A Typology of Keynotes

Keynote image

Preview of the scene in Manchester the week of June 23 2016

Co-authored by that Lawrie Phipps , who is also responsible for the header photo.

The thinking for this post started with discussions we’ve been having with each other about keynote speakers, and keynote talks, inspired in part by recent blogposts and Twitter conversations with James Clay and Martin Weller (and others).   We are both doing several (separate) keynotes this spring, and have invitations to do some in the next academic year as well, and will also be keynoting together at UXLibs 2 .  As one of us is also a folklorist, and the other a naturalist (we will leave it to you to figure out which is which), the idea of a typology of keynotes eventually came up.  Here we approach typologies as tools for classifying materials, a necessary step before engaging in content analysis and interpretation.  

Folk narratives for example, can be divided into genres, and engaging with a typology of genres can be a first step towards analyzing the meaning behind the narrative.   Folktales are narratives that are fictions, legends are fictions told as true (or with a kernel of truth), and myths are sacred narratives told as true.  There is, of course, slippage among the genres, but using them as discrete categories can allow for discussion of the motivations behind the telling of tales.  When do people use fiction to make their point?  When does invoking the sacred matter?  Why make the choice to tell a fantastic tale as if it really happened to a friend of a friend?

We think we see the following types of keynotes.   We may or may not be judging them, even as we attempt a relatively “neutral” list of categories.

The Provocateur

Sometimes speakers are invited simply to get people to sit up and notice, and, ideally, push back.  The point is not to get people to agree, but to get them thinking and talking, and for the content of the keynote to outlast the talk, and carry on into the halls and the sessions of the conference, encouraging people to speak to, or against, or in some way connect to the themes explored in the talk.

The Campaigner

In education this type of keynote is most often associated with political or policy imperatives. Sometimes, something is happening and changing that is so important that you have to get the message out there, situations where a lot of senior people in a lot of different organisations and institutions know that their staff need to have an awareness of that thing.

There is a clear message that the speaker is trying to get across, and usually it will have wide ramifications across the sector. On the “campaign trail” the speaker will have the opportunity to refine and hone their delivery, while, through necessity, keeping the integrity of the message.

The Persuader

Whether it is the speaker who wants to persuade the audience, or the person who has booked the speaker; the persuader is there with an idea and a message. It’s on the continuum with campaigner, but lacks the hard edge political or policy imperative.

The Entertainer

This is a speaker whose strengths are known, to the audience and to the organizers, and it’s that known quantity that they want to bring to the event.  This talk can make people smile, or generate emotion in some way, but isn’t designed to provoke or profoundly upset. In some ways the content of the talk is less relevant than the show put on by this speaker.  

The Reporter

This keynote is about work that has been done, and its output.  This speaker is giving a sense of the project they carried out, a situation on the ground in a particular field of study or practice.  The point is not to persuade but simply to inform, and perhaps seek feedback or validation of results.  This can also take the form of a retrospective, where the speaker is invited to narrate the arc of a project, research agenda, or perhaps their entire career.

The Guru

The expert, the source, the philosopher who generated the idea.  The speaker is synonymous with the concept in question in the keynote, so indelibly associated with an idea that it is that person that you want, and if you can’t get them, you want them referenced by your Plan B speaker.  

The Seller

This keynote has something on offer, this speaker is doing more than persuading, they are selling a concrete thing. Caveat Emptor, this particular manifestation of keynote may slip into any of the others without the conference organised realizing. There are three sub-categories:

  • Service:  The speaker has a workshop, a consultancy, something that they would like you to pay for them to come in and run.  Their speech is designed to identify the situations or problems that would make such a service necessary, and ideally for audience members to realize that they really really need to bring the speaker in to run that service for their own place of work.
  • Self:  The speaker is selling themselves, their personal brand or style is why they have been brought in to speak.  As a conference organizer are paying less for the content and more simply to have them on stage at your event and hoping they will align with the content.  
  • Artifact:  This is generally a book, DVD or even blog, the product of work the speaker has done as a researcher or other kind of practitioner (see above:  Service).  This speaker uses their keynote as an advertisement for their book, giving a preview of the content and perspective so that audience members will want to have their own copy, or make sure their institution acquires it.

************************

In this breakdown of keynotes into types we’ve tried to allow for the reality that many talks (and people who give them) are doing more than one of these things. And, as with folktales, sometimes the motivation of the teller is not the same as the motivations of the listeners.

For conference organizers, think about what you’d like from any speaker.  Is it always what they want to deliver?  Is it always what they are asked to do, when invited to speak? If not, whose fault is that?  Conference attendees, what do you like to listen to?  Does the kind of keynote you think is on offer affect whether or not you will attend certain events?  What does the presence of any keynote speaker do to your perception of conferences?  

Do you have types you would include in this list? Do you have a favorite type?