Conferences: necessary?

Flashforward conference - picture by Zach Graves (

Alan Williamson attends EuroOSCON and is left asking Are conferences necessary? (via Nil Desperandum). Having presented quite a few sessions at quite a few conferences now, I feel I can engage some of the points he raises.

Alan starts by listing The Good:

From both a speakers and attendee point of view, they treat you well keeping you informed both online and offline of the latest goings on. Speakers are well catered for with all the usual AV equipment they require and their keynote is more like a show with good quality sound and visuals. O'Reilly also provide free wi-fi throughout the conference, allowing you to be online no matter what session you are in.

I've attended conferences as both an attendee and as a speaker and, in each case, I am still someone who absolutely needs an Internet connection. This is one key feature that a conference must get right. Free WiFi at a conference is an absolute must. As a speaker, I also find a separate speaker's room very useful for when you need a little quiet time (especially if the conference is not at a hotel where you can escape to your room if you need to.)

Next, Alan mentions The Bad:

I took some time and looked around the room of delegates as the keynote progressed. The vast majority were all on their laptops banging away very rarely looking up at the presenter. You could assume they were all taking notes, live blogging or something, but as I looked over the shoulder of some, most were checking email, instant messaging while others just surfing. So with that in mind, why on earth were they there?

Anyone who has been to a conference recently has probably seen this. I know I have. And I've also been that guy either adding finishing touches to my own presentation or working on some deadline. But I've also been the guy staring attentively at the stage and absorbing every syllable that leaves the speaker's mouth or live blogging a session. Regardless, I've benefitted from talks even when I wasn't paying full attention through osmosis alone and I tend to alternate between doing something else and listening to bits that interest me. If I learn one new thing at a talk, I find that talk useful and usually it's rare for me not to come away with at least two or three new items of knowledge that would have taken me longer than the hour I spent in the talk to research, if I knew what I was looking for to begin with.

I attend talks at conferences not to learn everything there is to know about a subject but to get an overview of the most important aspects of a topic. I want the wheat separated from the chaff. I expect the speaker to have spent months, years even, doing this. I want the fruits of this experience presented to me in bite-sized chunks on a silver platter. I firmly believe that you cannot teach someone a subject in forty-five minutes to an hour. However, you can inspire them and lead them down the right path to learning more about the subject. In a field where there are 99 "wrong" paths to every "right" one, this is invaluable. Which brings me to the other reason I attend talks: inspiration.

I attend talks to be inspired. I've been described quite a few times as being "passionate" but even the most passionate and driven among us need to bask in the warm glow of others from time to time. I find that the best sessions sometimes have no technical content whatsoever but are chock full of life content and are presented in a lighthearted, humorous manner. Some of these sessions are not even sessions but pieces of performance art. If you're wandering what I'm talking about, jump at the chance to attend one of Ze Frank's talks if you're lucky enough to attend a conference that has him presenting. Ditto for Josh Davis, Jeffrey Veen, and Lawrence Lessig.

Knowing what I like to get out of sessions, I try to give my audiences the same things when I present. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. Recently, I've been experimenting with the Lessig method of presentation in both non-technical and technical presentations. It's definitely better suited to non-technical presentations but I believe I'm developing a bastardized version which should work for presentations that have some technical matter. Recently, I felt it worked really well at d.construct for my Mash my Flex Up talk and for the introduction of my Flex workshop at FlashForward but that it didn't work as well for my Supercharging Flash 8 talk at FlashForward.

Here are a few things I've learned about presenting:

Show, Don't Tell

A presentation is an audio-visual medium. Your audience is there to see things as well as hear you speak. So show them things! Don't talk about what you're going to show them for half an hour and then run out of time and end up not actually showing them what you've been talking about. In fact, show as much as you can and tell as little as possible.

Interestingly, this is also one of my User Interface Design Principles.

