What ever happened to competent lecturers?

Why Have Professional Presentations Gotten So Bad?

by Conrad Weisert
January 17, 2013
© 2012 Information Disciplines, Inc.

A disturbing trend

Over the past couple of years I've attended more boring, irrelevant, and utterly incompetent presentations at professional society meetings than we used to encounter in a decade.

"You can't win them all" we used to explain. If an ACM chapter or other group tries to schedule a monthly presentation it's inevitable that an occasional one will be a dud. In urging colleagues to get involved, I used to point out that if they attended eight or nine meetings a year and one of them turned out to be a waste of time, they were still ahead. The contacts we make during the social hour can yield long-term career benefits.

But when once a year evolves into three or four duds in a season, we can no longer defend the monthly-meeting habit. Younger members, particularly those attending their first such event are quickly turned off and don't return.

So what's wrong and who's at fault?

Of course, the main fault lies with the program committee or program chair of the organization. In considering a candidate speaker an organization must have a basis for believing that he or she will make a competent presentation. That belief may be a result of:

Age, experience, and structure

Note the word "mature" in the above list. Of course many young people make excellent presentations, but most of the really awful ones I've heard recently have been made by comparatively inexperienced speakers.

Their most common fault is failing to establish context. They bombard us with details before we even know what problem they're proposing to solve or what purpose their great new product serves. They show us presentation slides crowded with data in fonts too small to make out. They use terms they haven't defined and assume backgrounds or interests that we don't share.

That may have gotten them As from an academic instructor who already knew the assignment, but that approach can leave a roomful of fellow professionals bewildered and looking for an opportunity to slip away.

If you're not sure

If the program committee is unsure about a candidate speaker's qualifications, but still wants to draw upon his or her unique knowledge, consider a panel discussion. If the audience is going to hear three or four speakers for 10-15 minutes each, it's not a disaster if one of them is less than stimulating. Indeed, the other speakers may be able to improvise around the bad speaker's shortcomings and salvage the whole session.

Unless the speaker is coming from out of town, I always strongly urge him or her to attend the organization's previous meeting, in order to gain a firm sense of the people and the atmosphere. Then the speaker will feel more comfortable at the next meeting and may relate better to the audience.

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Last modified January 18, 2013