Adventures in Amateur Talking-Headery

It’s now been over two years and a dozen talks since I first started speaking with my blogger hat on. Each time I go to one of these things, I realize just how out of place I am.

The talking-head conference circuit (as opposed to academic) is designed around polished and powerful speakers with a true flair for the dramatic. They manage to be theatrical without being corny. They are engaging and accessible without coming across like used-car salespeople. Even when you are aware of the halo effect, you cannot help but be enthralled by people who are truly, naturally good at this stuff (like Bill Clinton say).

These are professional speakers  in the fullest sense of the word.

Me, I mumble, hem and haw, get tempted down unscripted rabbit holes on stage, lose track of time, go too fast or too slow, pause too much or too little, forget to repeat for emphasis, and generally put on a pretty amateurish show each time.

But here’s the funny thing: increasingly I find that it is people like me who seem to be on the agenda at these things. It is sort of like the rise of reality TV over scripted, or the rise of blogging over traditional publishing. I seem to be part of a broad amateurization of the speaker circuit.

I fully expect some sort of iStockSpeaker site to pop up soon, full of people like me in the directory.

The Speaker Circuit

Chances are, you don’t actually know what the “speaker circuit” is. Here’s a secret: neither does anyone else. Some parts of it are very legible. Bestselling authors with agency representation belong in this legible part, as do ex-Presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs and the like. This is the marquee talent on the road.

Other well-understood parts are the “roadshows” (speakers who take the same act everywhere, to events organized by others, as well as their own for-profit workshops and seminars), dog-and-pony shows for specific messages managed by PR agencies, corporate retreats and university commencement speeches.

Off stage, the people who belong in the legible part of the circuit are pretty impressive. They network smoothly and energetically, non-clumsily pitch their books, companies or consulting services, deal graciously with swarms of fans, and overall, maximize the hell out of their time at any event. When you meet them, they immediately make you feel comfortable.  When you run into them between events, you realize that their lives are beautifully organized around speaking gigs. They move smoothly from one event to the next with no disruption to the rest of their lives.

And then there are people like me. Off stage, I have to very carefully pace myself and ration out my limited supply of social energy in order to actually enjoy the event. Each time I go to an event, the rest of my life gets disrupted for days before and after. If I have two or more events in quick succession, things get pretty chaotic. I count myself lucky if there is even one person in the audience who has heard of me before.

I am an amateur in the fullest sense of the word.

There is some clear social structure as well. Keynotes for example, are best understood as talks by speakers who are better known than the events they headline, and can therefore add some marketing pull. There is a delicate Groucho Marx type balancing act here: nobody wants to keynote any conference that will have them.

Nominally, a keynote is simply any talk in a typical position on the agenda (say first single-track talk after breakfast on the first day) that is billed as an introduction to theme for the event. Quite a few speakers claim “keynote speaker” status based on having simply occupied the position at some point, but you aren’t a true keynote speaker unless you’re more famous than the event itself.

But when you put together all the clear elements, you still end up accounting for only about 20% of the stuff that makes up the “speaker circuit.”

By comparison to a corporation or industry, explicit organizational structure accounts for much less of the nature of a given event or space of events. It is a fundamentally murkier part of the collective economic life of homo sapiens.

I still haven’t figured it all out. That’s part of the reason I keep going to these things. Somewhere in there, there is a sort of Gervais Principle for the conference circuit that I might figure out someday.

Truth be told, as far as explicit networking value, driving book sales or business development go, speaking gigs are basically not worth the time investment for 80% of the speakers. My suspicion is that most of the direct value accrues to a small fraction of attendees.

The Amateurization of Speaking

You don’t have to fully understand how the speaker circuit works to realize that there is a widespread amateurization going on. When I first started doing speaking gigs, I thought I needed to spend some time working on my stagecraft. But I very quickly realized two things.

