President Frank Underwood dropped wisdom at Cisco Live on tech, risk taking, and VR

No one succeeds by playing it safe and the digital transformation of the world is just the beginning. Kevin Spacey and his alter ego, Frank Underwood, gave advice in an off-color speech at Cisco Live.

Kevin Spacey delivered part of the Cisco Live closing keynote as President Frank Underwood.
Image: House of Cards

An unexpected guest delivered part of the closing keynote at Cisco Live in Las Vegas, when Kevin Spacey stepped on stage in character as the ruthless President Frank Underwood from the Netflix original series House of Cards.

"I derive zero pleasure from this sort of shit. I have a warm bath and a bottle of bourbon waiting for me in my room, so I'm just going to try to get through this as fast as I can," said Spacey, as President Underwood.

"As they say, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, except for syphilis, brother. That will follow you back to whatever cesspool you came from," he said in Underwood's distinctly South Carolina accent. The audience roared its approval, showing the popularity of both Spacey and President Underwood.

"But I won't do my speech as President Underwood," Spacey said, reverting back to his own voice. "Even though I know I wasn't their number one choice to speak today. They invited Hillary Clinton first," Spacey said, setting up the audience for his next joke.

Spacey began impersonating Bill Clinton and said, "You know, she emailed right back. But then, out of habit, she immediately deleted it."

Quick as a whip, Spacey switched back to himself. "And I understand they asked Donald Trump. The Donald wanted to be here today, he really did. But as part of his bankruptcy ruling he's not allowed within 500 feet of a casino. But the problem is, Donald doesn't really understand what you guys do. When he hears the term broadband, he thinks you're talking about the Dixie Chicks."

Spacey said, "Since you guys clearly couldn't get the former secretary of state or the Donald, you recruited the next best thing. Me. Because I'm not a real politician, I just play one on television. But I know what you're all thinking, what the hell am I doing here?"

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"Maybe the best way to get your attention to try to get an intimate feeling going here today right off the bat is to tell you some really juicy Hollywood gossip. But, no. No. That low-brow stuff you don't go for, doesn't interest you. You're a group of serious minded professionals," he said, as the audience encouraged him to spill all.

"You might prefer a 45-minute dissertation on the architectural flexibility of the Nexus 9000 series. And the advantage of a scalable virtual extendable LAN multi-tenancy," he added.

In response to the cheers from the audience, Spacey said, "That's right, I know your fucking terms. I can talk about that if I wanted to. And I would do that if I had any idea of what I just said."

By this point, Spacey had the rapt audience hanging onto his every word, so he explained, more seriously, that he really wanted to share his input on the art of storytelling and how it can benefit everyone.

A great story is compelling

"Stories are the very substance of what we all experience and we can't get enough of stories. A good story can touch our hearts. A great story can bond us together. A bad one can tear us apart. Stories are at the center of what we all share together. We're told stories on stage, on screen, on television, in books, in music, around the campfire, on Snapchat. And even now on these networks called Amazon and Hulu... And even on this little network called Netflix," he said.

Everyone is in the business of storytelling. Through social media, it's clear that everyone has a personal style, a brand, a flair, he said.

"These stories may be the ones that allow us to connect on a deeper level. What really separates Starbucks from any other coffee chain? Is it really because they make the best cup of coffee going? Probably not... And what's the difference between American Express and any other credit card company going?"

The difference is the story they are able to communicate, he said, pointing out the Italian wording at Starbucks and how it allows them to sell a $1 cup of coffee for $4 because it's called a Venti Americano. "They do whatever it takes to continue to sell that story they've created."

Now is the ideal time for companies to take advantage of storytelling to stand out from the crowd because of the merging of technologies and new apps.

"We live in an age now that has leveled the playing field so much that we all have the ability to tell stories," he said. "But now that we're all talking, who's listening? I mean, in television, for example, there used to be just a few networks to choose from: ABC, NBC, CBS. But today, there are literally millions of channels. So how do you break through?

