Roland Dürre
Wednesday October 31st, 2012

Why So Many Conferences and So Many Presentations Are No Good!

A short time ago, some of my friends attended a forum conference on project management. Their reports when they came back were not too enthusiastic. Occasionally, there was a keynote that really made a good impression on the listener. Some streams, too, obviously were high enough quality. But all in all, most of the presentations had been rather a disappointment – dominated by insignificance, lack of practical applicability, self-importance and adverts. Besides, many presentations were rhetorically deficient and often just manuscripts read aloud.

This is no exception from the rule. Especially with expensive conferences that have a very good reputation, I have started noticing quite some time ago that the quality of the presentations deteriorates. Consequently, I only attend these kinds of events if I absolutely have to. Basically, this is regrettable, because it is really important to attend conferences and meet others. You want to contact people, make friends with them and communicate with them. However, they are also time-consuming. And who, nowadays, is keen on wasting two or three days in a row if the result is less than satisfactory?

I have an explanation for this doubtlessly existing phenomenon of poor presentations at conventional conferences. As I see it, one of the reasons is how the presentations are selected.

At regular intervals, I receive “calls for papers”, often quite personal ones. Many of these events actually have titles that I find rather interesting: business, leadership, management, projects, change, innovation, agile methods. Actually, I could even well imagine myself contributing with an interesting presentation once in a while. But in order to be on the list of speakers, I would have to hand in a paper. A paper in which I would have to make up my mind what to talk about half a year in advance.

To be perfectly honest, I find this a little too stupid and time-consuming. Even the extra motivation of being permitted to attend the conference without having to pay for it does not make a difference. Just like, basically, I do not have two days at my disposal for listening to more or less unattractive presentations.

Besides, I have enough invitations to speak at all sorts of events and institutions. That is more than satisfactory for me. If a group who asked me for a presentation is to my liking and I have time, I agree to speak for them. If it is a university and/or non-profit or “modern” forum, my presentation is always “for free”. I consider itt part of the policy “sharing knowledge”.

My friends and the good speakers I know follow the same principle. None of them needs to hand in a paper, just in order to present themselves at a conference or in order to advertise his or her enterprise. If the event is for a good purpose, they talk for free or ask for a donation for some charitable organization (I mostly choose AI).  Or else, they demand a honorarum, sometimes even as high as Mr. Steinbrück.

So what kinds of people do typically hand in their work following a “call for papers“? I often find people working at the university who wish to see their work being noticed outside their direct sphere, employees of firms who want to improve their marketing. Their maxim is: the boss said “Mayer, why don’t you give presentations at conferences A, B and C?“. Sometimes you also find people who are fanatically in the grip of a topic. Or super theoretical persons who want to spread their personal theory like a Messiah. Mostly, however, you will find persons who I am sure do a good job, but basically want to earn their merits, because by improving their reputation, they hope to gain professional standing. Which is definitely not reprehensible.

Since there is usually a limited number of papers submitted, all those who have sent a paper will actually be permitted to speak. After all, the organizers will be happy to have names to put into the stream slots. If there are more papers than slots, we have the next problem. As a general rule, the selection follows the paper situation. There is no correlation between the formal quality of a paper and the competence of the speaker. Consequently, it is quite possible that even the good speakers will fail to qualify.
I can imagine solutions to this problem. For example, the committee might want to see a presentation? If this is too much ado, you could send a recorded video tape. Or, even better, a link to Youtube. To be sure, you will not have the live-effect, but at least you get a pretty good idea. It would be even better if the committee were to meet the presenters personally. They might arrange to talk about the presentation and thus be able to get a rounded picture of everything.

Here is a very pragmatic and perhaps innovative idea of mine: invite many people to attend a conference, look at all the registrations with a big team and ask those participants you know personally, directly or indirectly to give a presentation. Of course, this causes a hen-egg problem, because the attendants must be convinced it will be a super conference and the right kinds of people will attend.

But even this will not make a difference about one fact: those who actively take pains to give a presentation are usually not the good ones. The good speakers are those who are asked to speak all the time, anyway. This impression of mine got confirmed when I attended the GSA (German Speaker Association) competition. At regular intervals, the GSA does some sort of “Germany is looking for the super model“ for speakers. If you are a member or wish to become one, you can introduce yourself with a presentation. Most of the applicants are “professional speakers” who (want to) make a living as speakers or trainers. The appallingly low standards shocked me. Most of the “professional speakers” I saw could not hold a torch to the people I know from Barcamps or Jam-Sessions.

No, the good speakers are definitely those who get asked to speak, they never have to apply. Or else, they sit among us silently, just concentrating on their competence. So the trick is to find them! Or they spend a weekend at a Barcamp where they exchange knowledge. Conferences are actually the only places where you usually will not find them.

My closing remarks in this article are to advertise our PM-Camp at Dornbirn between November, 8th and 10th. (Unfortunately, it is already almost completely full).

(Translated by EG)

1 Kommentar zu “Why So Many Conferences and So Many Presentations Are No Good!”

  1. Johannes Link (Wednesday October 31st, 2012)

    Und dann gibt es noch die guten Redner, die einfach der Meinung sind, dass eine Community, wie sie sich oft hinter nicht-kommerziellen Konferenzen versteckt, gute Themen und gute Präsentationen verdient hat. Und die reichen dann auch oft genug Vorträge auf einen CfP ein.

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