if it was *my* conference… (or, what makes a good presentation)

Empty Conference

While I was at the recent EuroIA conference I wrote a few notes on what I’d ask people to do if they wanted to ‘present’.

I was partly inspired by my recent experience of BarCamp London, and the fact that I was surrounded by smart and creative people at EuroIA, but that it didn’t feel like this was being projected as best it could.

Here’s my list of ‘what makes a good presentation’:

  1. be specific, don’t talk in generalisations, don’t be too high level. This is really unsatisfying and ultimately frustrating – particularly if lots of other speakers are taking the same ‘top level’ approach!
  2. give real examples. Put your ideas in context, SHOW us what you mean, tell us the story that surrounds the example, the context. Help us understand how you know what you know.
  3. details people, I want details! If you don’t have time to go into detail, then your topic is too broad. Pick a narrower topic and really explore it. It’s much more interesting. Sure, it might not appeal to *everyone* in the audience, but they’ll self select and go get a coffee and do some networking if your topic is not for them. For the people who *do* stay, your talk will be so much more valuable.
  4. show me! if you’re talking about a project you’ve worked on, then show me your work! If you’re talking about something technical, then show us some code (yep, even if you’re talking to Information Architects). Be brave! Sure, this might open you up to some criticism, but that will spark interesting conversation, which is the reason we come to conferences, isn’t it?!
  5. take a position. Don’t sit on the fence, don’t take the middle ground. Talk about something you have an opinion on, and something you believe in. Be passionate about it. Again – this requires bravery because no doubt there will be people with an opposing opinion. See item 4 re: interesting conversation.
  6. be prepared and professional. If you don’t take your presentation seriously, then how are we supposed to. Don’t just wing it. Don’t just rehash something you did six months ago and trust yourself to remember it. Know what you’re going to say, prepare great materials (powerpoint, if you must) and rehearse. Present well.
  7. practice, in front of people. Find some colleagues or clients or anyone who might be vaguely interested in what you’re presenting (dogs don’t count). Present to them. Ask them for feedback. Listen. Iterate.
  8. be creative. Try something different. Don’t feel that you have to do a certain kind of talk (the academic type) to be considered credible. Think of novel ways to present your material, ways that might help convey your point more effectively. Ways that might break up the day for the audience. Take a risk. Even if it doesn’t quite come off, the audience will thank you for the variety.

Conference organisers can change they way they call for an evaluate papers by specifically requiring that presenters consider these kinds of approaches in their proposals. Or by mixing up the types of presentation structures they recruit for.

Can we come up with something beyond Presentation or Panel or Poster sessions and actually design new, more hands on, practical formats that we make presenters work to? Can we make sure that a Case Study is not just a Presentation in disguise?

Of course, there’s a place for formal academic style conference formats, but if your conferences is more about practitioners than academics, then let’s make sure the content is appropriate to the audience.

But hey, I’m no expert in conference organising or speaking. These are just a few notes I jotted down after the closing keynote of EuroIA.

What do you think?

(Also, check out Scott Berkun’s ‘how to run a great unconference session’ for the BarCamp version of this post.

Photo Credit: Arnold Pouteau @ Flickr

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6 thoughts on “if it was *my* conference… (or, what makes a good presentation)

  1. These are good tips–I’ve been meaning to write a post on presentations based on what I’ve learned from the podcast jam. It’s interesting to hear everyone’s different styles and realize that each person can have her or his own style, and that’s okay. But still, there are better and worse ways to get ideas across, like you point out.

  2. aah, now that would be interesting… the difference between doing a good ‘live’ presentation and a good podcast.

    I suspect I’ve broken a few of the good podcast rules already! (particularly if one of them is ‘edit your podcast before you send it!) :)

  3. Most people didn’t edit their podcasts, and I think that’s reasonable–a conversational tone in a podcast makes it friendly.

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