Lackluster Twitter CEO keynote leads many to bail

One of the most anticipated talks at SXSWi failed to deliver on that energy. After the @Anywhere news was announced, the audience left in droves.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--It's hard to believe, given the power Twitter wields at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here, but not half an hour into his keynote address, people are walking out on Twitter CEO Evan Williams.

Perhaps it's because Williams announced the news everyone wanted to hear--the @Anywhere platform--right at the outset of the talk. But more likely it's because, as much as everyone here loves Twitter, Williams simply is not the most engaging speaker.

And the slow leaking out of people from the giant exhibit hall at the Austin Convention Center where Williams is being interviewed on stage by Havas Media Lab director Umair Haque belies the energy that was evident before the talk began. Indeed, volunteers essentially had to close the doors to the hall a few minutes before the start time because just about every seat in the room was full, and there was still a line of people waiting to get in.

The much-anticipated Evan Williams keynote at SXSWi went downhill quickly after Williams introduced @Anywhere. Before long, a flood of attendees left the room, seemingly bored by the talk. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For me, this is kind of shocking. I came to the Williams keynote directly from a solo appearance upstairs by the ever-popular and frenetic wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuk. There, the room was electric throughout and loud applause and laughter was more common than any other sentiment.

And, of course, given that audiences are constantly tweeting from within talks, there's already a stream of posts from people who are not shy about expressing their view of the Williams talk.

"Maybe if we ask nicely, [Vaynerchuk] will come in and stir things up a bit at the [Williams] keynote," tweeted @julzie. "This Twitter keynote is VERY boring. Can't tell if it's [Williams] or lack of provocative questions from [Haque]," tweeted @smc90.

This is a real shame. There's no question that the Williams keynote was one of the most anticipated talks of this year's SXSW, and certainly a selling point for conference organizers. The question is, how do you make a talk like this interesting if the subject--Williams in this case--isn't the most interesting speaker in the world, and if the interviewer isn't doing his or her job to engage the audience.

One thing that emerged from the infamous Mark Zuckerberg/Sarah Lacy keynote two years ago is that if the speakers are losing the audience, get the audience involved. One of the sentiments coming through on Twitter right now is that Haque is putting himself too much in the discussion. As was the case with Zuckerberg, people came to the keynote to hear what Williams had to say, and it's not that it's required that he speak solo on stage, but perhaps that the interviewer do a better job of reading the audience on the fly. If Haque was being a little more astute, he would notice the flow of people leaving and would turn the talk over to Q&A.

Either way, there's no question that this will not go down in SXSW's annals as one of the best talks. But maybe there's a silver lining there.

"This Keynote provides much needed mental rest for sxsw attendees," tweeted @convagency. "Almost a buddhist retreat."