(Are you a speaker? Read this instead.)
The single biggest thing you can do to improve your conference’s content is to require all speakers rehearse their presentation two weeks prior to the conference, via video conference, with someone that has not seen the talk before. Everything else is spinning your wheels.
I’ve chaired or been on the planning committee for more than two dozen conferences over 3 decades in technology, grass roots politics, LGBTQ+, and other fields. The one thing I’ve learned is that content is king. When people think about your conference years from now, it is the quality of the content that they’ll remember.
Yes, there might have been a problem with the lunch, the registration, the… whatever. If the presentations are good, people will forgive all that. Word will spread and your conference will grow.
A single rehearsal is better than none. A single good rehearsal will find the big boulder-sized problems; your 10th rehearsal will find pebble-sized problems that are too small to worry about. It is the law of diminishing returns.
As a conference organizer you need to find the boulder-sized problems before the conference starts.
If there is no rehearsal then the presentation at your conference will be the rehearsal. Your audience didn’t show up to watch a bunch of rehearsals. That’s disrespectful of the audience.
Rehearsals prevent problems before they make it to the podium. This is not theoretical. I’ve seen the following problems prevented:
- Intended for the wrong audience
- Too much material / not enough time
- A misleading title
- A mismatch between content and the published description
- A boring talk
- Incomplete or confusing slides
- No slides!
To be honest, I started requiring rehearsals because I wanted to solve one single problem. However it solves a host of other problems too. What was the problem I was trying to solve? presenters that write their slides the night before the conference. It is a common thing in community conferences and is often the root of why so many talks are crap. By requiring a rehearsal a week or two before the conference I knew it would force people to write their slides early. It worked! It solved a cascade of other problems too.
You can’t trust presenters to rehearse
I hate to be so pessimistic but people say they rehearse but they really don’t.
To me it isn’t a real rehearsal unless there is someone else watching.
Many presenters claim they’ve done a rehearsal but they did it “in their head”, just reviewing their slides and thinking about what they’ll say. When they get to the podium, they realize they haven’t actually worked out what they are going to say on each slide. Their talk is meandering and unclear. The audience’s time is wasted.
No matter how well intentioned, rehearsing “in your head” is not an actual rehearsal.
Therefore you have to “force the issue” by requiring speakers to rehearse over video conference at least two weeks before the event. Having a third-party view the rehearsal forces the person to give their talk out loud, not in their head. Doing it a week or two in advance gives people time to update slides. Occasionally the rehearsal will result in a total rewrite that could take 2-3 weeks.
Scheduling can be a nightmare.
What doesn’t work? Asking all your presenters to submit times they’re available and trying to match that with volunteers from your organizing committee.
What does work?
For small conferences (1-3 presenters): Assign a volunteer to each presentation and let them work it out. Announce the rehearsal time so that others can join in if they’re available.
For big conferences: Announce a number of time-slots and let presenters pick on a first-come, first-serve, basis. For example announce time-slots 9am, noon, 2pm, 5pm, 7pm; every day from Oct 10-20. There should be at least 2x the number of slots as there are presentations. The time-slots should be twice as long as the presentations. If your presentations are supposed to be 25 minutes long, you’ll need an hour for the rehearsal. The first 20 minutes are just for fixing video conference problems; because that shit never works the first time. You’ll also need 10+ minutes for feedback.
Often people will ask to restart the talk from the beginning, or re-rehearse certain parts. That takes time.
ProTip: Even if I allocate an hour for a rehearsal, I block out the next 30 minutes too. Sometimes these run long.
ProTip: Be flexible. You’ll always find 1-2 people that can’t find a time-slot that works for them. No worries. Ask them to propose a few times that would work. Managing a few exceptions is normal, and better than the chaos of individually scheduling each speaker.
Even experienced speakers?
“But won’t it be an insult to require [name of famous person] to rehearse?”
Experienced speakers appreciate the value of a rehearsal.
Of course, you have to be diplomatic about it. Don’t treat them like you would an inexperienced newbie.
