Not Safe For Conferences (NSFC): Marginal Presentations


Welcome to the world of conferences starring your industry speaker’s slide deck with a supporting role by you.

If Ebert and Roper critiqued our conference presentations instead of movies, they would announce a huge two thumbs down for the majority of our speakers.

If Entertainment Tonight was Conference Tonight, they would report a colossal loss of money, resources and time for 90%-95% or our under-performing conference presentations.

With the core of our conferences and meetings depending upon good presentations, why do so few organizations commit budget, resources and time to help industry speakers improve their presentations? Why do we continue to secure poor communicators as speakers every year and expect better results?

The Slide Deck Groan

We’ve all been there when the leader turns on the LCD projector and a PowerPoint presentation appears.

Internally we groan. Our insides scream. Our palms sweat. Our eyes roll. We want to run for the door. We know what’s coming next…a long, lengthy diatribe about the nothingness of nothing. It sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, “Wah, wah, wah, wah.”

We are a society that anticipates a boring, poorly designed and communication-impoverished presentation. We expect conferences to have deprived content, bankrupt presentations and insignificant speakers.

Why? Only a small percentage of speakers deliver a well-thought out and well communicated presentation. Only a handfull of conference deliver the goods.

The Ubiquitous Presentation

Presentations are the go-to ubiquitous communication tool used by most. They are the core of conference content. They are the start-up step for entrepreneurs seeking funding. They are the entry way for development of new products and services. They are the report instrument for committees and boards.

The success of conferences, events and meetings often depends on the quality of presentations. Similarly, ineffective presentations can slaughter the careers of leaders, meeting professionals and speakers.

Presentations are everywhere. And presentation software is the most used tool that creates these feeble visual communications.

Ultimately we can keep blaming PowerPoint for the decay. In reality, conference organizers need to take the responsibility. They secured these speakers that provided trivial talks.

NSFC: Marginal Presentations

Not safe for conferences: marginal presentations.

If we want to continue to churn out marginal conferences with marginal experiences with marginal presentations with marginal speakers, we should continue on our current path. Do nothing.

If we want to create great conference experiences that resonate with our audiences, learning to create effective presentations is imperative. The success of our conference depends upon it.

As conference organizers, we have to change our approach to picking speakers. We have to up the ante. We have to set a new standard. We have to demand better.

We need to start evaluating our potential speaker’s ability to communicate. We need to evaluate their understanding of learning. We need to analyze if they know how to communicate visually with the PPT.

We need to invest in helping our industry speakers become better presenters. Every presenter has the potential to be awesome. Every presentation is high stakes. Every audience deserves the best.

Why do conference organizers separate logistics and content into two separate silos and then only take responsibility for the logistics? How have you helped your industry speakers improve their presentations?

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  1. Cathy Mullen says:

    Dear Jeff,
    I agree, audiences no longer want to be talked to, they want to be part of the conversation. Our clients are very receptive to Interactive event technology such as Audience Response Systems, Panel debates with Q & A and working in groups after presentations.

  2. Melissa Reisinger says:

    We also recycle the same presenters over and over again. Throw them in the wash and out they come.. and some of them are not dry yet.

  3. Great post. PowerPoint is not the problem. It is simply a tool. Great presentations start with understanding your audience and how they feel about the subject matter. Also having a goal in mind for the specific and measurable results you intend to get from the presentation, meeting or event.

    The real problem with so many presenters is they really do not know their subject matter and they rely on PowerPoint as their tele-prompter. And that is how we end up with slides with 8 bullets, each one to two sentences long…you know what I am talking about.

    We are a visual being and the more we use visuals to tell our story and engage the audience by using various technologies, the better our presentations will be.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, audiences today want to be part of the conversation and the co-creating of application of content. ARS is one way to create that engagement for sure.

      So true…we recycle the same presenters and presentations year after year. Wash, rinse and repeat. Thanks for reading and your insight too.

      I’ve been to many presentations where the PPT became the script of the presentation with way too may bullets of text. They bore me! I like what you said too, “We are visual beings…”

      Thanks for adding to the conversation here!

  4. William says:


    I feel your pain form the UK. I’ve been writing similar stuff for a few months now. Luckily I am still putting content together so I am able to talk the talk and walk the walk. I am developing something to get conference organisers to sign up to. I’ve summerised it on my blog.

    I am putting the programme together for association day at EIBTM in Barcelona and will be using this as the premium industry showcase for a ‘properly’ managed and resourced conference programme.