"Impossible, do you think? You tell that to Netflix. A company that just a handful of years ago was actually sending DVD's in the mail. Just think about that for a second. DVD's in the mail. In a few years that sentence will sound as obsolete as sending cassette tapes by carrier pigeon."

Spacey suggested that everyone think about what drives them to share content with someone else, adding that it is ultimately a great story that pushes it.

"Create something that you find compelling and others will too. Don't try to create for the masses. Tell your own story. Tell what you know. That's what gets me to share content," Spacey said.

Learning to take risks

Spacey said from his own experiences producing, directing and acting, he's developed ideas about how to engage audiences in this digital age. He said he grew up with parents who loved literature and books and who watched TV together as a family.

Spacey told his own personal story, from his days in a drama class with his idol Jack Lemmon as his instructor when he was 13 years old, and a nerd. "Yes that's right, I was the guy you all made fun of in drama class. Wait, I forgot. This is a room full of computer geeks. We were all made fun of," he said.

He attended Juilliard, and then he was determined to get a part as Jack Lemmon's son in the Broadway play, Long Day's Journey into Night, but he hadn't talked to Lemmon since the acting class 11 years earlier. To land the role, he knew he needed to meet the play's director Jonathan Miller, so he ended up taking a risk and stealing a cocktail party invitation out of an elderly woman's purse while attending a lecture where Miller was speaking, so that he could try to meet him at the party afterward.

Spacey said when he saw the invitation sticking out of the woman's purse after she'd fallen asleep during the lecture, he couldn't resist the temptation. "So the little angel on my right shoulder is telling me to ignore it and focus on the lecture. But the little devil on my left is making a pretty good argument. 'Oh, she's tired. She probably won't even go to that party. She knows everyone anyway. She can get in without a ticket.' And so I very carefully pulled this invitation out of her Chanel bag and put it in my pocket and then I moved seats. I know. I know. It's terrible."

Spacey said, "Whenever I look back on the choices and decisions that have shaped my career and my life I find that taking risks has been an important and rewarding refrain. I'd spent the better part of the 90's to focus on seeing whether I could build a film career for myself. Frankly, things couldn't have gone better. I hope I've done a number of films that have stood the test of time."

After a series of hit movies, including The Usual Suspects, Seven, Glengarry Glen Ross, LA Confidential and American Beauty, he said, "publicists were rubbing their hands together thinking, 'the gravy train has pulled into the station, we're going to cash in.'"

But Spacey had something else in mind. "I was interested in doing something that might be outside of what might be expected. I was looking for something to challenge me in a different and new way."

The next big risk he said he took was moving to London in 2003 to run the Old Vic theater for 12 years. "I'd dreamed of running a theater all my life.

"While I did, it's true, disappear from films for a while, my decision to go run the Old Vic led to one of the most fulfilling periods of my life. I hope I'm a better actor, a better producer, but more importantly a better person. Without the experience I had over the last 12 years in London I'd have never been ready to take on a role like Frank Underwood," he said.

Binge watching

The concept of binge watching is a fairly new one. Television has a powerful pull, and the ability to binge watch a series has resonated with audiences. Nearly every hand popped up when Spacey asked, "Who is a binger in this room?"

Spacey and David Fincher shopped around the story idea for House of Cards and everyone said they needed a pilot--until they went to Netflix. They gave Spacey the freedom to create as many episodes as he wanted to start with, and no pilot was required, which gave him the creative freedom to develop the characters through two entire seasons.

It was the first original series for Netflix, and they were still virtually a mail-order DVD company at that point. "We weren't asked to compromise or water down the story we wanted to tell by anyone," he said.

They decided to release each season at one time, so that viewers could choose how many episodes to watch at a time.

"You want control. You want the freedom. And if people want to hook themselves up to Netflix for the weekend and mainline and see a whole season of their favorite show, we should let them. Let them binge I say," Spacey said. "I can't tell you how many times people have stopped me on the street and said, 'Thanks a lot, Spacey, you'd sucked three days out of my life. Thanks a lot.'"

