Colin Powell’s RSA Talk

none of the quotes in this text are in any way exact or even close to what was said, and are very much biased to what i heard. this is just an opinion piece in a blog, please treat it as such.

at rsa much like with most conferences, networking is key and talks are secondary, or at least that’s the way it is for me. one of the talks i went to was the end keynote – colin powell.

dr. powell is a very impressive and charismatic fellow. he has a good sense of humour and gives the impression of a knowledgeable person. he started his talk with a joke “i am very happy to be welcome here at rsa.” *pause* “in fact, i’m happy to be welcome just about anywhere.” :)

his talk was fascinating and fluent. his presentation draws you in.

after his presentation was done i had the chance to let my excitement dissipate, i was very disappointed. such an amazing talk, and all i could think of was “what, that’s it? how disappointing”. yes, i did just contradict myself. i will elaborate to illustrate how that works.

-. dr. powell’s talk was very well rehearsed, to a point where it was impossible to tell if he was “just that good” or if he gave it a thousand times before.

-. it almost seemed to be constructed of a circle of two “cool stories” or “name dropping stories” (both types of which i enjoyed and wanted more of) mentioning gorbachev or an historical item of interest between morocco and spain. then, dr. powell would mention his own pitch. whether something he cares about or a pitch for what he is paid to pitch (made in tact and in relevance to the topic at hand, which i found to be appropriate. there was only one such commercial pitch i detected, and it was straight-forward).

-. from the “cool stories” one in two would have relevance to security, and the rest would be about what he believes in or his insight into how the world works (the four e’s, the soviet union and china – let’s not forget terrorism though).

-. the talk wasn’t political on the surface, but very ideological. i enjoyed and was somewhat moved by dr. powell’s sentiments. it seemed like he did not want to make any political statements yet the ones he did make were hidden behind generalities and popular issues.

the theme of his talk was security, but only as a support-point to his “i believe”, in a very optimistic fashion. the talk was about how “we have done good even if things look grim” hence the soviet union part of the story and the “we live in a friendly world after all” – counting continents and their population in contrast with the “axis of evil” countries and their population as well as how education is key if the united states is to compete in a changing world, china and how it is a friendly regime that changes with time, and how most importantly he believes that with any security considerations, what it means to be american and how it must never be lost, as “it is what makes us great”, must never be put aside.
all the above said and now behind us, his talk was very well constructed or in other words probably indeed very well rehearsed and very likely even built with the help of a professional speech writer or marketer. his mild points were quite smart.

so.. so… so…. i was just plain and simple disappointed. how can i be disappointed after i said i loved his talk? because he could do so much better.

when he mentioned security and specifically it, it was in a highlight or bullet-point fashion. here are examples:

-. his vc employer works on a system which will let people access all their medical records online, which means they will be able to choose doctors anywhere, and even rate them. he mentioned there are security implications which would need to be considered. then he moved on. security implications? no kidding.

-. back at the first gulf war, “generals went on tv and said we are going to get lost in all that desert”. he said he laughed and “went and bought all gps devices in every wal-mart in america” (wal-mart pitch or general cultural note?). then, at a time almost before the big internet hit, they saw the beginning of the information age where every vehicle and even every soldier could be tracked and ordered anywhere and of course, “how do we stop the enemy from having that same information?” he then moved on.

-. after his retirement, he went on a commercial flight. he showed up on the spot, paid in cash, one direction and traveled alone (i think that’s what he said). he was naturally “randomly selected” and checked by the wand “one of you probably invented”. he joked about his frustration when the tsa employee asked him “and how is your day, mr. powell”? joking of saying “if you know who i am, why don’t you go check that line for osama bin laden and leave me alone? after that story, he told of a meeting between him and president bush and how he mentioned that they became a lot better at policy and procedures over the “past year and a half”, leading once again to a later story on how they must not lose being americans, welcoming to the world, etc. then his stopped yet again. a bit more on procedures or policy (even making, thought process or funding issues would have been interesting rather than just discussing popular opinions, frustrations and reassurances made by discussing “something completely unrelated”).
when it comes down to it, every word dr. powell says is very likely on somebody’s radar and his words are carefully chosen (as a friendly passenger shared his thoughts with me in the atlanta airport). further, he was a keynote, and never went beyond highlights. perhaps he speaks more on these issues in his books or in closed sessions.

