take an unconferencing approach.

  5. Unleading

    Over on Full Circle Online Interaction Blog, Nancy White asks, �How should we select our Keynote speakers?� She points to this blog post where Andrew observes, �Sitting in conferences I have often looked around at the audience and thought about…

  6. Orient Lodge says:


    (Originally published at Greater Democracy.)

    Over on Full Circle Online Interaction Bl

  7. Ton says:

    as to your last question, I will participate in an event next January, where I will give a key note in the morning at the start, bringing a few external thoughts to the group (I don’t know the group members). Then the entire day will be spend in a roundtable format, with at the end another key note by someone that I know, and that knows the group, trying to bring it all together, and feed them a bit more to take it beyond the day. And that is what key notes should do I think: act as firestarters for the group.

  8. Andrew Rixon says:

    Certainly looks like the ‘unconferencing meme’ (as Nancy would say) is a powerful meme today.
    Practically speaking I do like the idea of key note as firestarter. Which makes me think about a few characteristics of good firestarters:
    1. Humility
    2. Humour
    After all, we want a fire that spreads, not one which consumes all the material for its own gain…

  9. James Dellow says:

    Over the past few years I’ve been trying to change my presentation style at conferences to be more interactive. But as Nancy points out there can be a bit of push back from the audience – I’ve certainly had mixed feedback at conferences where I’ve done this. For presenters it also requires a lot more effort (knocking up death by powerpoint is relatively easy, trying to engage people is harder).
    On the plus side I do know that the commercial conference companies in the KM space here in Australia at least are taking this feedback on board and if you look you’ll notice a subtle change in formats – e.g. more panel discussions, networking activities, etc.
    Of course one thing that will help to reduce this problem is to reduce the use of PPT! Otherwise I think we all just have to keep trying and eventually things will change.

  10. Andrew, we just finished up with another “unconference” this past week. Here are some testimonials that demonstrate just how well an unconference can work:
    I don’t mean these to be self-serving (hence no link to the company site) but to show that even “normal” attendees really like the untraditional event.

  11. Andrew Rixon says:

    Thanks for the links Matthew. Good to see unconferencing moving ahead.

  12. My name is Józefa and I am known in the UK for running ‘KnowledgeWorx Swap Shops’ in traditional conference settings. My colleague, David Simmonds, and I have been designing and running these for over three years whenever we are asked to speak at KM or Organisational Learning and Development conferences.
    They have proved to be extremely well received and build upon more of a ‘learning conference’ model than a ‘teaching conference’ model as expressed by Johnnie Moore in his recent podcast
    Our next ‘Swap Shop’ is to be held at the E.C.L.O 13th International Conference in Prague – contact them or us if you want to discuss further or see our blog

  13. Margo Sloan says:

    I am president of a 114 member franchise of small business (pick up and delivery dry cleaning service franchisees.) We are looking for a speaker with regard to setting up business entities, tax savings, etc. etc. An interactive program with some “humor” for our 2007 Convention. Know anyone?

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