Blog Pile

Blunt Force Presentation Trauma

Ow, my head.

Modified from cc licensed flickr photo by bionerd

I’ve complained about the insanity of conference presentations for longer than I have blogged. To no end, I find myself continually in come sort of presentation induced coma again and again– and as often as not these too are online presentations. You can whack me over the head with a dull session even remotely. My doctors can only guess about the long term damage to the cortex.

For the most part, it can feel like 95% of presentations I see are in the vein of a lecture- a 50 minute speech to a passive audience. My head hurts.

The fires are stirred up again with a recent post by Chris Brogan on Own the Crowd with Better Speaking – I’ve heard this name before via twitter and such, but had never ventured into his blog space. Apparently, he is a high powered speaking agent who has even managed to have a real personal assistant who volunteers to do that work.

So he is onto some good juju..

The point he makes is one that resonates, that each presentation be focused from the beginning on the audience’s personal question of WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”)

Know why I started the post the way I did? I was following this speaking tips post where it says to start each speech by answering “what’s in it for me.” That is vital.

Know what most people do? They start with “blah blah blah about me, thanks to everyone who ever put on a conference, etc, etc etc.

Engage people immediately and they will be with you.

That’s not just sales talk or corporate schlock, that is basic (I am guessing because it is not me field) human psychology.

That is simple.

So why do most people go down the “blah blah blah about me” road? Don’t they ever experience the audience end of the stick?

Here’s my reaction… if you do not grab my attention with your message, a tease of what I will get, at an in-person conference, I am heads down in my laptop doing other things. I’m in mail, twitter, getting my boarding pass, buying music…. In an online conference, I am in the other room barfing, getting coffee, or in another desktop window, or just exiting the conference software.

I am gone.

Now for a lot of folks, this may be feel like a lot to for ask in a presentation, like you have to me Mr or Mrs Charisma.

But does not call for fire works or a Sermon from the Reverend. It’s really two sentences, like, “I am going to share with you some controversial results of our research study on media integration- yes, connective use of YouTube content can do XXXXXX’ or “With a little help from my colleagues in the foreign language department, we created this resource that students help generate an entire online encyclopedia of Xxxxxxxx”.

It is speaking in conversational voice, not robot monotone. Surely we all engage in conversations where we don;t prop our thoughts in word slides and C.V.s?

Or it does not even need to be specific as to “this is what I am going to conclude.” Maybe even like, “Hi, my name is Alan. I teach Biology, and know crap about technology, but wait until you see what my students taught me”.

Give us a hint of what is to come. It is the basic premise of a movie trailer or a 30 second ad. We swim in this kind of media message multiple times a day, but we don’t use the method.

I draw my own parallel with the little known Levine’e Law of Technology Demos otherwise known as “Start with the #*$+ing Demo!”

Again and again I see and have seen these talks that start off with Background (bullets); then Rationale (bullets); History (bullets)… Cute Pictures of My Kid…. and what I came for, to actually see the thing being discussed? is crammed into a hurried five minutes.

To me this is criminally negligent and in some societies punishable by whipping (with a cold wet noodle, I am not condoning violence).

So here is the meat- if you are telling me some chunk of information I can read or get elsewhere later (e.g. where you got those long list of degrees, the history of a project, the general features of a technology), you are wasting my time and energy — what you want to do IMHO is minimize the amount of your 50 minute slot in using it for stuff I can find later.

Give me the live juice.

Be human. I see so much this expectation of coming off as some sort of academic expert in white Gandalf garb. It lends people down the path of monotonic speaking, or worse, reading to the helpless, trapped, and bored stiff audience. Those are human people out there, and will connect better if you speak, walk, stand like one, no like some talking robot.

Involve me. This is harder, but if you are talking at me, I am just a victim of being hit over the with content. Poll people. Ask for hand raises. Call on people. I have been mesmerized watching natural speakers like Cynthia Cologne stroll out into the audience, look people in the eye, roll them into her message. She speaks with quiet passion. Get away from the podium, the mouse, the pointer. Be with your audience, not in front of them.

Do not make the slides your crutch. Visuals are important, but often it seems like all of the effort is put into the pretty pictures and doily backgrounds… spend time charting your message. Don’t talk to the slides; even try with planning a talk where there are just rotating visuals in the background.

Brogan also makes the point I nod at to give your audience some take-aways… but I think of it in terms of publishing your presentation. Now this is where I get an itch under my fur- I see again and again where someone describes a talk they gave and provides a link to the presentation, say on a site like slideshare– and it is all a series of unintelligible, de-contextualized pictures.