  5. justin locke says:

    well jeff another brilliant comment on the obvious, bravo.

    if i may go out on a limb here, i have a theory about this, which is, the average presenter presents in a style of energy and preparation that is basically the same as what we are exposed to in the average classroom for what, 16+ years? we’ve all had fab teachers, but let’s face it, they were the exception. the average teacher (in my schools anyway) had a rubrick and a textbook and a lesson plan and that becomes the coin of the realm in terms of what is an acceptable standard for “teaching a class.”

    as long as that is the universally accepted standard that folks are willing to tolerate, not much will change. fact is, raising the quality bar immediately raises the budget bar. better presenters cost money. from an owner perspective, why not just “send out a call for [free] speakers” and exploit amateur presenters, if one can get away with it? –jl

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding to the conversation here. You’re theory is correct. The standard classroom was actually created by the military to mass train civilians to get them ready for WW II. That became the defacto method used in public schools and colleges. Today’s research about how we learn shows that the normal classroom process is directly opposed to how to best help us learn. Ironic, right!

      That being said, I am seeing audiences start to reject the traditional method in conferences. Some attendees are no longer showing up for large ballroom presentations and instead learning from peers in self-directed small groups.

      Thanks for the link too.

  6. justin locke says:

    also this, an article i did for the aicpa on improving presentation skills. not the usual stuff, i assure you. 🙂 –jl

  7. […] Not Safe For Conferences (NSFC): Marginal Presentations Jeff Hurt is one of our Favs here and you should have him on your RSS speed dial. In case you don’t, this is a link to one of his posts from this week that talks about the need to up the presentation value at your conference or event. […]

  8. justin locke says:

    Dear Jeff:

    Well again, I think we are very much kindred spirits in this particular realm. Since you are in a position to wield some real influence, I hope you’ll forgive me for using this forum to continue a discussion of the history of these cultural traditions that are now obsolete.

    There is a wonderful book on the subject titled “the 12 year sentence.” It’s a history of the compulsory education in the United States.

    As I understand it, there were three primary reasons for creating “classroom education” for every child, and making it both free and mandatory.

    The first was both practical and slightly xenophobic: in the late, 1800s, we experienced a vast influx of immigrant labor, most of which did not speak any English. The original plan was to take every immigrant child away from their family and put them in an “American immersion boarding school” where they would learn English and the American democratic system. Boarding schools were not practical so they settled for six hours a day. Incidentally, this is also why we are now still teaching English every day to kids who already speak English; it was originally designed as an “English as a second language” program.

    The second reason was the industrial revolution. The “education system” up to that point was based on apprenticeships. One learned to be a farmer by working on the family farm, starting at about age 7. The same for deal for sculptors or blacksmiths. But with the Industrial Revolution, there was now a need for a very different kind of (factory) worker, and there were three things they needed to have above all else, which were: obedience, uniformity, and punctuality. This cultural imperative is still very much with us today. And after being legally required to experience 12 plus years of this system throughout our formative years, we are very comfortable with having a “teacher” to be passively obedient to. And in terms of uniformity, well, standardized tests . . . Etc.

    The third element was purely economic. Compulsory education became the law of the land during the Great Depression, for the purpose of removing child labor from the labor market. This unfortunately had the side effect of giving us young adults with no work experience.

    The World War II factory classroom was an extension of this. There was no way to create the amount of “traditional” skilled labor that was needed to build airplanes and such, so what they did was, they broke tasks down to extremely elementary steps. Interestingly enough, this “training within industry” (TWI) program became a big part of the Toyota production system.

    Now… when we start talking about deviating from these nearly universal classroom models, we run into a problem, which is largely one of rank and hierarchy. For example, if we had a conference of state governors, and you’re a governor and I’m a governor, sure, we’ll have lots to talk about just between ourselves. But if you’re a governor, and I’m a lowly volunteer on some other governor’s fund-raising committee, is it going to be worth your time to talk to me at all? Probably not. Without an imposed structure, the people at the top will just hobnob other people at the top. Please excuse my ignorance if you have figured out a workaround for this.

    (Note I discuss issues of ranking and status in my article, “reducing resistance to organizational change”:

    Anyway, I have already gone too long (sorry), but to get back to addressing the original post, I think step one (and hooray to you for doing so) is proselytizing a greater understanding that our educational traditions were created in a very different world, and they are quickly becoming obsolete. We now might consider getting back to the more personalized apprenticeship training model, and see training, not as a highly uniform mandatory mechanical factory task, but as a person-to-person artistic performance. Unfortunately, even artistic training has been reduced to a factory-esque training model, so there is a lot of recovery work to do.

    keep up the good work, best,

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