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Ten Things That Drive Me Crazy About Conference Talks, And How To Avoid Them

If I’m counting right, Ruby Midwest is my fifth conference this year, which is I guess one of the perks of having an employer that likes being involved in the community. It’s great – I like meeting all the smart people involved with Ruby, I learn things, and sometimes people ask me to sign my book. (Okay, that happened once. Still, that’s more than zero.)

At the risk of shooting myself in the foot forty-eight hours before I go give my own talk, here’s a list I compiled for a lightning talk at a recent Groupon Geekfest, entitled 10 Things That Drive Me Crazy About Conference Presentations. I offer it with love and respect. I also note that I’ve committed at least five of these, and will probably commit at least one of them on Friday when I go on at Ruby Midwest.

Here’s the big takeaway: if you are going to the trouble of delivering a live presentation, you need to think of it as a performance, and you need to offer something to the audience that they wouldn’t be able to get from watching the slides.

Coincidentally, Merlin Mann covers similar points from a different perspective on a recent Back to Work Podcast. A lot of good advice there.

Hey, I’m not perfect at this, and posting this pretty much guarantees an epic failure on Friday, but maybe this will help you.

Here’s my list:

1. Underprepared

Do I need to explain this one? Generally my marker here is if the speaker seems surprised by the content of their slides, they are probably underprepared. This isn’t just stumbling around, though. To me it also applies to things like not seeming to know why you are giving the talk, or what you want me, the viewer, to understand when you are done.

If you can’t answer the questions “Who am I aiming this talk at”, “What is the one thing those people should leave this talk thinking”, and “Why is this story going to be compelling to those people”, you are underprepared.

Being nervous is a separate, but related issue. The best fix for presentation nerves that I know of is practice.

2. Overprepared

Yes, it is possible to be overprepared for a presentation. The symptom of this is usually a word for word script that the presenter is reading from, and not paying attention to the audience. The problem, though, is that your talk is brittle, and you won’t be able to adjust to an unexpected audience or environment.

3. Hiding

Most of these conferences are in rooms that are not designed for a performance by a single speaker. Think about a comedy club. The stage is small, not very high, and it’s in the middle. The audience is close together and close to the stage. This is a good environment for a performance.

Picture a hotel ballroom. The speaker is often set up in a corner, frequently behind a podium. The audience is often ten or fifteen feet away, and there is often a lot more space than people. That’s a hard way to go.

Don’t hide behind the podium. Move around. My biggest regret of the whole conference year was not insisting on a body mike at a conference, and having to give a talk from behind a podium. Own the space. You want people focusing on you first and the slides second.

4. Not interacting

A related point. Pay attention to the audience. In a tech conference situation, you are competing with everybody’s laptop and phone, which is to say you are competing with the entire Internet. Can you be more interesting than the entire Internet? At least for a few minutes?

People will pay attention to you as a speaker if they think you are paying attention to them. “[Insert Town] audiences are the greatest audiences in the world” is a huge performing cliché. You know why? Because it works. Anything that gets people involved gives them a little investment in paying attention.

When I was in college, I’d start stand-up sets by coming out with a tape recorder holding it up and explaining that I was recording the performance for my mother, and I’d really appreciate it if the audience could give me one big laugh. Cheesy? Practically coated in cheddar. Effective? Yes.

5. “My Tool Is Great”

This is a type of talk that bugs me. I gave one like this once, and it bugged me when I gave it. Define a problem. Don’t talk about any general part of the problem, just talk about your awesome tool that nobody else is using and why it’s awesomeness is overwhelming. Frequently, this involves ignoring any other way of solving the problem.

6. “My Company Is Great”

Oy. This one usually goes like this:

“At my company we have the perfect process. We never have meetings. In fact, if more than two people show up in the same room, we beat them with sticks. We deploy once every microsecond, and everybody can ask for a deploy, including the people at the company across the hall. We exist in a state of perfect harmony. If you are not like us, your company is substandard. Is that why you are sad? Join us.”

It’s a bit much, and I say that speaking as somebody who has generally been proud to identify with the companies I’ve worked for. What’s usually missing is a) the context of why good processes have taken hold at your company and b) what those of us who are not blessed can do to make progress toward Nirvana.

7. Trendy Slides

A personal pet peeve, and I don’t expect this to bother you as much as it bothers me. In a way, this is another standup thing. It’s easy to get a laughter from an audience without actually being clever. You can shock them, you can flatter them.

For me – and I think I may be alone in this – putting the latest meme in your presentation just because it’s there is in the same category. It’s quick, easy, the audience will react, but ultimately it’s a distraction from what you are trying to. Remember, you want the audience to focus on you, not the slides.

That said, it is possible to add a meme or something cleverly. It’s just that the bar is pretty high.

8. Illegible slides

Let’s make this simple: every word on your slides that is communicating information needs to be clearly legible from 50 feet away, period. The body text on the presentation I’m giving friday is 96 points. With the exception of a few code slides, there are fewer than 15 words on a slide – this is a performance, not an eye exam.

Dark text on light background is usually more visible in a projector context than light text on a dark background.

9. Not knowing the audience

This comes in a couple of forms.

  • Not knowing that your audience may have a different expertise or knowledge level than you expect.
  • Not realizing that people in the audience may be different in general, and have different reference points, or different standards of what is uncomfortable or offensive. They may have genders or nationalities different from your own. That doesn’t mean you have to be bland, but it does mean you need to be aware that there’s a wider world out there.

10. Incomplete lists of ten

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2 responses to “Ten Things That Drive Me Crazy About Conference Talks, And How To Avoid Them

  1. Karmen Blake (@kblake) November 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Excellent!! I hope people follow your advice. 🙂

  2. Prakash Murthy (@_prakash) November 5, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    I am surprised more people don’t ask you to sign their copy of the Rails Prescriptions book like I did at the Rocky Mountain Ruby conf! 🙂

    Don’t agree about the trendy slides point…. if used well, it can serve the purpose of providing a refreshing break for everyone (the speaker and the audience).

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