The Most Underrated Keynote I've Ever Seen


3 min read

I'm prepping to give my keynote at the first AI Engineer Summit, and it might be the most important non-founder talk of my life. So naturally I'm a little nervous about it.

When I ask people what they think of when they think of the greatest talks, they tend to talk about the big demos (we keep a list of the best devtools pitches of all time here) and the great commencement speeches (Adm. McRaven, Steve Jobs, etc). However, those are a specific category of public speaking that are divorced from the role of a conference welcome keynote, specifically by a conference organizer.

Here the job isn't really to show how smart you are or how awesome the stuff you work on is. You're still trying to inspire people, but you're opening the show and making people settled in and feel welcome.

I've also imposed an additional constraint on myself that the keynote should be short - I've given myself 7 mins for my talk, and in general I think the metagame is moving towards shorter punchy talks (all regular talks are limited at 18 mins per speaker, down from the usual 25-30mins) in part to fit the YouTube attention span but also to reduce waffling.

Anyway. The most underrated keynote I've ever seen is Dan Kohn's CNCF welcome address:

Just watch it - it's 8 minutes long. Watch on 2x if you want. As of time of writing this talk is 3 years old on a 105k subscriber youtube channel and has 1.3k views - an abject failure by YouTube standards, but I guarantee you it was a great talk for opening the KubeCon conference.

I broke it down and studied it. Here's why it works:

  • Structure:

    • 30 seconds: addresses "What is CNCF" upfront

    • 1st minute: introduces himself, and the minecraft story "Why are you staring at a black screen" - aka Hiding in the Dark

      • the title of the thing!
    • 2nd minute: "this story is a metaphor" - applause line

      • "hiding in a hole is precautionary software practice"

      • "the zombies are real"

    • 3rd minute: introduces the concept of 4th graders helping 2nd graders

      • will call back to this later
    • 4th minute: shows people the building blocks complexity of Minecraft

      • building out the central metaphor
    • 5th minute: shows people the equivalents of the cloud native ecosystem

      • establishes technical chops and credentials
    • 6.5th minute: "Where do 2nd and 4th graders come together? kubecon"

      • makes all attendees feel like they are here for a purpose
    • 7th minute: "k8s is only 5 yrs old, which means we are all in elementary school. I look forward to seeing what we learn from each other"

  • Measured pace: 1066 words / 8 mins = 133 wpm (my natural pace is 173 wpm)

Dan passed 3 years ago: and by all accounts was an incredible steward of the CNCF.

We should all aspire to be as impactful on our communities.