Many of you following me on Twitter may have been subjected to a relentless stream of tweets related to my weekend participation in South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Every year around this time, imagine someone transplanted San Francisco (techies et al) and moved us over to the heart of Texas. Fun, learning and networking ensue.
Given that it was my second time at SXSW, I was hoping for a better keynote interview than the last with Mark Zuckerberg. But, it wasn’t meant to be. This year, it was the highly anticipated interview with Twitter CEO, Ev Williams that went awry. I feel for the interviewer, Umair Haque, since it isn’t easy to take the stage in front of thousands for the first time and score.
It’s a tough crowd and there are rules for winning em over. Right from the get go, things didn’t look too good and 30 to 40 minutes into the interview folks started streaming out the auditorium, and I didn’t realize it since I was in the front row. Close to 60 minutes, I couldn’t take it any longer and I had to walk out as well. Why? Well, here was my response on Umair’s blog that I thought I’d republish:
As someone who has read your blog AND as one who attends SXSW, here’s my candid $0.02 about the interview.
Hope you take it in the right spirit cos I understand the challenges inherent in interviewing or speaking before thousands. Anyways, here goes:
1. SXSW is not @HarvardBiz (HBR). Sorry. It’s more about geek innovation (it’s TED for for geeks), less about principles or policy.
2. The audience wants (a) to be engaged (b) to be challenged and (c) to be entertained.
a. ENGAGE: We’d have loved to learn more about where Twitter is going – moving forward – especially from an innovation perspective and less about what their business principles are.
The audience is participatory and would love to be included in the conversation. I know you asked your audience for questions prior to the interview but that didn’t come across in your speech.
b. CHALLENGE: The audience also has very little tolerance for anything that may even seem like talking up a business. Even simple public speaking mistakes are chatted up on Twitter (Sorry, it’s a tough crowd). Instead, they’d like to see a spirited debate that’s thought provoking and challenges assumptions.
c. ENTERTAIN: As with any medium, most importantly the audience wants to be entertained. I think Guy Kawasaki’s tips on moderating a conference is a great read and one I’d recommend all keynote interviewers at SXSW.
Again, these are but my comments as a SXSW attendee. And, thanks for listening!
Pls. do read the comments that follow mine. I commend Umair for opening up his blog for further comments. It’s not easy being panned on your blog but I admire his taking constructive criticism in the right light. BTW, here’s the post from Guy Kawasaki on how to be a great moderator. Below are my quotes from the article that were appropriate in this situation:
Make everyone else look smart. The goal of the moderator is to make the panelists look smart. It is not to make himself look smart–or grab the most attention. Moderators can make panelists look smart in two ways: first, give them a few softball questions that they can knock out of the park. For example, “What do you view as the most pressing issues of the industry?” Second, extract good information out of the panelists by rephrasing, summarizing, or clarifying what they said. A good moderator accounts for only 10% of the speaking time of a panel–she is the “invisible hand,” not the star.
Stand up for the audience. Making panelists look smart does not mean letting them bull shitake the audience. My theory is that the moderator is called the moderator is because her role is to ensure that there is only a moderate level of bull shitake and sales pitches. A good moderator is the audience’s advocate for truth, insight, and brevity–any two will do. When a panelist makes a sales pitch or tells lies, you are morally obligated to smack him around in front of the audience.
Involve the audience. Moderators should allocate approximately 30% of the duration of the panel to questions from the audience. Any more, and the audience will run out of high-quality questions. Any less and the audience will feel like it did not participate. However, don’t feel obligated to accept any stupid questions from the audience any more than you accept stupid answers from the panelists. Just in case, always have a few good questions in your hip pocket just in case no one in the audience has a question (thanks for the suggestion, Alek). Or, even better, you could “seed” the audience in advance.
After some more shouted remarks, Lacy turned the microphones over to the members of the audience, challenging them to come up with better questions. Attendees rushed to the microphones and got right to it, asking Zuckerberg about privacy and data portability, and requesting tools to help manage the growing flood of information on their Facebook profiles.