First, the few times I tried to do a more polished, halo-effect type talk, even though the videos clearly looked better, I personally hated doing them, and interactions with people afterwards were less fun. The better you are on-stage, the more distance you create off-stage. Of course, there is some minimum skill needed, but the bar is not as high as people think.

Second, I realized that conference organizers are typically not looking for halo-effect dramatic content from amateurs like me. There are others on the scene who are there fore the purpose. People like me are part of the amateur portion of the proceedings.

And increasingly, that’s the more important part. Sometimes it’s the only part.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why this is happening. Part of it is simple supply and demand. There are now more conferences, with more agenda inventory to fill, as cheaply as possible. And the blogosphere is one cheap source.

The Internet also makes it much easier to organize events. Everything from identifying and communicating with a target audience, to registration, sponsorships and logistics, becomes easier with the Internet (remember when conferences relied on paper mail for organization, before around 1998?). Barcamps and meetups are the most obvious examples.

But this doesn’t explain why there are more events. Where is the demand coming from?

Events and the Internet

My theory is that this is due to a chicken-and-egg feedback loop between physical events and the Internet.

If you think about it,  the Internet really borrows much of its organizational structure from the transient part of offline social order, not the fixed part.

In other words, the Internet is a set of ongoing sprawling events, a continuous show. Not a set of institutions defining a social order.  You don’t have things like cities, organizations or homes. You have a flow of activities with vague temporal boundaries. For the first few 1.0 years, we made the mistake of using fixed-institutional metaphors for the Internet (homes, offices, cities, communities), but shortly after the 2.0 era started, we witnessed a decisive shift towards transient-structure metaphors.

Like the stream for instance. While an offline institution like a corporation can be viewed as the embodiment of a stream, the metaphor really works much better when mapped to an event.

This coupling with the Internet is what has led to the increased demand.

The virtual world, by making bits cheap, ultimately devalues straight-up overt communication. There would be no contest between attending a talk in person versus watching a video if the only content were the talk itself. The virtual option wins every time. For content where this is true, virtual events ultimately kill physical events.

But by vastly boosting the amount of content online (like this blog for instance), the Internet radically boosts demand for associated context and subtext. When texts become cheap, context and subtext become relatively more valuable.

This is one reason why I think offline events are a necessary part of sustainable blogging. Or any sort of online activity.

Europeans seem to instinctively understand this much better than Americans. I’ve now spoken at two European events, and both times, I got the sense that the organizers understood what they were doing much better. They struck the right balance between context and agenda. There was more of a festive air to the proceedings.  Online components were more thoughtfully integrated.

This could be partly because America is more of a low-context culture than the rest of the world, with a much more transactional approach to events.

Events are Eating Organizations

In a way, the best way to understand what’s going on is that events are eating organizations. This is a corollary that follows from Marc Andreessen’s observation that software is eating everything. Events are software. Organizations are hardware.

Organizations are ultimately abstractions that make some class of interactions cheaper by codifying them within a structural boundary. Digital technology makes much of that codification fluid or entirely unnecessary. A software project living on github does not really need to have an associated organization until much later in its scaling journey.

You could say that software eats Gesellschaft and all that remains is Gemeinschaft. Events without organizations.

There is a new Greatest Show on Earth: the Internet. The subtext and context for this show are the new breed of amateurized events. This is more than just disruption of traditional conference culture by new conference culture. It is a slow shift in the very nature of social organization.

I think there’s a lot going on as part of this overall process. Events have always been important in the history of technology (the 19th century was a parade of World Fairs for example), but generally organizations have been the more important part of the equation. Technological eras are identified by their associated institutions.

With the Internet however, organizations recede into the background, and events carry more of the burden of economic and cultural life. At one point, it even struck me that Silicon Valley is best understood as one continuous tradeshow. Startups, until they become profitable, are more like booths or exhibits at a 19th century World Fair than companies. Meetups are pre-organizations that may never turn into organizations. The tech blogosphere is more like live event commentary than “news” in the sense of newspapers. The press in the traditional sense is an institution, but the blogosphere is a show.

