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.
10 thoughts on “Conference talks, where did we go wrong?”
Feels like you’ve read my mind.
One point I disagree with are “Hello world” talks. In my view they CAN provide a lot of value if they are well prepared. Even though I can do my own research I always appreciate if somebody does the hard work for me and distills the knowledge to the short session. Even if they don’t have extensive experience with that technology yet.
That way I can have a quick, high-level overview and decide if I want to dig deeper. A few times I’ve learned a few interesting things from those sessions on subjects that didn’t pick my interest earlier (e.g. because it’s not relevant to what I’m working on at the moment or due to the lack of time or plethora of other interesting subjects).
I realise people like introductory talks, but in my opinion better environment to do them are user groups and local meetups. It’s a great place to also practice new talks and get more comfortable with speaking as such. For serious conferences I (and this is just my feeling) expect a bit more.
I’m not alone with this opinion, while I’ve noticed that some conferences don’t accept basic level sessions any more.
I’d agree with Weronika. However, Basia has a point, too. Personally, I think the nature of how something is summarized and presented often adds some flavor, some sort of unique angle. I tried to bridge that gap in a recent talk where I demoed a technology for half the talk, but spent the other half talking about how to identify good and bad use cases.
Another point to consider is that sometimes technologies are “out there” but no one knows about them, and a Hello World talk can help people notice that something is available which can help solve their problem.
Having been at a conference yesterday, I can absolutely sympathize. There was a real mix of fantastic talks and awful talks and everything in between.
I think you really hit it on the head: The most important question is what the audience should gain from your talk. In my CFP applications, I’ve always driven it toward what I want people to understand and think about coming out of the talk.
In my experience, the best talks are cases where someone has an idea they desperately want to share, because they know something and they’re genuinely excited about it. There’s a feeling of discovery and enthusiasm there which is hard to match for entertainment and educational value.
Unfortunately, too many talks fall into the categories you mentioned.
Excellent post! Funnily enough, I’ve just delivered an internal presentation where the key takeaway was “Proper Planning, Preparation and Practice Prevent Poor Presentations”.
Any blog post from it? I’d love to read it.
What I hear mos of the time is that conferences are seen as a reward for devs doing a good job, because you don’t really have to work when there. The more popular conferences to choose when you get the chance as an employee is the ones with great food and a nice after conference feel. Close to a nice city and all that.
You also see mostly higher graded people (architects, lead developers, etc). Is that bad. No idea. For me the getting to know people is the most important part especially if I’m paying for it myself, after that the content of the talks. Knowing people who you can ask for help is vastly important when you work alone.
ramble, ramble, stop.
Avid conference speaker myself, I’ve also had experiences when talking to the other speakers that they do not want to attend other talks because “there’s nothing interesting” (sic.).
It’d be great if we all could come and improve the situation by, first of all, reducing that snobbism. If one is a speaker, doesn’t mean they don’t have anything else to learn. And, as you have said, by improving the quality of talks.
My personal advice to the conference speakers is to have a couple of dry runs of the talk: just practice in front of the mirror or camera, listen to yourself. That helped me a whole lot. More than anything else.
Sometimes the talks are indeed boring and uninteresting. But in that case, why won’t we all just talk about something we’re deeply interested in, not about things that’d satisfy committee. Mainstream things are often well documented and there’s enough information onilne to get yourself up and running. Concentrating on the “cutting edge” stuff or things that would require days / months of research to get up to speed with would be much more interesting.
Just do talks that you yourself would attend, don’t be snobby and show respect to one another. Some talks may suck, but it doesn’t matter we can or have to ignore all of them.
Well written post. In Germany, back in 2009, we started to have Developer Open Spaces (http://devopenspace.de and http://nossued.de) where everybody attending has a voice and can share his thoughts on a particular topic.
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