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Nice girls don’t get the Keynote

Keynotes are something to be earned and rightly so. Typically a keynote comes from someone who likes to speak, who is good at speaking, and has something interesting to talk about.
I know many women testers who meet the above criteria. They have the requisite ‘merit’ required to be a keynoter. They have thoughtful ideas, are good speakers and are well respected in the testing community.

So why are they not keynoting?

Could it be that to be a keynote takes more than ‘merit’?  Could it be that keynoting is also about your place in the community and your connections within that community?

My experience as a conference organiser and being on program committees is that ‘who you know’ is equally as important as ‘what they know and how they speak’. I don’t apologise for that. It’s important for me to base my decisions not only on an abstract but on a speaker’s reputation.

A keynoter needs to have some of the following:

1) They have interesting topics to talk about
2) They are practiced/skilled at speaking
3) They are involved in some way in the community
4) They network within and outside of their ‘tribe’
5) They make a point of asking for keynotes

I know many practised women speakers with fresh and innovative talks and we are well covered on points one and two.

And we’re not so bad at organising and volunteering for conferences & community either, so….

Could it be, points four and five is what’s holding us back?

Keynotes are typically by invite. That means, the program committee gets to decide who keynotes. Those on the program committee tend to have a good network. It’s probably one of the reasons they’ve been chosen to be on the program.

How are your networking skills?  I’m not talking about card swapping nonsense, but ask yourself: do you have a genuine interest in engaging with people who you respect? Importantly, do you know your network will openly advocate on your behalf? Which brings me to point number five…

Be open to asking to keynote. Is it just me, or is there’s this weird unwritten rule in our community that prevents us asking to keynote? It seems to me that to ‘make it’ we have to Marlene Dietrich like, sit nonchalantly in the corner waiting to be asked for our moment in the spotlight.

Maybe that’s just me and not a general experience. But for those of us who are less direct I’d like to suggest you make it clear to your close network that you want to keynote?

What’s more, go direct to the program committee and ask them for a spot. If the say no, ask why not? and what does it take to keynote,? Who knows you might gain some valuable insights into the process.

Because no matter what skill you have, or how good you are at speaking, or how charismatic you are, there’s dozens of great speakers who can do what you do. It takes more than merit to get noticed. It takes courage to ask and you need allies who will support you along the way. Have you got what it takes?

If you’re reading this post, and you’ve keynoted in the past with a story to share about how you got to keynote, Speak Easy would love to hear it as it may help us understand what it takes to ‘get there’. I’d post a link to your blog post on the Speak Easy website (or I can post a blog).

*Title misappropriated from a book I found useful on this topic “nice girls don’t get the corner office’

4 replies on “Nice girls don’t get the Keynote”

Great post and lets be frank, most of the “male” keynotes that are at testing conferences are presenting the same tired ideas year after year or worse, vendor sponsored talks. So lets not pretend that they are giving us our moneys worth when it comes to keynotes in the current environment. Conference committees have no excuse for some of the appalling numbers in regard to diversity – no excuse. We should start voting with our feet if we see this again – particularly when it comes to keynotes that are hand picked…just saying!

Great article! I have keynoted at many of the testing conferences over the last 25 years. I have also served as conference chair of the QAI testing conference back in the 90’s. I think we need more diversity in gender, race and ideas. I think it boils down to “If you ask me to keynote, I’ll ask you to keynote.” Personally, if invited, I will accept if I have the dates open…and if I feel like I have an insight to share that will help others. I may solicit a slot on occasion, but I would much rather be invited without seeking out the invitation. One conference has a “two year” rule. I think it needs to be more like a “four year” rule. However, I can recall during the days of the QAI conference in the 80’s and 90’s where we had one lady who was outstanding at the keynote level and she spoke every year for 17 years or more – and people loved it. I did too, because she had a new topic every year that was very career-oriented. I look at the conference programs and see the keynote line-up, many of whom I know and consider friends. But sitting through the keynote sessions often leave me wanting more insight and new speakers. These speakers are out there. I would love to see them invited. Thanks! Randy

Hi Anne-Marie
I don’t come from a testing community so I cannot comment about them. I can comment about Agile Conferences. First off, you need to appreciate that their are fundamentally two types of conference ( See ):

Communities of Solutions are trying to sell. The keynote they chose is someone who is more famous than the community. The role of the keynote is often to sell the conference.

Communities of Need are trying to solve problems that its members face or will face. They will pick a keynote who is more contemporary or novel. They will pick someone that the community can learn something new from. The keynote will often introduce a new concept to the community, even if it is not 100% aligned with the community goals.

[AMC]: Yes we have both in the testing community

In both communities, its not enough to have new ideas (they bubble up in sessions) or to network. If you look at most keynotes, they have done something. Either written a “popular” book, or built a “popular” framework, or introduced a “popular” idea. It needs to be something that many people have heard of, or has general appeal.

[AMC]: Popularity doesn’t equate to interesting or valuable or even entertaining though, and it’s a pretty poor form of ‘merit’ in my opinion. Could be the reason why so many keynotes are awful.

As for women delivering keynotes, in Agile land we have a healthy line up of women delivering keynotes at both types of community conferences. At community of solutions you will often find Mary Poppendieck or Esther Derby. At community of Needs you will find Rachel Davies, Linda Rising, Liz Keogh, Katherine Kirk, Melissa Perri or Alicia Juerrero. All of them are rock stars.

I asked to do my first keynote back in 2007 at a small regional conference in England. That did not lead to more keynotes. I only got asked to do keynotes after Olav, Chris and I wrote “Commitment”, the first Agile graphic novel.

Hope this helps.

[AMC]: It does and thanks for your feedback it all helps!

See you in February in Europe when you do you Keynote at the Euro-Testing Conf.


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