Bad Conference Speakers

| Comments | conferences, featured

Michael Brunton-Spall speaking at BASE by Dave Briccetti
Michael Brunton-Spall speaking at BASE by Dave Briccetti

Are you at a conference and bored? Do you start using the backchannel to start sniping at the presenters taste in clothing, presentation background, or speech idiosyncrasies? What you should be doing is asking yourself one very important question - What is this presenter doing that is not keeping your attention, or rather what could they do to keep your attention?

See as a sometime presenter I find myself analysing what good and poor presenters do. I find myself looking to see what is irritating me, whether it be the presenters suit, or the way she keeps swearing, or the number of times he says “Um”.

Here are some of the things that can cause bad presentation style, and what I do to avoid it

Lack of preparation

Probably the most common error I see is that you get the feeling that the speaker doesn’t know the topic or appears to have given very little thought to the presentation itself.

This boils down to two forms of preparation, subject preparation and presentation preparation.

For subject preparation I often start with a simple phrase or idea that I want to talk about. So my notes might say “Performance analysis, Log Parsing, Knowing whats going on in your app”.

That for me is the start of a presentation, I’ll sit down for a couple of hours, and try to write out the key points I want to cover for my talk. So I might have a list like “what is performance; real user perf; perf analysis tools; logging; parsing toolkits; grep and awk; basic statistics; R; gnuplot; Garbage collectors; memory allocation; threading and performance; finding locks”

At this point I wont cut any headings, but I’ll just keep creating and adding to the outline. Once I’m happy that I’ve gotten all the ideas that I’d like to talk about down in the document, I start expanding them. I’m aiming here to provide a large corpus of raw ideas that I could include in the talk.

Expanding the ideas is where I’ll often write an overview. For each heading, I’ll write a paragraph or two about that feature. I’ll go off and do research on facts and figures, and look up to see if there’s any other articles, conference talks or blog posts that I can refer to. I’ll write out, often in a more spoken style everything that I know about that area, or all the bits I’d want to cover in the talk.

I think it’s easy to say that you’ll talk about a subject that you think you know, but when it comes to trying to communicate to an audience of people with different contexts you find that you don’t know as much as you thought. This process shakes out those areas for me. It also feeds into other presentations later, so I might decide during editing to remove stuff, but I might also split it into multiple presentations.

Lack of editing

This is a lot less common, but you can see it when somebody rushes through a presentation, and doesn’t finish properly (My presentation at QCon London in 2012 suffered from this, and it’s on video for you to see!). If the speaker appears to ramble away from their main point and just talks about areas that aren’t very important.

Editing consists for me going back to the original ideas, and looking for slide titles that enhance that idea. don’t allow the talk to wander off topic, instead remove as much as possible from it. This will keep your talk small, concise and most importantly focused on a single topic. In the above example I’d probably work out exactly what I’m trying to cover and I’d remove things like statistics, R, gnuplot and other subjects since they probably don’t add anything.

Once you’ve pared the talk down, start filling in slide details and re-arrange them to have the flow that you want. Understanding flow is important, but for now just play with the presentation order until it feels right.

So why do all this preparation if I’m just going to remove it later? Well all that crap I took out I can use. If my talk looks like it is going to finish early, I can use some of it to ad-lib and fill. If somebody asks a question, chances are that it will be on a topic you removed, so you will have already have thought of it and prepared it. It also gives you confidence in the areas you are talking about, because you now understand the topic far more deeply than you are covering.

Lack of passion

Sometimes you get the impression that someone is talking about this subject because they had nothing better to talk about, or their boss said they had to speak at a conference this year. Lack of passion is one of the biggest turn offs for the audience, probably more than anything else.

A passionate speaker can take what would otherwise be a very dull topic and their passion becomes infectious, making the subject seem sparkling and exciting (until you try to repeat it at a dinner party, these things never seem to translate well!).

I’ve often joke that I could give a talk on anything, but actually that’s not even close to true. I will only give talks on a subject that I care about, because in those areas I understand the topic and I have opinions on the topic, which means I have passion for it in some form.

Losing the Audience

At a lot of technical conferences, the lowest rated speakers tend to be the non-technical speakers. At a more design or creative conference, often the technical speaker is not well received. Knowing who you audience is going to be is vital to giving a good talk, and it’s one of the reasons that I rarely give the same talk multiple times, since the audience changes each time so the talk needs to change.

It is possible to give talks to an audience it wasn’t intended for, but you need to think before you actually give the talk, and work out how you are going to adjust the talk for the new audience.

If it was a technical talk and your new audience isn’t technical you might need to gloss over technical slides, or remove them and talk about the reasons behind the technical decisions instead.

If the talk was non-technical you might want to stop at points, alt-tab into a terminal or code browser and emphasise the techniques that you’ve just discussed with demonstrations.

If your talk was for a different technical audience, such as, a python talk being given to a java audience, you might need to take a bit of time to explain some of the features you use as you use them and give equivalents.

Be careful when doing this not to talk down to your audience, they aren’t stupid because they don’t have the same context as you, instead they simply have a different set of priorities. Respect their intelligence and priorities and your talk should transfer just fine.

Annoying Quirks

Everybody has personality or presentation quirks that are going to irritate your listeners. The important part of these quirks is that if mild and the talk is interesting then the audience wont notice, but each incidence is more likely to distract the audience from the talk and once they are taken out of the flow of listening to you, getting them back is very hard.

My quirks are that I speak very fast, especially when excited, and tend to pace up and down. I’ve known people who say um, or ‘shit’, or ‘fuck yeh’ every sentence or so. I knew one person who would play with the wire on their microphone during the talk, causing an irritating crackle.


So a bad conference speaker is probably breaking at least 1 or several of these rules. I think however that we should still have a lot of respect for speakers. Deciding to get up in front of a lot people and explaining what you think about something is purposefully making yourself vulnerable, and there’s a reason that Public Speaking is the most common fear.  Even if they are doing it badly, they have at least had the courage to get up and try to do it.

As an audience if the speaker is not engaging you, then try to have some respect for the speaker. Taking the opportunity to post or discuss nasty comments about the speaker does not reflect well on you.

Instead you can do the following things:

  1. Stay where you are and take notes, including notes about why you disagree with the speaker. Those are still valuable things to learn.
  2. Remove yourself from the presentation. I don’t think getting up and leaving is that disrespectful, providing you are not making a scene or major distraction to do so.
  3. Give good feedback.  As a speaker I value constructive criticism about a talk for more than “7/10 - Good”. I want to know why I didn’t get 10/10, and the constructive criticism is far more valuable for that.