keynote sermons

At CCSC-CP 2008, the keynote speaker was Robert Martin, the president/CEO of Object Mentor, Inc, as well as author of a numerous books and articles. The main thrust of his talk was that code needs to be developed in an agile manner with testing to be the forefront activity. This was motivated by stories of “rotten code” that is typically solved by management’s response to the developers “beating the drums of redesign”. Martin has been in the software business a good while and has had considerable exposure to software projects of, what my guess would be, almost all varieties. So, certainly, he speaks from experience.

By the end of his presentation, though, I personally didn’t feel that I had learned much or heard anything that I haven’t heard or read before. In fact, I would say that there wasn’t much Martin offered that couldn’t be found in books that have been stocked by most Borders for years. The theatrics of a seasoned speaker aside*, his address seemed to be received very well by many in the audience. I would assume that students found his content novel or perhaps at least an independent validation of what they were exposed to in their classes (oddly, though, the students in attendance of such events are probably not the ones that need the validation).

But why would the professionals in the audience derive so much pleasure from the talk? I would hope that they found nothing groundbreaking in his message given the content consisted of mainstream topics that have been around for roughly a decade. It must be the presentation style.

So what makes a successful conference keynote? It seems that you need to either provide the audience with information they find novel and relevant or you need to find a way to resonate. Success in the latter approach seems to be the conference equivalent of a Sunday sermon.
As I looked around the room during Martin’s address, heads of many faculty (I’m assuming) were nodding fervently as Martin made some of his key points. The dramatic pauses he introduced were filled with hushed-but-audible approvals. Martin was reading from the methodology scriptures and there was everything but a feverish “AMEN!” bubbling from the audience.

I have observed this phenomenon at other times, in other contexts as well: political speeches, motivational speeches and sales pitches. There is also the problem of faulty logic but that’s a little outside of this discussion. What, then, makes an audience respond well to non-novel content? At this point, my only explanation is that there are many people who like to hear what they already know. If the content is already in their repertoire – or at least very close – they emerge feeling confident, that they can easily discuss the address with their fellow attendees. Basically, they feel comfortable. They feel good as their knowledge has been reaffirmed.

The success also depends on the person giving the address: the more popular the speaker, the less dependent is the success of the address on the actual content. Not everyone could have delivered the address that Martin did. The same content, tone and delivery style adopted by someone unknown with obscure credentials would not have been as successful. In part, for some, hearing someone they greatly admire state things they already know provides a small connection, perhaps providing a sense that they have made a smaller step towards greatness.

The problem is that this limits progress. After attending a talk (or reading a book), not reflecting on what was new in the message can lead to an inflated perception of self. What incentive does someone have if their perception is that they are on the edge because they believe they and the expert are of like mind? In actuality, having an improved sense of self due to an identification with an expert is only valid if your ideas were not formed via some influence of the expert prior to such identification.

To make matters worse, once someone has achieved greatness, the work required to remain great is considerably less. That is, the idea that enables someone among the masses to walk among the elite must be incredibly significant. However, an idea from a member of the elite can still be perceived to be more meritorious than an idea from a member of the masses even if the former is in fact less meritorious than the latter. This has to do with marketing (and politics).

This worries me. But the world has progressed, faltered and recovered despite the fact that such things occur. It’s more that such behavior could eventually be applied to a problem that leads to an unrecoverable disaster.

* Martin is, without a doubt, a dynamic speaker. His approach, though, was too big for the moderately sized lecture hall that we occupied. It would have fit more appropriately in a theater. In a large venue, the sweeping gestures and dramatic pauses have to be exaggerated to be able to ripple through the crowd and be perceived by those in the remote corners. In the smaller room it’s overwhelming. To be fair though, I don’t react well to the overly dramatic and often find it distracting from the purpose at hand. But, hey, I’m a bit of a cynic.k

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