This suggests that there are interesting challenges ahead for organizations with a particularly high proportion of Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, like universities.

On the one hand, they are likely to get unbundled into events, wherever context and subtext are important.

On the other hand, for “commodity” courses (like Statistics 101, say), with relatively low context/subtext and high textuality, we will see massive aggregation online. This is already happening with MOOCs on Coursera, Khan Academy, and so forth.

Blogs as Extended Events

Lately, I’ve started to think of what I do as an ongoing event with online and offline components, rather than content creation. The writing is the story of the event. It makes most sense when situated within the event stream it catalyzes.

I am not quite sure what that means, but it is a fertile framing that gets me thinking more clearly about some challenges. Every year, more of ribbonfarm seems to go offline or offsite.

And speaking of shows, here’s the video of my talk at LIFT last week, and here are the slides.

I’ll be at ALM Chicago March 5-7. I’ll be doing a workshop format talk on systems thinking. Hopefully I’ll meet some of you there.

And of course, my own biggest little experiment, Refactor Camp, is two weeks from now. We’ll see what happens in this second iteration.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv) says

    I am an amateur in the fullest sense of the word.

    As has been discussed before, amateur stems from “one who loves” — one reason why I believe in the phenomena of the talented amateur as an innovator. So, for me, amateur doesn’t carry the pejorative, unlike, say, dilettante.

  2. Could you explain more about your European vs American event observation? What would you have the Americans do differently? Different Agenda? Room layout? Attendee mix? Do you mean Brits or continentals? Is a generalization really possible across Germans and Italians?

    “Europeans seem to instinctively understand this much better than Americans. I’ve now spoken at two European events, and both times, I got the sense that the organizers understood what they were doing much better. They struck the right balance between context and agenda. There was more of a festive air to the proceedings. Online components were more thoughtfully integrated.”

  3. I wonder how your remarks about amateurization fit into the greater theme of “rediscovering literacy” where you criticized the dissemination of intellectual sound bites but also gave a strong sense of a reclaim of competence, not just in the narrow area of writing. Maybe there is a third territory yet to be discovered beyond amateurization and professionalism? Of course, despite your about the somewhat cynical view of the Internet as “the greatest show on earth” I’m somewhat glad that you don’t act like a show master on your own behalf.

    A short note on your Lift talk: too fast. I stopped three times on my computer, mostly to read and understand a 2×2. Noah Rake did it right in his talk, building up one of his diagrams, step by step. So most slides are for show effects and for support of words or just like a rope but others need more of a go-through. Although his presentation was better, his talk, unlike yours, bored me for the lack of intellectual complexity.

    • The structure of open source might be the thing beyond amateurism and professionalism– gift economies of skilled people with structure based on reputation and cooperation.

      • I’m inclined to see this as a “rose tinted” view of the internet.

        Because everything is so “accessible” a “politics of the status quo” develops. Oddballs, wild cards, and sideways thinking that challenge those varied and many status quos are usually cut access. One’s reputation, (attached and part and parcel with the very few written words) is the only marker of status online. While online there isn’t any social pressure value (say like a “water cooler”), or even an outlet for action so any sort of economy or cooperation must in the end supersede the simple modalities of communication online.

        So when looking at the big picture of the internet it isn’t so much a tapestry of cooperation as it is a vast plain of soapboxes. I would add that, as a result, understanding between two people can actually become more difficult with the expanded access without a firm reference point or shared motivator existing outside of the matrix.

      • Yes and community conferences are the sort of hybrids where professionals meet students meet enthusiasts meet researchers … and they can also be considered as the events where new trends and directions are taken off – mostly for established projects in Sprint meetings though.

        I’m not sure about “reputation”. It’s a fuzzy and also somewhat elusive concept. There are certainly people who can build on their reputation and have followers but those are few and I also wouldn’t overrate the idea of social capital which gets accumulated like a stock. It’s still easy for anyone who builds use value for others to drive a wheel without much prior reputation and a long track record of projects and publications.