What I’ve said in emails/CFPs/etc is, “All presentations must be rehearsed by video conference 2-3 weeks prior to the conference. To be egalitarian about this, we’re requiring rehearsals for all speakers; whether you are an experienced, professional, presenter, or presenting at your first conference.”
If someone pushes back (“I’m an experienced speaker! I’ve done this talk before!”) I diplomatically say, “Obviously you’re an experienced speaker. In your case the rehearsal will be more about timing and other issues. For example, in the past we discovered a presentation was excellent, but didn’t match the audience. The presenter had time to update slides. It prevented what would have been a big surprise.”
Nobody likes surprises.
Here are two true stories I sometimes relate:
The closing talk at a conference was by someone that was an excellent, experienced, speaker. During the rehearsal we learned that he had made wrong assumptions about the expertise of the audience. The talk would have been a total mismatch. Instead, he was able to skip a lot of introductory material and jump to the more exciting parts. He was so happy that he could do this! (We were happy too! We prevented a disastrously bad closing talk!)
A highly-experienced speaker resisted a rehearsal but finally agreed “just to humor us.” It turned out he though the presentation time-slot was an hour, but it was only 25 minutes. How the miscommunication happened is irrelevant. We had a very productive brainstorming session about what to cut. Disaster averted!
How to conduct the rehearsal
If you are nervous about conducting the rehearsal, don’t be afraid!
People see their own problems. You can literally say nothing, give no feedback, and the presentation will be 100x better than if they hadn’t done a rehearsal.
Of course you should thank them at the beginning and end of the session. Don’t literally say nothing.
That said, here’s my step-by-step guide for a rehearsal.
Step 1: Begin with gratitude
Thank them for their time. Tell them you’re excited to hear their presentation.
Step 2: Work out any A/V issues
There will be many. It can be useful to give them a way to work out the A/V issues ahead of time by doing a video chat with a coworker or other volunteer. This is especially important with non-technical people, people with a laptop that is “locked down” (typical at big companies), or anyone in executive management. For example one executive had to talk with her corporate Helpdesk to fix any problem. The fact that we had scheduled an A/V test a week before her rehearsal meant she had time to get those problems fixed.
Step 3: Let them give the presentation
Let them give the presentation without interruption.
Write down the start and end time. Take notes about improvements that come to mind. Sometimes I record the time at each slide or each major heading (this helps them adjust the timing and pace).
Step 4: Fan-boy (or girl) them
After the presentation… fawn over them. Speakers aren’t paid in money. Compliments make it all worthwhile.
Even if the talk was terrible, say positive and encouraging things. Sometimes all someone needs is encouragement.
Point out 1-2 things your learned from the talk or what you think the audience will have learned. “What a great talk! I think the audience will be so enlightened to learn that [fill in the blank].” There is no better compliment for a speaker than hearing that you learned something.
Step 6: Give feedback (big and small) them
Be diplomatic but honest about all feedback.
How do I tell someone that their talk sucks and needs big changes?
You don’t have to, If it really sucks, they’ll know it. It will be obvious. They’ll be the first to start talking about improvements.
How would I tell someone their title or abstract is terrible?
They may be very much in love the title they picked. However if it doesn’t match the content, attendees will be mislead (unintentionally). It is your duty to make sure they match.
I generally tell someone that this is a great talk, that I’m totally excited about the topic, etc. That said, “I want to make sure the message gets through the the audience therefore I have some things to suggest…” At that point I suggest everything from a better title, to updating the description to better match the contents, etc.
Step 7: Thank them
At the end of the session thank them for doing the rehearsal and tell them you look forward to seeing them at the conference.
Coach about content order
I always encourage the talk to be “front loaded”. The best talks make their point in the first few slides, then fill the rest of the time with examples that prove and re-prove their point. A lot of people try to have a “surprise ending” where they reveal their point after building up to it with a lot of background and explanation. (I used to do this all the time.)