You don't need slides

Slides don't make a presentation. You can easily present a vibrant, engaging and informative technical presentation without any slides whatsoever. How? By actually using the application that you're presenting. Remember: Show, Don't Tell!

That said, as I mentioned earlier, I am experimenting with the Lessig method, which can include a large number of slides, each with a single key word or phrase. The slides in this method of presentation reinforce what the speaker is saying and are typically on screen for only a few seconds each. Lessig-style presentations can contain hundreds of slides.

Talk to your audience

What? You're presenting, right? Of course you talk to your audience, right? Not necessarily. There's a difference between talking at your audience and talking to your audience.

If you feel like you're reciting a speech or if you're reading off bullet points from your slides, you're talking at your audience, not to them. If you feel like your audience is a single object, or a wall, or "that thing beyond the blinding spotlights", you're talking at your audience, not to them.

Talking at your audience -- or ignoring your audience altogether -- may be all right if you're acting in a musical theater production but remember that you're a different breed of performance artist. As a presenter, you're more stand-up comedian than Shakespearian actor.

You must acknowledge your audience, see the audience as a group of individuals and, as scary as it might be, talk to your audience. And you can start doing so even before your session begins. Just walk up to the audience and start talking to them about whatever is on your mind. Talk to individual members of the audience. Hey, crack a joke even!

Keep it light, friendly and fun. In short, have a good time. Your audience will too!

Quality, not quantity

This is one I still find myself guilty of from time to time, although I feel I'm getting better at it. Don't try to cram too much into a 45-minute presentation. Most importantly, don't aspire to teach. Instead, give the audience the information they need to learn and point them in the right direction. The biggest value someone can take away from your session is an understanding about the best way of doing something. In other words, a distilled summary of your hard-earned experience. If something took you weeks, months, or even years to figure out and you can summarize it in a sentence and save someone in the audience the same effort, that will be worth the cost of the conference alone for that person.

Get everything ready before you start

This applies to technical presentations. If you're going to use the Flash IDE or Flex, start it up before you start your presentation. People aren't there to see application load screens. The same goes for web sites and Flash applications that you're going to be showing. Load them beforehand.

Think of your presentation as a polished, edited movie. In the movies, you don't wait for things and 90-pound weaklings can become champion boxers in one swift musical segment. The same should go for your presentations.

Use a Timer

Have a prominent timer either on your presentation podium or somewhere where you can see it without straining. Keeping dabs on how much time you have left will let you pace your presentation and keep you from having to sprint in the last few minutes.

If you do find that you have material you cannot cover for time reasons, leave it out. It's better than rushing through it like you're about to overdose on speed.

Use a Mac

No, seriously. I can't tell you how many times I've had my PC crash right after I'd gotten everything "just right" for a presentation. The last thing you need to do going into a presentation is worry or, even worse, be rushing to restart your computer. I hope you'll never have to experience Windows checking your hard drive "for consistency" in front of a room full of people waiting for your presentation. This is just one of the reasons I won't use a Windows machine ever again.

Use Keynote

I've tried everything from using Powerpoint (yuck) to creating my own presentations in Flash to creating a Flex engine for slide presentations. Mostly, it was a waste of time. Use the best presentation tool out there (Keynote) and spend the extra time actually working on and rehearsing your presentation (or doing other cool stuff like coding or spending time with friends and family.)

So are conferences necessary?

Definitely! And I don't say this only because I tremendously enjoy presenting at them but because I have also benefitted greatly from them. I don't agree with Alan that conferences should morph into "speed dating" events for geeks. I've attended that sort of networking event and, although they may have a place, the feel of a conference is something entirely different and, as I mentioned earlier, if you learn even one or two things that save you a couple of days of time (I'm being very conservative here), it will have paid for the cost of attending the conference.

Knowledge is our greatest commodity and well-organized conferences with good speakers facilitate the exchange of this information in a fun, social and inspiring environment. Long live conferences! :)