This may come across as petty, and that’s all right. I will take the petty bullet on this one.
Apparently, there are people speaking at South by Southwest this year who are under the mistaken impression that they are giving a keynote talk. I know this because their PR/publicist people have been emailing me asking if I’d like to interview a South by Southwest keynote speaker and I have to gently inform them that the person they are pitching is not listed as a keynote on South by Southwest’s website. It can be a little awkward.
“Perhaps SXSW made a mistake,” I will suggest, knowing full well where the mistake actually lies.
I’ve talked with SXSW staff about this and they acknowledge that it’s a common mistake they see in press releases and in news coverage.
Here’s the thing about keynotes, and especially about keynotes at South by Southwest: It’s not always about having the most well-known speaker.
In its history, SXSW Interactive in particular has tended toward keynote speakers with big ideas (Malcolm Gladwell, Danah Boyd, Chelsea Clinton) or a company that is on the cusp of changing everything (Mark Zuckerberg, Craig Newmark, Elon Musk).
This year, as SXSW marches toward more convergence, the tech-related keynote speakers are even less household names than usual. We have biologist Jennifer Doudna, culture writer Adam Grant, Google/Alphabet Jigsaw’s Yasmin Green and climber and visual storyteller Cory Richards, and Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes. To get to names that would be recognizable, you’d have to move over to music (Garth Brooks, Nile Rodgers) or film (Gareth Edwards of “Rogue One” fame, “Transparent” showrunner Jill Soloway).
A keynote seems to signify a highly prepared presentation (yes, keynote speakers do get coached in order to avoid problems of the past) that adheres to some of the larger themes of the conference. Judging purely from the keynotes, you could say that some of the big tech themes this year are how government acts and diversity can be at odds with each other, the future of data to solve social problems, how to live a more complete life and tell your stories, and how technology and health are becoming increasingly entwined.
Featured Speakers, a class of presenter that leans more toward celebrities, Internet influencers and well-known techies you’d probably see profiled in Wired magazine, is where you’ll find Joe Biden, Marie Kondo, Seth Rogen, Buzz Aldrin, Cheryl Strayed, Van Jones, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the cast of “Veep,” Kara Swisher and the rapper T.I.
And then there are hundreds of other people on panels, running meetups, doing mentoring sessions or moderating listed as Speakers. They’re not Featured or Keynoting, but they’re an important part of the big content picture, too.
There’s no shame in not being a keynote, but it’s time to stop throwing the word around so carelessly, especially if you’re not sure that it applies. People might start thinking of you as a key-NO. And nobody wants that.
Still have questions? I made you a chart (click on it for a slightly larger version):
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