This has increases as people thankfully embrace more of the Presentation Zen style approach– but I keep wanting to shout from a mountain THE PRESENTATION FILE IS NOT THE PRESENTATION. My estimates are about 80% of shared slide decks are useless clutter of media without the message. I’ve stopped going to look if there is nothing besides the deck. Mostly I find a bunch of glassy images or two word giant text word slides that tell me nothing. Methinks there may be almost too much zen, if that is even possible.

This means providing speaker notes in/with the presentation file. Or providing a wiki with links mentioned. Or publishing an audio recording of the presentation, better yet, synchronized to the slides. Setting up a ning or discussion site to follow-up. Share a link to a tagged set of related content.

I can think of many people who do this. Almost every conference presentation Stephen Downes does, he aims to provide a recorded audio with the slides. Check out how Jim Groom shared his Word Camp Ed presentation– if you had just the slides alone, it is almost nothing more than a fun flip book; but he shares as well an audio recording done by a colleague and his speaker notes.

That is providing context.

I am not suggesting we all become Steve Jobs (or maybe it is time to invest in companies that make black turtlenecks) or even than I have the “answer” for how to do stunning presentations (I say “ummm” too much and misjudge my available time).

I am suggesting we can do better by using the synchronous time we have together more effectively and following with more meaningful content for the asynchronous components. To me it is a cop out to say, “Oh I am not creative” or “I don’t have time to make it fancy”. There are like 5 quadrillion slide decks on Slideshare. There are books and seminars. Watch the TED videos. Borrow and steal (and give credit).

Guy Kawasaki has a related condition called Ménière’s disease

The symptoms of Ménière’s include hearing loss, tinnitus (a constant ringing sound), and vertigo. There are many medical theories about its cause: too much salt, caffeine, or alcohol in one’s diet, too much stress, and allergies. Thus, I’ve worked to limit control all these factors.

However, I have another theory. As a venture capitalist, I have to listen to hundreds of entrepreneurs pitch their companies. Most of these pitches are crap: sixty slides about a “patent pending,” “first mover advantage,” “all we have to do is get 1% of the people in China to buy our product” startup. These pitches are so lousy that I’m losing my hearing, there’s a constant ringing in my ear, and every once in while the world starts spinning.

and prescribes a 10/20/30 rule for avoiding spreading the disease.

But I say just blow the whole slide deck approach apart. Believe me, you will stand out in the conference if you are not chained to the clicker. I don’t have the recipe, but you can bet if you see me talk, I will be the anti zombie talk model.

I’ve been working last few days for some media for an NMC talk my colleagues and I are doing Monday for the Program for the Future event; which, to be honest has my knees knocking considering the rest of the panel and audience. But we will have zero slides, no Powerpoint. There will be a video of background images and media, that set the stage,, but do not frame or dictate the conversation.

I have no idea if it will work, but I am going to roll the dice and give it a try.

So how will you change your talk game? Maybe your style is a more stunning read-along slide deck than I have seen, and I am full of horse doodie. Go ahead and start a presentation with your bio and then read me your bullets. Show me inscrutable charts. Give me a link to a 50Mb Powerpoint that has no information beyond cool photos. And by all means do not show me the @#*ing demo.

Just be sure to provide more defibrillators in the auditorium.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)


  1. You’re right, of course. I’ve given up on the text slides, and the photo slides I post to my slideshare a/c are largely pointless. There are no notes to provide context, and it’s often not clear what the storyline is…

    …but I’m still trying to find a style that works for me…

    …and maybe you’re not the person I’m publishing the slides for anyway (I use slideshare as *my* slidedeck archive space)?

    So here are a couple or more disconnected thoughts:

    1) you speak of having “takeaways” – should the same takeaway work for people who were at the presentation as well as people who weren’t? Or does it have to serve both audiences equally. In which case, what was the benefit of being at the event in the first place? Helping co-create it, if the presenter is the sort of person who tunes the delivery to the audience?

    2) more and more talks are being liveblogged; eg here’s a live blog from Clay Shirky’s keynote at Online Info earlier this week.
    Maybe a tidied up version of aggregated live blogs can serve as an effective “bootleg” recording of the talk; maybe illustrated using the slides that the presenter has put up in decontextualised fashion on slideshare (i.e. the slides are offered as ingredients for a post hoc remix of the talk?)

    3) in terms of legacy from demos – the demo sets the scene for the people witnessing the presentation live; but to serve a post hoc audience who weren’t at the event, does this mean we need to post a screencast too?

