Have you ever been to something, attended a conference or a workshop and left thinking “I have no idea what just happened there?” but you had a great time, caught up with some people and got some photos. In actual fact it happens more than you think and is a growing challenge many conference organisers face not only keeping to topic and remaining relevant but better understanding who is actually coming. The conference or workshop experience needs to enable people to leave feeling as if they have learning something, that they will return to their organisations or work with something new they can do every single day.
Take for example a recent conference I spoke at with my topic being the “the decline of socially engineered programs by co-design”. Now; I knew it was a conference on economics and social policy and built my presentation around the relevancy of my work to that topic – but the audience wasn’t what I expected. A large majority of attendees were people from small community based backgrounds who had come with a different learning experience in mind – they came to find specific solutions to their challenges or for someone to tell them how something should be run. They also came to network mostly for funding – because that was the big challenge that faced them. It’s a problem that academics and researchers also face quite a bit when speaking at conferences. They re there to talk specifically about their research in a way that other academics may understand it – but the majority of attendees aren’t academic and cannot understand what is being said. This leaves many to wonder why they attended at all. It also leaves the presenter thinking that what they presented didn’t go down well or was of little interest (particularly when people don’t ask questions).
Then there are the panel interview sessions that are often meaningless to the audience because there is never enough time to ask questions of the speakers because you guessed it – everyone ran over time. Again this lowers the positive experience and doesn’t leave room to engage.
So what does all this mean? It means we are not properly organizing things to the extent attendees are attending for the right reason, speakers are speaking a language that is understandable, topics are relevant and there are plenty of opportunities for engagement.
The other thing to consider is whether or not talking about something from a high level has any meaning to those who work on the front line or in small organisations. How does something of national significance translate into something that is understood at the ground level. Several people from several Maori Districts of the New Zealand Maori Council mentioned this to me only a few weeks ago. As a national member of Council we often talk about the big issues from a high level perspective whereas the Districts just wanted to know who it impacted them, their regions and their people. After the recent World Indigenous Suicide Prevention Conference I was sitting at the airport waiting for my flight when an attended came over for a chat. Her feedback was much the same and she pondered if she had wasted her time.
So what can we do about it? How can we make topics and ideas more relevant to everyone thereby spreading our message in a much clearer or more articulate way?
Presenters: be mindful of the audience you will be speaking to – many speakers turn up to their session without having attended anything else therefore they miss understanding the make-up and mood of the room. I on the other hand am always sitting in on sessions ahead of speaking so I can try and figure out what the mix of people is like. My father always told me talk to the room as if everyone thinks you are only talking to them. Understanding the mood of the room can set your presentation apart from others.
Presenters: take time to ask the conference organizer what the make up of the current registrations for the conference or workshop are and who might already be registered for your session. Don’t just rock up not knowing your audience. This will enable you to construct your presentation in a much more effective way.
Presentations: if you are presenting data, theory or models try and split it out into meaningful bite size pieces. I always translate mine into a three way narrative – as it may apply nationally, at the local level and finally to individuals – in other words making it more relevant
Case studies: use a case study but tell it like a story when presenting – case studies can be both technical and carry a meaningful narrative. Telling it in a story like fashion makes it more understandable
Wasting time: someone has already introduced you and you are standing on stage as the result of your experience in something. Your bio has already been published on the conference website or something other marketing collateral so don’t waste yours and everyone’s time by re-introducing yourself and talking about how awesome you are. In a fifteen minute presentation it often takes five minutes to rave about yourself leaving only ten minutes for people to learn.
Questions and answers: always leave time for a Q&A – don’t say you’ll be around later to answer questions when you’re on the next plane out and be gone by afternoon tea.
PowerPoints: cut down the number of PowerPoint slides you are using and for goodness sake stop putting a chapter and verse mini-series on the slides and then reading them word for word – keep things clear, concise and on message
Conference organisers: structure your organizing committees in a way that gives people riding instructions on what specifically the outcomes are, develop marketing material that is relevant and clear.
That’s it from me! Take the advice as you see fit but let me tell you, as someone who has been speaking in public and at conferences for many years, the last thing I like to see is people walk away thinking it was a grand waster of their time.
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