        • You are taking me out of context, I was responding to Nancy about the internet (and specifically open source (itself perhaps an ongoing expression of Linus Torvalds) ). The communcations that take place over those networks be they transactional, educational or whatever… are all nothing more then simple communications, there is no value in them beyond what is gained or lost on either side of that exchange. The words in-between are cryptic unless they mean something specific or actionable to you.

          So I do agree that there is little use value in words alone, I just find it hard to believe that you think reputation isn’t one of those things that is important to any project or endeavor regardless of its real or perceived use value.

          Poltics and reputations are implied here with the title phrase “talking headery”. What else could be any more poltical then a reference to pundits?!? To take an example closer to here; how could you forget how I was questioned with deep skepticism by other commenters (yourself included) when I first started reading here? The whole line of questioning was based purely upon my words and not much else. Some, as I recall, were inventing a reputation for me ( such as”mal-content” , “non-beleiver” or something of the like). I only refuted them at great effort (I’m still not sure I have convinced anyone of anything really). Reputation matters a great deal, it always has and it always will, and you ignore it at your own risk. My own experiance bears that much at least.

          So, why are you are unwilling to consider the concept of reputation in your “refactoring”? What has driven you to that conclusion? I thought the whole idea of refactoring was to find a way to address those fuzzy concepts. Given my reputation here (what I understand of it at least) , I assume that I am the one with the misunderstanding, and I hope you are able to address that.

          • You are taking me out of context, I was responding to Nancy about the internet…

            I was responding to Nancy as well ;-)

  4. A comment on your Lift talk which I want to leave here.

    There was a strange lack in your talk which also corresponds to a lack in Taleb’s thinking. I refer to the role of the turkey which has no dual in a matrix. The turkey always takes the stupid part because it gets slaughtered in the end but what if the turkey was, for a long time at least, allied to political power, the lion, which has been weakened only recently by hedgehogs promoting foxes? The conservative upper classes, the lions, seemed to be relatively safe or even untouchable because, as the political left pointed out, the state acted in their mandate. They represented foremost old capital or capital at all, not the sort of great leaders of Peter Drucker you mentined, the visionaries, flexible managers and optimizers with their ideas and time tables, the foxes who believe they are lions until the true lions enter the scene.

    Now even the upper classes needed an ally in democratic societies and those were the turkeys i.e. the conservative petite bourgeoisie, the inhabitants of mediocristan with their narrow perspectives and their virtues. This alliance got apparently broken but how did it happen? I guess it happened through a promise done by economists, hedgehogs who claim that foxes are agents of theirs and can be left loose. Foxes will just sustain the harmony and equilibrium of the markets. They are the agents of natural laws of economy whose physicists are the economist-hedgehogs. Everyone shall now become a fox for the greater good. There is simply no place for outdated, medieval ideas like virtues and moral, which are turkey values but also lion values, just on a different level: there are morals and virtues for turkeys and there are those for lions but in many ways they correspond to each other and allow both to understand each other. Neither turkeys nor lions really understand hedgehogs with their ideologies and their nerd-talk, neither do they understand foxes with their adaptive behavior, their escape tactics and their celebrity cult of the creative class and the nouveau riches.

    There is a certain suspense in that story. One would like to catch a lion but each time when one seems to show up, it turns out to be a fox. So what happens to the ecology of our societies when the turkeys get mass slaughtered?

    • Very good point. Wonder if we could put the lion, hedgehog, fox and turkey into a 2×2. What would x and y axes be? Lion in top right, turkey in bottom left.

      And yeah. In reviewing I realized I went too fast. That’s a 30-minute talk crammed into 18.