But with stories, even as long ago as The Canterbury Tales and Gulliver's Travels, people haven't been able to put a book down until they know how it ended, and binge TV watching is the same concept, he said.

"Although with this new approach to distribution I think we have demonstrated we have learned what the music industry didn't learn. Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it, and they'll more than likely pay for it rather than steal it. What's truly exciting for me now, as I said when I started, we're at this dawn of a new era of creativity," he said, mentioning the unexpected popularity of Hamilton on Broadway, as an example, since no one had any idea that a hip-hop musical about our country's founding fathers would be such a hit.

"So sometimes we have all this data, we can look at all this research, to try to figure out what people might respond to. Sometimes that has to be put aside and we have to just trust our own visions and creativity. That's a valuable, valuable thing to remember," he said.

AR and VR as tools for stories

Augmented reality and virtual reality are two technologies that provide new tools for telling stories.

"Or maybe it's something else entirely. Robotics, or 3D printing or artificial intelligence or distributed manufacturing or space technology or the internet of all things or nanotechnology. Or all of it. The next frontier as far as I'm concerned, and this is what I'm truly excited by, is interactivity and immersion. Virtual reality and augmented reality are growing at such a rapid rate that the technology is now at such a point we are able to construct virtual and completely immersive worlds for our audiences and the video gaming industry has already proved it," he said.

VR is "at a moment where it is portable and it's affordable and graphics are at such a high quality that they don't get in the way of the experience," he said, mentioning other fields such as medicine, engineering and sports where it is in use. Education is another area where VR could benefit others.

"Just for a second consider the school classroom. Can we think of any other working space that hasn't evolved in almost its entire existence? It's the same as it was 1,000 years ago. A teacher in the front, blackboard behind them, students filling out in the back of the room," he said.

VR could transport students by bringing remarkable teachers to them, he said.

"This is just the beginning. The tip of the iceberg. I truly believe that AR/VR will be a quantum leap for storytellers just as the motion picture was a century ago," he said.

"And now it's up to us to see how we can apply it. Not just to VR and augmented reality but also through so many other platforms that exist now or that we can't even imagine now," he said.

"It's no longer just about connecting with people, it's more than that. It's about engaging with our audiences one on one in their own space in their own time. Because we no longer live in a linear world. And we no longer live in a world that's just okay and happy to stick with the status quo."

Final words of advice from Kevin Spacey

On placing bets: "So let me conclude with two pieces of advice that I've learned that you can take to the casino floor. One, do not eat free shrimp in the desert. Trust me. And two, place your bet on those who are not afraid to challenge the powers that be. Place your bet on those who are never interested in settling, who are never afraid to shake things up. They might call you crazy for dropping out of Juilliard with no job and prospects, which I did. They might think you're senseless from walking away from a successful film career to run a theater for 12 years. They might call you foolish for making a political drama with an online streaming service. They might call you nuts for taking a production of Shakespeare around the globe and thinking it could be profitable. And they might laugh in your face for appearing in a video game. That's right. I was in Call of Duty. And they might call you a bad person for stealing shit from an old lady's handbag. But make no mistake. No one ever breaks new ground by playing it safe."

On pushing boundaries: "And if you are as intense as I am in pushing the boundaries of your work and challenging your audiences, then you need to always try to be a step ahead to surprise them, to maybe even inspire them. To take them to new places they've never been because they want to go. They're dying to go. It's entirely up to us as to whether we're going to be inviting and take them along."

On battling mediocrity: "If you already fit this description then I salute you. We should all aspire to be innovative. We should all be in a battle with mediocrity. We should all be interested in and willing to break the boundaries. Because If there's one thing that overlaps business and art is that in the end, it is the risk takers who are rewarded."

And from President Underwood: "Today, the last words of my speech belong to Frank Underwood. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted."

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Telling great stories is what enables you to connect to audiences (and customers), and VR and AR are going to enable us to do that in powerful new ways.
  2. Push the boundaries of your work and challenge your audiences.
  3. We should all be in a battle with mediocrity.

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