We got Buzzfed by Kara Swisher at IxD15
After my first day at Interaction 2015, I was struck by the two keynote speakers. Neither particularly inspired — both critiqued to the point of insulting. But between Jan Chipchase and Kara Swisher, the crowd had higher emotional reactions (both positive and negative) towards Swisher.
At first I was simply troubled by the negative tweets about Swisher’s presentation — was it due to sexism? Were they upset because Swisher, a woman, wasn’t playing nice? Then I realized, Swisher knew exactly what she was doing. By being provocative, by not pulling punches, by making fun of everyone, including herself, she and her words made a huge impact.
Sadly, I came away from both addresses thinking that I really didn’t learn anything new from what they said. Neither had clear presentations—both were built loosely around a list of insights they wanted to impart to us, but there wasn’t really a clear organizing principle to either list. Both forced the audience to draw their own conclusions.
For Chipchase, I concluded that the design world is vacuous and we should work to change that. For Swisher, I concluded the entire world is vacuous and we need to learn how to deal with it. Those may not have been their messages, but come on guys, without a thesis statement, we’re really left hanging.
They both chose style over substance andSwisher’s style was more effective. She buzzfed us information while talked about charts and graphs with fonts too small to read. As a content creator, Swisher gave us great examples of how to create and present content. I would have loved to hear about 30 minutes of her presentation, and then spend the second 30 minutes having her deconstruct what she did and how she conveyed information. That would have been insightful.
Looking through the tweets of Chipchase’s presentation, there were a lot of images of the charts he created, with very little interpretation of what they actually meant (sorry guys, sometimes a picture still needs a hundred words). For Swisher, yes, there were a lot of photos of her presentation, but mostly people just quoted her evocative gems. She was so quotable it was hard to choose which sassy gem to tweet. As soon as you started typing, some other amazing thing would come out of her mouth. “Did she really just say she was dating Bill Gates?”
Were those things relevant? Not always. But they were sure as hell memorable. And sometimes they were even important, like when she noted about sexism in technology that “’Unconscious bias.’ Which means they don’t want to take responsibility for their fucked up behavior.” And what’s important for her brand (and for people who care about things like sexism), is these gems are extremely sharable.
What I find compelling about Buzzfeeding versus blinding us with science is that it entertains us into learning something. Charts may be compelling when you’re trying to convey ROI to an investor, but the rest of us would rather watch cat videos. And if you manage to present relevant or important information while entertaining, then you’re getting that information through to a much broader audience.
Some complaints focused on the fact that Swisher seemed to insult all the companies that sponsored the conference. How dare she?
First off, why not? We want to hear the speakers confront hard issues, even if that means stepping on toes. It’s only through critique that we can get to the other side — solving the problem
Secondly, she certainly wasn’t the only one guilty of insulting the people footing the bill. Chipchase managed to insult the vast majority of designers in the room by insinuating that we are all money-grubbing wastes of time more interested in exotic trips than quality work. He actually asked people who wanted to come with him on his next job in Nepal to raise their hands, and when they did, he called them out for not knowing what the job was. It was an interesting tactic to reveal stereotypes and assumptions that he never really explored or explained. He just made people feel stupid and exposed.
Instead of simply critiquing one group of people (the attendees of the conference) Swisher poked fun at everyone. Including herself. Including her family. Both of them attempted to make us think differently, but by putting us on the defensive, Chipchase lost us, while Swisher made us laugh and kept us engaged to the end.
Which is more pretentious? “I called Arianna Huffington the other night.” Or, “I took a year off to put my life in perspective.” I’d say both speakers tied in this area. In addition to the witty and insightful nuggets from both of them, they both peppered in generous amounts of comments that made the audience wonder if they are in touch with reality.
Let’s get over that. They were asked to give keynote addresses. They’re kind of a big deal. We’ve given them a bit of leeway to be full of themselves.
While we can learn a lot for these presentations, we can learn more from how they presented than from what they presented. Balance substance with style— without style your message will be lost and without substance you become BuzzFeed. Furthermore, know your audience — push them, but not so far that they stop listening and turn to BuzzFeed to find out which seven celebrity couples you should have a threesome with.