      • I’d try out the axes “legibility” and “power”. Hedgehogs see like the state, whereas lions remain invisible and let the state act for them. Turkeys are both legible and mostly powerless, whereas foxes have no power but are chaotic and illegible. From that on we can consider alliences. For example the political left as a pure enlightenment movement hates the foxes and defeats the lions while attempting to take the turkeys into service of social revolutions or at least social reforms for the best of the turkeys, while maintaining the state bureucracy. Hedgehogs which build alliences with foxes yield our neoliberal orthodoxy and so on.

      • Lions defend territory. Turkeys are territory.

        I don’t know where to take this for the hedgehogs and the foxes.

  5. Love Centerwall says

    If there would have been an owl at the site for the bazaar he may have said.

    You are all correct. This is a good site and the idea of incorporating the fence is good, but the existing fence is too flimsy to protect us from the unknown in the forest so lets enforce it.

  6. Just had a look at your LIFT talk. Fast speech, indeed – I have paused more than a few times to have a look at the slides and ponder whatever you were saying along with them. but although the right pace is hard to find, I still fancy your speech more than some more “expert” ones I finally found as empty and foul smelling as a cracked dry egg.
    Happy to get your looks, too, by the way – it’s always a pleasure to put a face on a name when it comes to authors, and I never had the curiosity to look up before today.
    From the video glimpses of the audience, I wonder how you got the idea that we europeans (yes, I’m one) put more “fun” in such gatherings than you americans – just have a look at the Davos agenda and you’ll be fixed… I have attended quite a few events: fairs, conferences, symposiums & al., and always felt like a toddler admitted to the manor dining room (without a nanny) to say hello to all the adults gathered there – must be my turkey side.
    And well, OK, nobody wants to be a turkey, but this is precisely where the flaw is: as of today, our globalized but well organized world NEEDS turkeys; wherever (Shanghai, Bangalore, Tijuana), of whoever they are, they are indispensable for producing whatever they, and the hedgehogs, and the foxes will wear, drive, eat… as individually unuseful and expandable as they are, turkeys are the key (OK, that’s a corny one).
    So maybe the question is not wether one would want to see oneself as a fox or a hedgehog, but how everyone could be granted that choice, i.e. being either a hedgehog or a fox (not mentionning lions, bears, wolves or sharks, or earthworms, or bees).
    And maybe the problem finally lies in the use of metaphors – although we speakers, researchers, philosophers and teachers need them as badly as today’s world needs turkeys (but maybe we can do better), maybe we should sometimes try to put things more plainly so any turkey could have the choice to become a hedgehog, a fox, or anything else in the animal or human realm.

  7. “There are others on the scene who are there *fore* the purpose.”

  8. The key to conferences is conversation. Not text or audio, but real presence, with time. Part of it is trust building for future long-distance relationships. Part of it is the unmatchable ease of exchanging ideas face to face. “Here, let me draw that on the back of a brochure.” A quick gesture instead of a page of text. Some who study communication say that 2/3 of the information exchanged in a face to face conversation is nonverbal. The important part of conferences happens at meals, in hallways, and in the aisles between the trade show booths.

    Despite all the high tech communications options we still want to shake hands and catch a whiff of each other.

  9. Senthil Gandhi says

    Regarding your speaking style and how you end up staying in point, paul graham had something along these lines to say as well.

    “I first noticed this at a conference several years ago. There was another speaker who was much better than me. He had all of us roaring with laughter. I seemed awkward and halting by comparison. Afterward I put my talk online like I usually do. As I was doing it I tried to imagine what a transcript of the other guy’s talk would be like, and it was only then I realized he hadn’t said very much.”

    • Much as I’d like to, I don’t think I can claim a Grahamesque Mumble Premium of substance over style. I’ve seen too many speakers who beat me on both fronts.

  10. Harry Pottash says

    One interesting permutation of this concept is the tag-on conference. The most legible example I can think of is BIL ( ) which is a Barcamp style unconference that is intentionally held at the same time as, and in the vicinity of TED.

    It’s a swarm of enthusiastic amateurs, but it also seems to pull many of the TED attendees, as well as some of the speakers.