The Strangest Keynote Situation I've Ever Experienced

What do referrals look like when you’re picking technology?  Let me see if I can convince you to add a crucial step in the process.  But first I need to tell you a (weird) story.

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If you read my stuff regularly, you know that I have performed a ton of speaking in 20 years.  I’ve given 7-15 keynote and plenary presentations every year, both domestically and abroad.  I got 4,000 audience members to take a sobriety test together in Germany, I was detained for an hour trying to board my flight after giving a keynote in a Middle Eastern country because my passport had never been stamped (I was simply walked out the side door when I arrived…), and I found myself surrounded by 20x20 screens showing my own face at a 10,000 person conference in Singapore.  I’ve seen a lot in 20 years.

But I have to tell you about one of the strangest experiences I have ever had with a conference keynote.  It’s taken me a few months to figure out just how to approach it, but here goes:

Back during my Saint Leo days, I continued speaking regularly.  So, when one of the school's technology partners asked if I would keynote at their conference, I was honored.  I gave a presentation that I dare say was one of those moments when everything clicked.  I believe that to be true because the presentation video has been shared a LOT and I have also received several requests to speak by attending audience members ever since. 

Jump forward to 2018.  I was approached by the same marketing contact at the organization, asking if I could speak once again.  When I informed her that I was no longer the Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Leo, she asked to get on the phone so she could hear the story.  So we chatted and I explained my two roles - the Institute's Executive Director and CAO at Ucroo.  During that conversation, she said my situation change was not of concern and that my presentation had been so overwhelmingly successful, they really wanted me back.  When I said that I would need to talk with my CEO as it was a bit of time out of the office, she made an offer.  If I gave a keynote at the conference, paying in full as an attendee, she could give me a table (like a booth at a bigger conference) to promote my new company. 

In talking with my CEO, he agreed, and so I let my contact know.  I would speak for them at no formal charge (and would even pay the attendee fee) and they would let Ucroo host a table in the vendor area.

A few weeks prior to the event, I started to get some strange emails.  Could I send in my materials now, could I get on a phone call with some of the execs from the company, etc?  I did so quite willingly and was surprised to hear that the company was worried about my talk.  It seems they had performed some cursory research and felt Ucroo might be a competitor to some things they do, so they wanted to ensure my talk was not going to be a commercial, etc.  Ok.  Fair enough.  I talked through my presentation over the phone and sent in the deck – all seemed fine. At the same time, I got the directions for the table setup, and all was good.  Or so I thought.

I went to the conference and spoke.  I was early the first morning.  And again, things went quite well.  I upped my energy from the first conference, trying to really give everyone a presentation that was inspirational, entertaining, and provocative.  I believe that happened and I think the standing ovation might have been a clue that things went well!

So after the presentation, I headed to my table, enjoying a few conversations with people about the message, talking with some about our product set, etc.  All in all, things seemed good.

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It was on day two, however, that things fell apart.  First thing in the morning, the President of the event’s company pulled me aside.  He let me know that they were uncomfortable with the arrangement.  He told me the other vendors payed a lot of money to host a table and that each table vendor had asked to speak, being told no.  He explained the other vendors were very upset that we had been given a table and a speaking slot without paying.  (I wish I would have asked how exactly they knew any of that information.  I also wish I would have explained what the speaking charge should have been...)  Without saying so, he accused me of somehow worming my way into the vendor area inappropriately.  When I brought up the agreement with his marketing person, he denied any knowledge of that and asked me to take the table down.  Period. 

I was…hmmm…there aren’t words to explain how I felt in that moment or thereafter.  It was extremely uncomfortable, not only for me, but for a few people standing close enough to hear the encounter.  It was also very odd to be accused of (essentially) squatting in the vendor area, when I had simply agreed to their offer. 

I pulled down the table gear, incredulous to the entire incident, changed my flight, and headed home. 

I’ve told this story to a few colleagues who encouraged me to blog about that company, sharing their name.  But my wife put it nicely when she said, “that’s just not your style.”  If you really want to figure it out, you probably can.  But I’ll leave it at that.  (If I ever see you at another conference, buy me a drink, and I’ll tell you the entire story…)

There are several aspects that astound me, especially in retrospect.  Most importantly, I now understand that we (Saint Leo) chose a vendor with almost no moral compass.  (I’m really sorry you didn’t like the deal that was made by your company's representative, but that’s not my fault.)  Asking me to go away illustrates a serious lack of ethics.  At the same time, I’m extremely frustrated that their company received everything I agreed to, whereas I got only a portion of what was promised.  (I also have to admit that taking the "high road" and not making a scene was tough.  I believe it was ultimately the right thing to do, but it ticks me off that they got away with such bad behavior.)

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So what does this have to do with Connectedness?  Well, ironically this company's product is a tool that attempts to help connect people to information.  But aside from that, consider your due diligence for technology.  I always prided myself in a solid vetting process for new partners.   I would call other colleges and universities without a request for referral.  I simply reached out (via cold calls or emails) to find out what implementers thought – not using a list of people I was given.  Cherry picking “the best” information is already a struggle for higher ed (I’m looking at you accreditation), but I don’t need to be snowed by a school who is friendly with a company.  I need to know the truth.  But I have to admit, I never added reference information from a crucial sector -  I never called other vendors!

In this day and age, we should be working to integrate more tech than ever.  Buying a siloed solution today is like taking up smoking.  You should know better and nobody is going to feel sorry for you when it fails.  But how much digging do we really perform in that respect?  When I was with eCollege, we always heard from platform companies which schools were truly ahead of the curve and which ones simply had a good marketing story, but were in fact awful to work with.  Likewise, our vendor-colleagues would explain which companies were great to work with and which ones were not.  That even translated to a company’s values or ethical practices.  But embarrassingly, I did not include vendor referrals as part of my research.  I solely relied on college / university recommendations.  And at this point in my career, having worked on both sides of the aisle as well as sitting on committees like the CWiC Executive Advisory Board, we all know there are thousands of failed technology initiatives which have little to do with the technology and everything to do with the implementation.  Yet I contacted school after school, both the solid and the weak, asking if they recommended a vendor. 

Well, that’s the story.  If you already include vendors in the reference process, congratulations – you’re well ahead of me.  If not, I hope it illustrates the importance of that step.  It might save you a great deal.  And in the end, it should help you create a better-connected environment for your people.

Good luck and good learning.

(Addendum - 8/10/18 - the company's conference website has all of the video sessions from the event online now...except one.  Mine.  Wow.)