Becoming virtuoso: unpacking the best keynote in years

At the UBA Trends Day 2023, Felipe Gomez gave what was easily one of the best keynotes in recent years. Let's see what we can learn.

A grand piano stands in the middle of the stage.

A middle-aged, somewhat unassuming man walks up to it and starts playing a simple tune, while overhead a video shows images of the past pandemic, accompanied by the author’s reflections on purpose, hope and loneliness.

It was an elegant start of what turned out to be one of the best keynotes I’ve ever seen in my career. Never before had I felt this urge to stand up and applaud as the presentation reached its close, and never before had so many people joined me in giving that ultimate sign of appreciation: a raucous standing ovation.

The man at his piano was called Felipe Gomez: a Colombian master in business, keynote speaker and piano enthusiast who apparently has been running the circuit for years. And he had just finished his keynote on leadership at the UBA Trends Day in Brussels. 

As I walked out the doors of what was otherwise a fairly mediocre event, with speakers ranging from the delightful to the dismal, I couldn’t stop wondering what it was that made this last presentation so utterly brilliant.

So I decided to sit down and break it down piece by piece, reverse engineering it in order to hopefully approach it myself at one point, though most likely without the help of a grand piano.

One simple and interesting idea

Every presentation, be it short or long, needs to start from an idea that is simple enough to be remembered and interesting enough to hold your attention throughout the talk. An idea that offers a new perspective, a helpful analogy, or a fundamental insight.

For Felipe, it was the idea that leaders should be virtuosos, just like in music. He explained that virtuosity is attained through the pursuit of a specific set of virtues, which can be divided into three categories:

  • method, for mastery
  • attitude, for connection
  • passion, for innovation

Felipe spent about an hour elaborating on this, taking various twists and turns in the way he presented, but never deviating from the idea or its core structure.

So, if you’re about to make your own keynote and want to make a splash, ask yourself: what’s the big idea? Is it simple enough to be remembered? And interesting enough to hold people’s attention?

Only then can you think about how to present it.

Take the road less travelled (your road)

Despite being in what is traditionally called the creative industry, I’m often surprised by the lack of originality found in these keynote type events.

Sure, things can get creative, with a clever narrative arc or a proficient use of memes. But all too often, it’s mostly marketers showing other marketers what other marketers have done. Originality is different. 

Originality is creativity with a good bit of you mixed in. It’s what we look for in works of art, music and anything that’s worth our time. In other words, it’s a vital element in your next keynote. 

Felipe didn’t show other people’s cases, but focused on telling his own story, starting from his passion for music and classical composers. 

Instead of showing Jobs, he showed Bach. Instead of settling for a fixed slideshow format, he produced a curious blend of video, cabaret and classroom lecture. He even managed to throw in some Coldplay and still make it work.

Imagine your next presentation as an invitation into your world. Lead with your passions and peculiarities, and your audience will follow.

Challenge your audience

Or somewhat more accurately: don’t treat your audience like toddlers

At some points during the UBA Trends Day, I wasn’t really sure whether the presenters regarded us as a group of sane adults, or as a troupe of kindergarteners, as they clambered to lower their level from professional to pre-school.

This translated to corny hyperbole of us having the power to change the world, or cringy bits of audience participation that frankly made me want to melt into my chair. More subtly, it also involved the typical management book trope of establishing simplistic causal links between an insignificant detail and a desirable outcome. 

Gomez luckily took a different approach, introducing more challenging concepts that didn’t automatically guarantee success, and focusing on insight and personal reflection.

At the end of each section, he walked back to his piano to play a contemplative tune, while asking the audience to ponder the questions that appeared on the screen. Some questions would provoke a resounding ‘yes!’ and a sense of accomplishment, others confronted you with some of your lesser qualities. In any case, they gave you the feeling that you were touching on something profound.

So as you’re preparing for your next keynote, ask yourself: does my presentation challenge my audience? Do I see them as competent, intelligent people? Have I banished all banality from my story? If so, you’re just about ready for the last tip.

Do it with passion

Okay, this last part requires a confession: remember I mentioned Felipe including a bit of Coldplay? That wasn’t all. He actually asked us to sing along. On multiple occasions. And I did. Each time. 

However, what easily could’ve been one of the more embarrassing moments in my adult life actually carried a valuable lesson. Because Felipe not only got away with it, he managed to pull the entire audience into his poppy delirium. The reason that he succeeded where so many others have failed (I’m not going to mention Carla Johnson’s awkward innovation architect oath) is that he was completely confident in what he was doing.

A confidence that can only follow from a genuine passion, for your story and for the audience. “Do it like it’s the very last thing you do.” Felipe would roar as he turned up the chorus for Viva La Vida one last time. But far from just telling us, he obviously felt it himself. He set the example and owned the moment. His energy was electrifying.  

This last tip is a bit harder to emulate, because you can’t fake passion. You simply need to love what you do. And share it. 

Who knows, maybe you’ll create a moment of magic of your own. Just like Felipe.

Header photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash

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