Conferences Are As Boring As Documentaries But They Don’t Have To Be

Conferences Are As Boring As Documentaries But They Don't Have To Be. Thoughts from MC and Speaker, Steve Davis, from Talked About Marketing Adelaide.

Ever sat through a conference where the speaker's intro drags from childhood to present, packed with humblebrags, only to be followed by a dull PowerPoint plod?

At the moment when a speaker begins their address, according to Chris Anderson of TED Talks fame, our brain is asking itself, do I want to invest the energy in opening up to let this speaker's ideas in?

As someone who has spoken at countless conferences and MCed many more, I have had a front row seat to this thing I call Documentary Drag; talks with only a few worthwhile points spaced throughout an overly long delivery.

Let me explain what that means and then point to some ways we can make ourselves immune to the label "boring".

The Documentary Drag Effect

Despite having enjoyed documentaries in the past, and even made one about National Sorry Day a long time ago, I have lost my appetite for this form of storytelling.

And the main reason is Documentary Drag. This is where the documentary drags one with panned photographs (thank you Ken Burns), unnecessary interview snippets, and filler footage designed to pad out the piece by adding "colour".

Of course, there are many exceptions to this rule, most notably the wonderful documentary about Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter, titled, Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow. That documentary is a deliberately and unashamedly reflective piece with plenty of slow footage of majestic South Australian landscapes accompanied by some soulful songs by the subjects. And it works, profoundly.

But too many other documentaries are just flabby, making them a very inefficient method of storytelling.

Inefficiency breeds disengagement, which we don't want in documentaries or conference presentations.

The cruel difference, however, is that you can turn a boring documentary off, while, at a conference, you need to sit through every excrutiating minute.

Ideal Conference Presentation Length

This raises a question. If I'm claiming that many conference talks are long with little information, how long should they be and what concentration of content should they include?

Part of the answer to this depends upon how much information needs to be conveyed to get the message across?

In two of my talks last week, I practiced the discipline espoused by presentation guru Nancy Duarte in her book, Resonate.

I "murdered my darlings". This means I went through and asked myself harshly, does this passage TRULY add to the story? Or is it just a good idea that should find a different home?

In both cases, this brutal move was right because it meant there was no "lag" in either talk.

Must Your Talk Be Only A "Talk"?

Another aspect of sharpening up a presentation is to ask whether you talking for the whole time is the ideal format for achieving the information goals of your presentation?

It might be. But it might also be the case that some audience participation will help messages get reinforced.

At a bare minimum, I always like to ask my audience a question within the opening minute or two because bonds us and gets that first awkward interaction out of the way.

It is similar to video. Many people produce video that is just a talking head sharing a message that could have been more efficiently and effectively shared via the written word. This is a criticism I level at many documentaries!

The trick to watchable video is that it is showing us something we can't experience through the written word. What is it that could enhance the memorability of your talk and really deliver some insight "zingers"?

Do You Really Care About Your Audience? Let Us Count The Slides

Do we really need screens full of tables and graphs and bullet points?

Obviously the answer is no, but it is extremely common that this knowledge is ignored.

I have sat through too many presentations when speakers have apparently either thrown something together at the last minute or not "murdered any darlings" by believing the fallacy that more is better.

Let's be clear: less is more.

It has taken me a long time to learn that.

I always want to over deliver and squeeze as much in as possible but I have learned that going deeper with fewer points leads to much more salient talks.

This reminds me of a social media marketing workshop series I ran in the late 2000s. It was five 4-hour sessions held Monday to Friday.

I delivered them to Group A in the morning and Group B in the afternoon.

Even then I had more to share, however, I cringe now, wondering how much just didn't get through the overloaded brains of my participants!

In stark contrast, at the SA Visitor Information Service Conference this month, I devoted a good 35% of my talk time to having participants pair up with someone they knew very little about and then engage in some powerful, open-ended questions that allowed for safe sharing.

I wanted them to experience how a few shifts in the way we approach visitors can help us bond more deeply and quickly.

Friendships were made and, hopefully, these lessons will have followed participants back to their visitor centres.

Take A Leaf From The TED Talk Book

There are many sources of inspiration for improving our talks, but I'll focus on just one (to try and practice some degree of brevity).