It is much better to front-load the talk. I often suggest that they duplicate their conclusion slide and move it (the dup) at the start of the talk. That way the talk is “We find x-y-z is awesome -> the build up of how they got there -> we hope you agree that x-y-z is awesome” instead of “the long build-up -> we find x-y-z is awesome”. Start with the good stuff, explain how you got there. No surprise endings!
(This may be a big shock to people from academia but I assure you this “duplicate the last slide” trick will change their life! I saw the opposite at Bell Labs where the (humorously stated) tradition was “Start with your last slide. If we all agree with your conclusion, we can end the presentation right then!”)
If the talk is really boring, here’s “one cool trick” that will fix that problem. Encourage them to start with a story about how [topic] affects real people. : “Mary was having a bad day because of A-B-C. She did X-Y-Z and things were better. Here’s my talk about X-Y-Z and how/why/when it is better.” The “A vs. B comparison” helps get the audience engaged. Here’s Jessica Hilt’s talk on how to do this and why it works.
I wish I knew these things when I first started giving presentations!
Things to pay attention to during the rehearsal
- Timing: Does the content fit the time-slot (with Q&A?)
- Front loaded: Get to the point! No surprise endings!
- Typos/Grammar: Point out any issues
- Third-rail traps: Warn if they mention topics the audience might get derailed on.
- Cut the opening crap: Minimize the amount of opening slides about the speaker, the history and funding of their organization, slides of the team, individually calling out every person involved. Most of this can be in 1-2 slides, and you don’t have to read the slide. Just say “this is my funding source”, pause for 2 seconds, then move on.
- No slow builds. It is an anti-pattern for the presenter to click to reveal each bullet point. Sure, doing that on one slide for impact makes sense. Doing it on every slide just distracts the presenter (click, talk, click, talk, click, talk) and insults the audience: trust the to read ahead if they want. They’re adults, trust them to manage their attention.
- Speaking vs. letting people read: No need to read every word. You don’t need to say every letter of your email address… just say “This is my contact info”. You don’t need to read the name of every person on your team, just say “Here is a list of my coworkers”.
- Time to utility: Does the speaker waste the first 15 minutes just introducing themself and their team? Does the speaker not get to their main point for a long time?
About time to utility: If the content isn’t front-loaded, people will be bored. I often point out how many minutes into the presentation (1) they were done introducing themselves, (2) when they got to their main point. (but only if either of those is a problem). I once told someone “I didn’t understand what this talk was about until 20 minutes into it.” and that inspired them to move material to the beginning. Another time I found myself pointing out that the first 33% of their talk (10 of 30 minutes) was consumed introducing their team/organization. This helped them realize they could cut most of that.
Use the time for some reminders
Yes, you’ve probably sent email to all presenters with info but I assure you that nobody reads that email. Take a minute to repeat the highlights:
- Is there a speaker’s lounge or green room?
- How early before the talk should they show up?
- How much time (if any) should be allocated for questions at the end?
- Timing: Tell them that we’re very strict about the schedule. Every effort will be made to have all sessions start and end on time. If you find you are out of time, don’t rush through the remaining slides; that never works. Instead skip to the conclusion slide.
- Time keeper: Do they have to keep their own timer or will someone be holding up signs that indicate “10 minutes left”, “5 minutes left”, “1 minute”, “wrap up. you’re done”?
Let me repeat that: The one thing you should educate every speaker about: If they run out of time, don’t try to cover the remaining slides faster. That never works. Skip entire section (“In the interest of time, I’ll skip this section, but all you need to know [one sentence summary]”) or just plain skip to the summary slide and talk from it for the remaining seconds, “I ran out of time but the main points are: A, B, C.”
How to get good feedback (for presenters)
This blog post is for organizers but I’m sure a lot of presenters are reading this too. Here’s a tip I learned from playwright Richard Orloff.
Before a reading of his new play he told the audience (paraphrased): I want you to be honest and open in your feedback. The negative feedback is the most valuable to me. Don’t be worried that your criticism might hurt my feelings. In fact, if the play could have been better, but wasn’t, because you didn’t give me a piece of feedback, that is what will hurt my feelings.