I just finished my second big conference for the year, both within the past few weeks. First I was at DRUID (the Danish Research Unit on Industrial Dynamics – a big innovation-oriented conference), then last week I was at Sunbelt XXX, the annual conference for the International Network for Social Network Analysis. I heard some really interesting ideas in both conferences, made some good connections, and had some excellent ideas for my own research. So, overall, time well spent.
But in some respects I also found both conferences to be enormously frustrating. In the course of watching quite a few conference presentations, among other things I saw:
- Several people show up with 60+ densely-packed slides for either a 15 or a 20 minute talk. Several!
- Countless people have to skip telling us about their interesting findings because they wasted over half their time telling us pointless background information.
- An even larger countless number of people who seem to believe that putting a regression table on a slide is somehow a useful thing to do.
In other words, I saw a lot of terrible talks. Out of the 50+talks that I saw, nearly all of them sounded like they were based on sound research. But all but a handful were awful talks.
Why is this?
Most academics teach – in other words, to some extent all of us are professional speakers. So why can’t we tell a good story in 15 minutes? But it’s not just academics. In February I saw six teams of entrepreneurs pitch their ideas, and five of the six didn’t leave enough time to tell us why their idea was cool because they blew more than half their talk on background.
There are two reasons so many of these talks are lousy. The first is that people don’t understand the purpose of these talks. The whole point of presenting a paper, or of pitching your great idea is to make people interested enough that they want to learn more. You can’t possibly explain every point in an academic paper in 15 minutes – what you want people to do is to go read the paper. So your talk is an advertisement for your paper.
Failing to realise this leads to horrible talks. So my first prescription for better presentations is this: figure out what action you want people to take at the end of the talk. Then ask them to do that. If you want them to read your paper, ask them to read it, and tell them how to get it. If you want them to fund your start-up, ask them to do that, then tell them how they can get more information. Always link your talks to action.
The second problem with these talks is that people don’t know what their story is. If the talk is a call to action, you need to have a compelling story. What is it? What is the main idea that you want people to take away from your talk, even if they don’t take the action you ask them to? What are the critical parts of the story? Usually, you need to explain what problem you’re trying to solve, then show how your great idea solves it.
If you understand these two parts, you should be able to tell your story in 90 seconds (the elevator pitch), give a slightly different version in 5 minutes, give a really compelling talk with some supporting evidence in 15-20 minutes, or you can give people all the detail that they need in an hour or so.
That’s it. To do a great conference presentation, or funding pitch, or whatever, you just need to answer three questions.
- What action do you want people to take after hearing you?
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- How do you solve it?
It actually doesn’t take that long to do these three things. Be as clear as you possibly can be on these three points to make your talks better.