Every week I read tons of tweets, blogs and articles on people either organizing or going to some events. And it’s quite convincing. Being a conference junkie is apparently the new black. More and more often developers decide not only to show up but also to become speakers.
As for me I recently went through something completely opposite. It wasn’t anything serious or life breaking, not even a professional burn out. Maybe a little conference overload. I started questioning reasons why people (including me) are attending, speaking at and organizing any kinds of events.
Once upon a time, when I was a little girl…
When I started attending conferences not every talk was amazing. I found many of them to be too complex. Some appeared to be completely boring, others were just ok. But I used to make the most of my time spent there.
I took inspirations from new topics being discussed. The talks helped to expand my knowledge on issues I previously faced. Even the dull talks became beneficial. I used the session time to clear my mind and think of solutions to the problems I encountered. It was all worth the money, time but most of all – my attention.
For me speakers were gods, rockstars, celebrities – you name it. Seeing them at the after parties was an incredible honour. I took everything what they said as revealed truths. It was like conference speakers couldn’t be wrong.
At some point I had this idea I could not only go for conferences but also give talks. I have always had a sweet spot for education, so such a development was quite natural for me.
Time to grow up
Looking back I was quite naive, but this is what being young is all about, right? So more conferences, more reflections they have brought. I also saw things from the other side, while gaining more experience as a speaker. I started slowly, from users groups and local events. As a result for last two years you can meet me in more international environments.
But recently, something has struck me. I’ve noticed that rarely anybody, including myself, goes to a conference to watch the talks. It’s all about networking, partying with celebrities and self-promotion. While those are great reasons, I cannot shake the feeling that this shouldn’t be main motivation.
I can see why people skip talks.
I’ve summarised some of the problems I’ve experienced with conference presentations. If I have feedback then I always provide it to the speaker(s) involved, I’m famous for it. My opinions are not meant to upset or offend anyone, they are just thoughts to keep in mind when preparing a talk.
Have a point
Talks needs to have a main goal, giving something back to the audience. I honestly have had enough of sessions where I was left asking ‘and so what?’. For example a demo that finally worked but no one explained why it was shown in a first place. Or someone telling me the story about how important is to test the software. Whatever the case I just simply couldn’t put my finger on what the hell was this last hour about.
There are several reasons why this is still happening. It can be lack of preparations or being too close to the topic. But the root cause is speakers not asking themselves the most important question, what will the audience get form your talk.
Story of some project
The common advice when giving a talk is to tell a story. It helps with the flow and engaging the audience by providing a roadmap. Unfortunately this is where many of the speakers stop with preparations. You hear a nice narrative, get to know what people did, which technologies they have used, but that’s it. No conclusions, no advices, not even what worked and what didn’t under the circumstances.
Stories help the presentation flow, but you also need to have content for attendees to learn from. If you have nothing to teach, there is no point telling the story.
Sadly a number of talks turn into product ads. Developers don’t enjoy sales pitches. While there is nothing wrong with promoting your brand, you should do it in a proper way. Talk about what you’ve learn in a process with some conclusions. Don’t let your app to be the main topic, it’s better to move it to the background.
What is the point of you having ‘Introduction to X’ session? Even if the topic is quite new, very soon there will be tons of tutorials online on it. And they will be much more suitable to follow than having them as an hour long conference presentation. It’s important to add your own views, experience and conclusions when summarizing a book or already established concepts.
Funny, funny …
Everyone likes a little bit of fun in the talk, right? But I consider this an issue though when I don’t learn anything else as a result. It’s not a comedy club, it’s a conference. I honestly think people should come here with the basic goal – to learn something. So there is nothing wrong with you having an interesting metaphor. You can compare teams to cats or present what you have learnt during your last holiday. Use it but, please, go beyond that.
I often have this feeling that being a well known speaker means you don’t have to deliver a decent talk. Like if just your presence is enough for the attendees.
I’ve encountered the situation when a popular speaker refused to work on their presentation skills. I have also been to a lot of talks where presenters appear to not care anymore. They think it is cooler to say something funny, rant about some technology or produce the content on a fly. Basically their main goal is being a star and they’re behaving like one.
I’ve seen it working and I’ve seen it fail miserably. Regardless the outcome I find it quite rude against me as an attendee. Think of it – they don’t prepare and then brag about it. Having a good reputation is enough for people to show up, but you still need to deliver an amazing experience.
I still think the informal parts like networking and joining the parties are an important aspect to conferences. I simply don’t believe they should be the main takeaway. Poor presentations are not fair to attendees, organizers or employers who send their staff to those events.
I’ve attended some world class presentations at conferences I love. It’s just a shame that no matter how hard organisers work, one or two poor presentations can have a huge impact on the overall event. And recently I’ve seen much more than few representing simply not acceptable quality level. While conferences are fun, speakers sometimes need to remember to act professional, myself included.