Gnomedex and respect for the crowd

There’s a debate going on about Gnomedex: Dave Winer posted a critique, Chris Pirillo responded.

My thoughts (I originally posted on the conference here): I don’t mind that Gnomedex mixed up politics and technology. Heck, I’ve been doing that for a couple of decades now. That’s good. By assuming that this is the root of people’s beef, Pirillo lets himself off the hook a little too easily: “We were just taking risks, don’t you want that?”

My problem with Robert Steele‘s keynote (and some of the other presentations) was a different one: I’ve got no issue with the extremity or outrageousness of Steele’s positions and statements. Bring on the controversy! I just thought he was disrespectful of the crowd.

In my years as a theater critic, covering night after night of often under-funded and under-attended underground and avant-garde performances, I was always ready to give anyone a break as a long as it was clear that they’d had something they were trying to express, and they’d put an effort into trying to express it. What got my dander up was watching shows where the creators had plainly failed to try — they hadn’t worked at it, they’d just thrown something together.

When you get on stage, you’re commanding some public time. It’s a precious and valuable resource. You owe it to the people who come to try to use it well. I’ve begun some regular public speaking this year — once or twice a month, I come to some group or company and talk about the topic of my book — and invariably, I spend a day or two in advance reviewing my talk, customizing it for the particular crowd, updating it with new material. I owe that to the people who are giving me their time.

Steele? He raced through his slide deck like someone with an ADD seizure, flipping forward and back through dense, unreadable slides like someone whose keyboard was gummed up with ketchup. At first I thought it was a comedy routine. Then I got it: he hadn’t prepared. He was doing his preparation live, in front of us, deciding what he was going to talk about, and in what order. So instead of provoking us with his ideas we ended up exasperated by his incoherence. If he’d taken his hour to explore, in depth, any one of the stream of controversial pronouncements he was spewing, it might have been fascinating. Instead, it was a bit of an insult.

As for Michael Linton, another controversial speaker who drew criticism with his introduction to “open money,” I felt he had more substance than Steele. But he, too, failed to introduce his material in an accessible way, and missed an opportunity to win support from a crowd of unconventional and open-minded tech enthusiasts because he couldn’t even begin to communicate his idea clearly. Linton needs to become as effective an evangelist for open money as Guy Kawasaki (who also spoke at Gnomedex) is for…Guy Kawasaki. Then maybe we’ll have a chance to figure out whether we like his ideas or not.

I haven’t been to previous Gnomedexes so I can’t compare this one to its predecessors. Overall I still thought it was better than many other conferences I’ve been to, but maybe it was a let-down to some alumni. Either way, Gnomedex is no more exempt from the laws of public speaking than any other conference: If a keynote speaker can’t be bothered to prepare a cogent talk, the audience has a right to its disgruntlement.
[tags]gnomedex, gnomedex 2007[/tags]

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  1. Well stated. Preparation is done to bring material into a place that makes it relevant to the listener, not that the material itself requires rehearsal for the speaker


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