either way, although it was a keynote and i did not have many expectations to start with, and as the friendly airport passenger who listened to my gripes mentioned – it was a public forum and he probably couldn’t say much more – he could do so much more. he has so much knowledge and experience to draw from and yet we had to enjoy him as a good entertainer and the impressive feeling of his presence, rather than anything meaningful. it felt to me almost like the tsa – the feeling of security rather than real security. it’s all about perception.
he did teach me about not using the 5-kilo hammer (like bad authors, as orson scott card would say, and elaborate, rather slowly and illustratively over the presentation (or story). one story at a time you will get closer to your point and bring the audience closer to your point of view. points made, much like changes affected, can come in big blows or small steps. he chose the latter, leading his auidence in amazing skill, which must be similar to what a professional story-teller must be like.

thinking of all this again, it is indeed important to show how we overcame past obstacles and built a better world rather than discuss just how bad things seem to be (strike that) are. don’t just learn from history, use it for morale.
just two weeks ago at isoi 2, robert slade mentioned in his talk many challenges the anti virus world faced over the past 30 years and how all these serious threats that were monetized in a fashion that made them petrifying to both the public and the experts, from polymorphic viruses to this or that buzzword, and how we over-came them all and we will overcome this and that yet again.

a note of optimism based on past events. a good thing. also, declaring victory (or success) is indeed just as important as having accomplished it. the declaration is just as important if not more so (in his talk, the cold war and the friendly world around the us was it).

one thing dr. powell was very open and clear about was how the united states has many friends (see number game above as well as stories told). it was also clear how he sees the united states as the leader of the world. i can’t argue with his points. with that in mind, through-out his talk, especially when he spoke about how everyone wants to come to america as tourists, students or maybe to stay, and how they should be allowed to do so rather than be forced to seek alternatives “even in the middle east, saudi arabia now has great universities and hospitals” (he was a lot more careful than me, i’m just reading between the lines with what i saw there – could be read differently)…… all i could think of was rome and the demise of rome.

someone told me not too long ago to consider the united kingdom, and brits, in a different light. before the first world war they were the largest empire in the world, and a world leader. after the war to end all wars (or not so much), just a few years later, they lost their status and power. i am not sure where we are headed today with china, and of the future of the united states of america. surprises can always present themselves and aliens can land in pakistan.

one matter which dr. powell took for granted and is most likely correct is the us’s place in the world as a leader (he gave examples of how the us is treated that way rather than how it treats itself in that fashion). this could be considered an ego ‘thang’ in other places around the world. i suppose one of the us’s problems is that the important speeches need to be given in english rather than a local tongue like in many other places around the world, making them much easier to be scrutinized. perhaps stating it is more important than being it. it is likely a matter of policy. i do hope the us one day doesn’t wake up and decides to over-compensate in the other direction by “doing a microsoft” and trying their best to look harmless and considerate to a point of firing people who do otherwise – of course i am speaking of the browser wars and how microsoft acted in those years which made many in the industry weary of the giant, and caused microsoft to completely change its policy.

i really enjoyed your talk dr. powell, but would appreciate more than what you can come up with your speech writer next time. you spoke of leaders in history you look up to, who in common, could face reality and make difficult choices, and speak plain fully of what’s really happening. you spoke of the chinese model of “we don’t care if it’s red or blue as long as it works…”. how about some of what your choices are and the thought process leading to them? how about choices you believe need to be made? what is reality as you see it, rather than the “elvis is alive” joke with the japanese leader (which by the way, i liked). how about being more like your example of gorbachev, which you seemed to like, who said after being rude (meaning just blunt) on not getting enough cooperation “mr. powell i am sorry, but you will have to find a new enemy” after you just didn’t get the point he was trying to make about him wanting change?

i was very impressed by you, i just wish you would be as impressed with me as your audience and allow yourself to speak your mind and if you can’t, at least share with me, your audience, a bit of your thinking process or perhaps just some considerations while making some of these decisions.

than.. it was just a keynote.

i learned a lot, thank you,

gadi evron,

  • Audience

    Actually he said that he went and bought every GPS from all the Radio Shacks in the country. He did not mention Wal-Mart.

  • Emma

    you know, i am studying about him and you gave the shittiest info!

  • sunshine

    Than use other sources that fit what you want. This was me typing very quickly at the Atlanta airport, waiting for a flight and being annoyed.
    To be honest, blogging is about getting “it” out there, not so much as about proper writing. Looking at this poor text (with fine ideas buried in it) again I can honestly say it was written as thought. I like it, but I am likely the only one! :)