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Interactive Conference Presentations, pt.1

Thoughts on making an awesome conference, #1: Interactive Presentations

(Part 1: The Problem. ATTN: Darius – you know what I’m doing here :))

The problem with interactive presentation is simply that, in its most obvious fashion, it completely doesn’t work.

I’ve seen presenters stand up, with the best will in the world, and say “what would you like to hear about? I can focus on A, B, or C”, and the response of the audience is:

  • Well, YOU’RE the expert, you tell me what I should be hearing about!
  • You listed A+B+C in the conference brochure, so I want my money’s worth: all of them
  • When you put it like that, without “selling” it to me, they all sound a bit dull, actually

The other major alternative is to split by audience expertise, rather than topic, so instead of A/B/C it’s A-basic/A-intermediate/A-advanced.

This way, the speaker can at least talk about every *topic* they were going to, and the audience has no *decision* they have to make – they merely have to self-identify their level of expertise. Unfortunately, this also means the speaker has to do 3 times the preparation effort, since they have to re-phrase the whole topic for 3 unique perspectives / levels of expertise. Mostly, speakers don’t spend anywhere near enough time crafting their talks as it is – anything that places extra burden on them is almost certain to destroy what quality there might have been in the talk.

To summarize “Interactive Presentation”

  • The audience must NOT be required to DECIDE what they want to hear
  • The presenter must NOT be required to OVER-PREPARE their content

Perhaps it would help – with these issues in mind – to re-visit the Use Case: why did we even want an interactive presentation in the first place?

Why “Interactive”?

Reasons I can think of off the top of my head:

  • Audiences get bored and fall asleep
  • Crowd-sourcing the expertise of the audience
  • Correcting mistakes

Stimulation – audiences get bored if they are forced to be physically dormant (sitting motionless) and are not being provided any mental stimulation; asking them to “interact” excuses some physical movement, and provides opportunities from some CHALLENGING of the audience, requiring them to THINK before responding, and allowing them to actually TALK to the speaker (and to the rest of the audience – don’t forget this; this is not a private dialogue)

Crowd-sourcing – it’s rare that the speaker knows more about the topic than the entire audience combined; in fact, in general, it never happens, not by a long way. Often, the speaker knows less – in some areas – about CORE aspects of the talk than some members of the audience (but much more in other areas). That extra knowledge is locked up in the heads of the audience, and given no forum, no channel, to be shared or distributed among the audience.

Correcting mistakes – speakers, especially mediocre or poor ones, often make mistakes – either factual or opinionated – during the prepartion of their talk, let alone the small slips in delivery. By sharing slides after the talk, the latter problem is already solved. But the former problem – speakers who disseminate misleading or even downright false information – is rife even in many highly-skilled conferences. If the audience can “talk back” (aka heckle), then this can both be fixed in-situ – and the speaker can get a chance to demonstrate that it was a genuine mistake and not ignorance or malice on their part.

Current typical “solutions”

There are some half-hearted attempts to solve this, in order of increasing success:

  • Interviews
  • Panel sessions
  • Roundtables

Interviews

I advise anyone who goes to a conference where a session is in the format of an “interview” to simply boycott those sessions. Generally speaking, unless the interviewer is extremely good at their job, interviews are a boring waste of time, with LESS of interest coming out them than a simple presentation, simply because the dialogue is NOT under the control of the expert who has the knowledge. And, of course, the interviewee can simply refuse to answer any question they “don’t like”. Ugh.

Or, in even more simple terms, you’ve doubled the opportunities for human failure, without adding any benefits other than “hoping” that the interviewer will serve as a check-and-balance on the interviewee.

Note: there is still no increase in audience participation here – you can have a Q&A session at the end, but it’s indirected through the interviewer, so it’s LESS effective than when there’s a single presentation.

I have something else to add about Interviews that should make you VERY suspicious of them, but it’ll come uip again in Panels, so … moving swiftly on…

Panel sessions

I’m going to start with a wake-up call for some conference organizers:

Panel session != roundtable.

At CMP’s Austin GDC, the first year that CMP ran it, I went to the post-conference “feedback session”, and suggested that there should be roundtables the next year. The conference organizer responded that they had roundtables that year; no, they had panel sessions. Big difference.

Panel sessions supposedly do one of two things:

  • Cram more content into one session without over-stretching a single presenter
  • Crowd-source a very, very small crowd, using a “moderator” to control the flow of info

Here’s the problem: in most cases, panel sessions are suggested by the Moderator, who generally doesn’t know what they’re talking about (otherwise they’d have a presentation session instead…), and whose reason for doing this (other than to get a free conference ticket, of course) was “I want to know more about X, so I’m going to probe experts A, B, and C about it”. This is just a slightly more freeform version of the Interview – and yet it happens very often, and suffers worse from the interviewer’s lack of expertise: they not only don’t know what to ask, but often the panellists steamroller them and either dominate the conversation or collectively shut it down.

It is very, very hard to get a panel of people together who are neither “too similar” (you often see people say “ditto” when asked their views in turn on a panel topic), nor “too different” (what person A says is simply meaningless to person B, they don’t exist in the same universe).

Note: there is still no increase in audience participation here – you can have a Q&A session at the end, but it’s indirected through the moderator, so it’s LESS effective than when there’s a single presentation.

Roundtable

Here, there is no “official” speaker, only a moderator. In practice, every person who turns up to the session is a speaker (and when roundtables work well it’s because the majority of the audience DO each speak during the session!). That moderator has no idea who the “speakers” are, and has a relatively low responsibility to be even-handed or steer the conversation – because this is simply too hard to do.

In practice, the people who chose to speak get to dominate the conversation.

In practice, the larger conferences have lots of ignorant, dumb, lazy, selfish, or simply scared audiences who turn up to Roundtables and “expect to be entertained” – they have no intention of speaking or participating, they sit there silently. These people DESTROY roundtables, sitting there like wells of depression and darkness, sucking the life and interest out of the roundtable. Do I hate them? Yes, absolutely – having a minority of the audience like that is fine, but when – as at GDC 2007 – you have a roundtable that turns away 50+ people at the door, and allows in almost 100 people who DO NOT SPEAK A WORD, it’s out of hand.

I’m bringing this up because it points to a real problem: you might provide the perfect audience-participation system, but if the audience don’t want to use it, it could end up as the worst of all worlds (!).

Summary

Hmm. This is beginning to look like a communication problem. What’s going on?

Type Presenters Moderators Audience Comm-type Level of control Live feedback
Presentation 1 0 Many Broadcast Complete 0
Interview 1 1 Many Broadcast High, non-expert Slight
Panel Several 1 Many Broadcast Moderate, non-expert Slight
Roundtable Many 1 Many Dialogue Slight (*) Substantial
Freeform Many 0 Many Conversation None Infinite
-IDEAL- Ranked? None? Many? Conversation? Moderate? Substantial?

(*) – since roundtables have no “speaker”, and only give a conference ticket to the “moderator”, it’s much more common to see “moderator IS an expert” than with the other options.

Part 2, to follow soon, will list some ideas on what can be done about this. I’ll edit this to add a link once it’s up.

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