The Art of Speaking at Conferences

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Speaking at conferences, and public speaking in general, is not a straightforward matter. The following subjective diagram illustrates what I mean: public speaking dimensions

Explanation to the matrix:

  • content: purely informative, with interesting content, but an unimaginative, factual, and possibly slightly boring delivery.
  • entertainment: bringing entertainment to the party, moving the souls of all involved, raising the spirits, taking them for an enjoyable ride, but people will wonder afterwards what the presentation was about.
  • the golden quadrant, content + entertainment: both interesting and rich content, presented in a way that makes it a joy for the people to hear.
  • let’s not speak about the bottom left quadrant. You don’t want to be there.

This is probably more a spectrum than a clearly defined matrix, you can be closer to one edge of the cell than the other, the limits are fuzzy, but let’s go with this for simplicity’s sake.

I personally think that a skilful presenter will land squarely in the content + entertainment quadrant.

A conference is not a university course. Conferences are often full-day or multiple-day affairs. There is no way you can present too much condensed content to an audience and expect them to stay alert and interested. The idea of a conference talk is to make people curious, encourage them to have a closer look at a topic, library or concept, not to force-feed them information. As we all know, giving an emotional payload to content makes it more memorable. The entertainment part of a presentation is intended to fulfill that role.

On the other hand, they do come to your talk to be informed, so having pure fluff is not going to cut it either. Treat your audience like the bunch of intelligent developers they are, if they wanted to watch pure entertainment they would probably do so elsewhere.

The best recipe is to see the presentation not as a summary of information, but as a story to tell the audience, with a beginning and an end, downfalls and victories. Using gimmicks and effects is allowed: I love Jim Weirich’s presenter style, he has a deep story teller’s voice, and I’ll always remember that presentation he started by whipping out a ukulele and playing a song. Adding personal anecdotes and conveying enthousiasm and emotion can do no harm to your cause. Slides can be colorful and attractive.

Interestingly, conference attendants also situate themselves on different parts of the quadrant. I had a discussion with Konstantin Haase and Josh Kalderimis on this very topic last year, about a presentation that was clearly in the content quadrant. The presenter had interesting material but droned on a bit, and had clearly expended no effort on his slides. Konstantin had enjoyed the presentation, while Josh was very bored and thought it was pretty bad.

Personally, I probably fall a bit too much on the content part of the quadrant. I like to research my topics to the extreme, and my presentation are probably slightly too packed with facts and devoid of ukuleles. One lives to learn.

Speakers of the world, leave your bullet points at home. Bring food to the table, but let your creative minds loose. You’ll only make your presentations better.