    I guess what I’m thinking is, the live presentation can be one way of presenting a message. But why does that mean we have to provide “equal access” to that communication to people who weren’t there after the fact?

    And why should we be responsible for giving people who were there a complete takeaway? Isn’t part of the responsibility theirs?

    I’ve been at many talks where I’ve taken scribbled notes and live blog fragments, then written them up post hoc when I’ve had a chance to ‘remix them’ as a blog post. Being able to mix in the slides at appropriate points as visual relief would be handy?

    So here’s where my rambling typed out stream of consciousness commenting has just brought me: maybe the legacy is the bootlegged fragments, each of which give an incomplete, fragmentary, scrappy record of the event, but which capture something of what it was like to be there, or something of the production notes themselves (like a set list, or slide deck?).

    Or why can’t presentations just be things you have to be at?!

    Btw – seen this? Remixing video footage from a Radiohead gig…

  2. @Tony Hirst: Good set of rambling thoughts, and point taken as slideshare being at one level a personal backup. Despite my bold text, I was more speaking to my approach, not suggesting absolute rules for every scenario.

    I’d say, “do what you can to provide as much as possible” for both people who were there and weren’t. Something is better than nothing.

    My real itch needing the scratch is the sense that in the live presentation, a lot of us (and I include myself as I have made more mistakes than not) do not use our time or presence in the best way. Or that I get bored easily. Or….

  3. Hi Alan,

    You’re a bit harsh on conference presentations. Presentations are important not only for the content shared, but for the development of presentation skills by presenters. I’m trying various ways to improve my presentations – i.e. less powerpoint, more images, etc. I’m no where close to where I would like to be as a presenter…but, if you had the misfortune of sitting in sessions I would have done about five years ago, it was worse. much worse.

    Academic conference presentations are particularly bad. Presenters are often masters students (frequently with different languages/cultures). Everyone starts somewhere. If we set standards for performance too high, I think we would reduce the number of potential contributors. Delivering presentations in front of people is developmental. Not everyone possesses the confidence or ability to experiment in front of others that you have.

    With that said, I do think the onus rests on conference organizers to provide assistance in developing the skills of presenters. I’m involved with ed-media/AACE and we have workshops that help people to write better papers, we have a peer review process to ensure quality research is presented…but we don’t have a developmental program in place to help newcomers become better presenters. We develop and peer-review ideas/research. We don’t do the same for presentations.

    We’re in the process of organizing an online conference (end of Feb ’09, I believe) on how to improve F2F conferences…shall I once again ask you to present to an online event I’m organizing so you can turn me down? :).


  4. @George Siemens: C’mon, you know I bark to the extreme so I can raise a fuss. But I have been attending educational conferences for 16 years and am still waiting for them to evolve. I see alot of the same- talking point slides being read to me. I hate that. No, it insults me to take the time to travel, pay for conferences, and than find I could have read the stuff at home.

    We can do better.

    I don’t think it is purely a conference organizing role to “train” for better presenters, though I can say, when we run our online conferences, we confer with all presenters to guide them to make use of the tool available. Everyone (self included) can do more to improve our communication skills, but lets grab our own bootstraps (I know you are experimenting).

    I don’t get your reference to “turning you down” so please explain offline and let me know what I am missing.

  5. 16 years and still waiting?

    Conferences must love you. Conference organizers probably meet in secret and pass your name around. This guy will go, they say.

    There’s a conference out there with a registration form just for you! It will show up in your mailbox at home. At work. And in your email.

    Here’s hoping you don’t do the pre-conference thing!

  6. I’ve got three words that could fix this problem, if it would just be embraced widely enough:


    I’m sick of presentations. The only thing I’m more sick of than being battered BY them is having to GIVE them. The very word itself– PRESENTation– makes me nauseous.

    But for all the people saying they want something different, very few forums provide the support for doing anything else (and many of those people, when push comes to shove, just revert back to the same old habits themselves). Which is why it’s good on NMC and Northern Voice and a VERY select few others who will accept proposals that are different and provide space that allows for something different and/or promotes access ahead of time so time together can be used more effectively!

    I disagree with George that presentations are that important anyway. The information that is remembered/retained from a presentation is small– it’s really about the speakers not the listeners. The same retention could be had with a simple handout– or as I have taken to doing– a business card or so sized piece of paper with a web link– supported by some real conversation, which is what all that “face time” should be used for anyway.

    Down with presentations, up with conversations!

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