Chris Anderson's book, TED Talks, is a treasure trove of ideas. So much so, I'm starting to encourage all my clients to plan a TED Talk about their businesses (even if they never deliver it), because I am convinced it will help them get clarity and power in their messages.

Why are TED Talks so powerful?

Firstly, they don't outwear their welcome. TED Talks must be no longer than 18 minutes, forcing us to pare things right back to the essentials.

And what are those essentials? Here are some highlights (we talk more about this in an upcoming episode of Talking About Marketing Season 4, Episode 8):

Identify the Core Idea (Through Line)

Define the main message or insight you want the audience to take away. This is the anchor of your entire presentation.

How can you sum up your main takeaway point in a sentence or two?

And I don't mean a piece of corporate jargon, I mean an insight that will keep popping up in your audience members' heads whenever they are reminded of your talk or some exercise you did in it.

We share examples of this in the podcast episode (which will be out next week).

Plan Your Opening And Your Closing Thoughtfully

This will be the first and last chance to make an impression. Some opening options from Chris include:

  1. Surprising Statement: Begin with a bold, unexpected fact or statement that grabs attention immediately.
  2. Anecdote: Share a short, relevant story that sets the tone and introduces your theme.
  3. Intriguing Question: Pose a compelling question that prompts the audience to think deeply and engages them in your topic.
  4. Compelling Image: Use a striking visual that draws in the audience and highlights your core idea.

Some closing options include:

  1. Camera Pullback: Zoom out to show the broader implication or big picture of your talk’s subject.
  2. Call to Action: Encourage the audience to take specific steps or actions based on the insights shared.
  3. Personal Commitment: Share a personal resolution or commitment related to the theme, enhancing your message’s authenticity.
  4. Vision and Values: Inspire with a vision of what could be achieved or a reflection on shared values.
  5. Narrative Symmetry: Tie back to your opening or another key moment in your talk to create a cohesive and memorable closure.
  6. Lyrical Inspiration: Conclude with a poetic or emotionally charged statement that leaves a lasting impression.

Remember We're All Human And We Crave Novelty

Experiencing novelty releases endorphins that make us feel good.

It's why crappy parts of newspapers like gossip columns and websites and social media accounts about fleetingly "new" things, hold some attraction.

We're like novelty addicts. We sense there's some novelty about and we'll pounce.

But this doesn't have to mean silly, it just means you need to surprise us with an unexpected insight our twist and then fill in the details (without fluffery).

In fact, I opened my talk about communication by reading a letter that the late author, Kurt Vonnegut, sent a high school class when they wrote to him to ask for advice for life. It was moving while also demonstrating generous and creative communication in action (a key part of my message).

Reflect And Revise

Try running your talk past someone who is not in your business or department.

If you catch them getting bored or looking distracted, you have an area that needs work.

Remember, as Amelia Moseley, journalist and presenter of Behind The News, reminded me during an interview for The Adelaide Show, people HIDE BEHIND jargon hoping nobody asks them to explain what they mean.

Likewise, as audience members, we have been trained to nod knowingly when the person from the big department uses a bit of industry talk.

This must stop.

We must hold ourselves and our speakers accountable. Do no be afraid to ask what a term means because most people will be silently thanking you.

Where To From Here?

My message is that we all need to quit pretending to enjoy talks and conference programs because they seem to be what is normal.

We must start raising the bar about the levels of engagement our speakers must bring, and they must demonstrate the care they have shown by not just bringing a collection of slides from the office and waffling through them.

We want and need speakers and MCs who are earnestly wanting to help us get real value from our time together. We don't want our conference talks to be just "busy noise" filling the gaps between breaks for drip coffee, scones, and bits of tart pineapple on platters.

I want us to say YES to booking MCs and speakers who deeply care and are not just milking their celebrity status.

I want conferences to be a true time for learning and enrichment and not a mirage of thinking we have learned something.

I want us to be deeply affected by our experience and motivated to put changes into place, or at least experiment with change, when we get back to work.

It's all possible, and it starts with a combination of curiosity and the word, yes.

And who better to give voice to this one work than the Toast Of London's Matt Berry.

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