Independent Thinking Blog

Are Keynotes Necessary?

Jessica Hibbard, who’s organizing a February conference in Frederick,¬†posed the following question on Twitter the other day:

At a conference, how important is the keynote address? Do we have keynotes because they’re essential, or because we’ve always had them?


My initial response:

A little of both. They’re only essential if they rock and/or have a rock star to draw participants. So many end up duds.


I added that I’d rather see more networking or additional content sessions. Beth Schillaci added that she’s “skipped many a keynote.” Others also chimed in, and most were lukewarm on keynotes. Which really begs the question of why so many conferences include them.

A case in point: At GrowSmartBiz in 2009, the keynoters were Chris Anderson and Mark Warner. They (okay, Anderson) attracted me to the conference. Both were terrific. In 2010, the GrowSmartBiz keynoter was SBA Deputy Administrator¬†Marie Johns–in a city where government officials are a nickel a dozen. Johns’ remarks were relevant–but she was clearly giving her usual speech. And she wasn’t drawing a crowd.

Case in point 2: I’ll be blogging at What’s Next DC in a couple of weeks. The conference is set up as a series of presentations. Sure the first one is Hubspot founder Brian Halligan. But he’s “Act 1: Foundation,” and not a keynoter. There’s an Act 2 (and 3, and 4…). All the speakers are given equal weight, and the program is the draw.

What’s your take? Are keynotes necessary?

Photo by Beau Giles (Flickr).

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