Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Afraid to flop? Twitter CEO's keynote lessons

No one would have bet on this, but by all accounts, yesterday's SXSW keynote by Twitter CEO Ev Williams flopped.  Louis Gray sums up what happened succinctly:
After thousands of Twittering geeks and quasi-geeks alike had settled in to the packed exhibition hall and overflow rooms to hear the latest updates delivered straight from Twitter's leader, their excitement soon turned to boredom and finally, severe annoyance, as the interview's pace, tone and content fell well below expectations. After an hour's time, the halls in Austin were more than half empty, and an opportunity to showcase one of technology's biggest successes in the last few decades was for the most part lost.
Time and again, when I ask my readers what they fear most, several mention the fear that, despite their best effort, their speech will fall flat, get no reaction or a bad reaction--that there will be a mismatch between what they see and what the audience sees.  It's poignant here, because so many thousands of people looked forward to this keynote as a highlight of the interactive conference--even Gray's piece is titled, "The SXSW Keynote With Ev Williams You Had Hoped to See."  His long wishlist for the talk indicates that would-be attendees came there--as most audiences do--with many questions they'd hoped the speaker would answer.  And when that didn't happen, many voted with their feet and left.

What could have happened to make this talk work? Here are a few suggestions you can use to avoid just such a fiasco:
  1. Engage the audience first.  Any time you have a room bursting at the seams (and overflow rooms needed), or a controversial topic, or major news pending, it pays to let the audience express itself early in the session--even if you only take 10 or 15 questions that you promise to touch on. Let them put their questions on the table early.  You get a sense of the room, they get to choose what's discussed, and everyone benefits.  You'll look smart, inclusive, able to handle risk, and friendly...and you'll have my attention.
  2. Think about the energy you'll project.  As has become common in large high-tech keynotes, this talk was a seated interview with a moderator, whom Gray calls on the carpet for asking easy questions.  For the audience that meant:  Not much to look at, and no drama--it's tough to get people excited when you and your sole questioner are agreeing with one another.  And any amount of time the questioner is speaking, the audience is really wanting to hear the main attraction.  Worse for Williams, being seated might just be the last position a CEO should be in when speaking--it diminishes your authority, and even more important, your energy, which starts to slip 10 minutes into the session when you're seated. (That goes for your audience, too.)  By staying seated, he lost the chance to use his body to create visual interest, to move into the audience and to create a sense of excitement.
  3. If you're talk is about an interactive technology, demonstrate that quality.  One big downside to the onstage interview (and I've been on both sides of them) is that, at base, it's a conversation between two people with a big crowd of listeners. On Twitter, that would be a direct message--one that excludes all but the two people on stage, putting the audience in a passive role. Williams ran into a buzz saw that's been running for a while now:  Speakers about high-tech wonders are stuck in presentation styles enforced by both tradition and the large crowds they attract.  The audience expects more interactivity, human or technological, in such a talk.  It doesn't have to involve slides. The surprise element of one important person standing up to speak is like catnip for audiences--he might say or do anything.  Want to use technology? Do so in a way that surprises and delights us, then get back to talking.
  4. You've got to plan your content.  Sometimes, speakers who know they're about to be interviewed live in front of a crowd decide they need to plan less and just go with the questions.  Big mistake.  You need to make sure the questions reflect what the audience wants, or inject into your answers the news you want them to know, or both.  And what better way to elicit "what will you want to hear from me during the keynote on Tuesday?" than to ask it on Twitter?  Then just be sure the interview or speech answers the major groups of questions--and answer the rest online.
Twitter's my favorite tool of all the social-media tools I use, and yet, in this case, it's less the backchannel than what happened on stage that did in this respected CEO.  Focusing on these four steps, basic as they are, will help you avoid a flop the next time your big speaking opportunity rolls around.

Related posts: 6 reasons to stand when you speak

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