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Guide to better conference sessions

The primary concern of most public speakers is, “what am I going to say?” But how you say what
you’re going to say, and what your body is doing while you are saying it, are just as important.

If you’re doubtful, consider the following statistic. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, did a study stating that there are three elements to any face-to-face communication: words, tone of voice and body language, and we are influenced by these things as follows:

  • 7% of our influence comes from the words we say
  • 38% from our tonal quality while saying it
  • 55% by what our body is doing while we’re saying it

from "Being a Gifted Speaker Isn't a Gift" by Frances Cole Jones (ChangeThis Newsletter)

Tom Hoffman at SVC Tuttle (fairly) recently posted a mini-rant about how most conference presentations "suck" and observes:

There are myriad reasons why, but the bottom line is that it doesn't take a little more effort to go from a meh presentation/conference to a great one. It takes three, four, five times as much effort -- that is assuming that you've got something interesting to say at all.

And over at The Thinking Stick, Jeff Utecht questions "the reason for f2f:"

There is a reason we like going to conferences, there is a reason why students like coming to school (and it’s not to be by oneself), there is a reason we want students in a class. What is that reason?

  • What is the reason we gather face to face when content can be found 24/7/365?
  • What is the reason when research can be done outside face to face time?
  • What is the reason when reading/listening/gathering/analyzing content can be done outside of school?
  • What are we doing with face to face time to maximize the learning potential for students?

After a month of conference going and lots o' F2F experience, both as a perp and as a victim, Tom's and Jeff's observations resonated with me. And yes, as Tom suggests, many conference presentations do "suck." But I'm not so sure it really does take five times as much effort to create a good session.

I've made suggestions about improving F2F workshops and improving panel discussions. Maybe it is time to take a whack at those ubiquitous 45-60 minute "concurrent" sessions. What separates the dismal from the delightful?

On a basic level, having a limited topic, sharing new information, resources and practices of practical value, or espousing a challenging POV combined with experiential or academic expertise may seem to be all that is necessary. Of course, preparation helps. I am always amazed by some presentation teams that seem to be working out speaking order and such as attendees file into the room. But these things seem to be basic  requirements for effective teaching and can be met through virtual learning experiences as well.

One thing that a conference session - or the conference environment itself - produces is superior peer-to-peer communication. As I remember, studies show that one has a better chance of learning through "lateral learning lines" established by visiting with fellow attendees than one does from the presenter. Yes, back channel communications are making inroads into online teaching, but I somehow find that running chat window more distracting than helpful. Most speakers establish a separate window for group interaction that enhances rather than detracts from the presentation.

But my observation is that the reason F2F is so powerful is simply that passion is easier to convey. A really good concurrent session does not need a smooth delivery, great PowerPoint slides or even radically new information. But it MUST have excitement and enthusiasm. The presenter has to convince me that she/he truly has something important to say. If that happens, I am engaged and learning. And inspiring such passion is awfully hard to do in impersonal media.

Maya Angelou once observed:

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

The "feeling" bit comes through when human beings interact in person. Somehow electonics drain it away.

Hoping F2F is here for a very long time.

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Reader Comments (6)

Reading this post made me immediately rewind to last night when our district's COO sat down beside me to say something along the lines of: "the other night at the tech committee planning session when you spoke... your body language was amazing. I could tell you were really passionate about new ways of doing things."

Of course I understand that nonverbal communication is huge. I have always felt that I was pretty attuned to these things at a deeper level than most. (though we all think we are better than average drivers as well, right?) I just thought it was interesting to come in here this afternoon and find something speaking directly to that little moment just one day later.

I appreciate this post especially for the fact that in my little corner of the world, I am looked to as the "tech guy." However, I have always been adamant that making moves to avoid F2F just "because we can" were ill-advised. Our district's first attempts at "distance learning" failed miserably. What is odd is that now there are so many emerging tools that would have probably helped to make those learning frameworks reasonably social and perhaps even fun.

Nonetheless, I am excited to see how emerging web tools blend with F2F and a renovated concept of what a "school day" or "marking period" looks like. In my opinion, we won't begin to see true renovation and innovation in our schools until we can truly learn to manage a constructivist environment -systemwide- in our secondary schools.

Thanks once again for the resources.

November 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSean Nash

I wouldn't mind using the time before the presentation to work on the presentation - I'm a procrastinator by nature and do some of my best work quickest under pressure - except that this is the time that's desperately needed to figure out how to carry the microphone pack when the clip has been broken and you have no pockets (it turns out that an elastic waistband will not prevent it from slipping down inside one's skirt mid-way through the presentation), and/or whether the previous speaker, who rushed off to grab a taxi to the airport, has accidentally taken the second microphone that your two-speaker presentation team needs (fortunately she hadn't).

Passion -- yes. You can do away with slides entirely if you've got passion.

November 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Fitchett

Of course F2F is valuable, more so than blogtact (ding! new word!). Meeting you at NECC was a lot more meaningful than just reading your blog.

The access to primo events! The free drinks! Meeting the CNN hosts!

None of it possible without face to face contact.

Additionally, there are a ton of 'crappy' presentations. Turns out that adults and students have this 'common' skill. But every concurrent session I've circled in the conference program and subsequently attended has prompted dialog with other attendees, and I've been able to inform my own instruction regardless of the wow-i-ness of those sessions.

Looking forward to PETE&C and NECC.

November 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterken

@ Sean,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. My old mind still sees online communications as a valuable and increasingly important ADDITION to F2F. I hope it stays that way.

All the best,


@ Deborah,

Thanks for the chuckle. Can’t say I’ve had the elastic waistband problem, but, yes, there are often glitches no matter how well we prepare.

All the best,


@ Ken,

And don’t forget all the free junk from vendors at F2F conferences too! (Oh, and there’s that hands on stuff with the new toys too.)

Looking forward to NECC as well,


November 14, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Just got back from the DevLearn08 conference in San Jose, and much of what you say is true. There were a few speakers who had great information but not so great presentations. Fortunately I only left one (to go to another).

Although what you mentioned in the above article does apply, what about:
(1) Speakers who don't need microphones? There were two presenters who had naturally load voices who were talking loudly in a small room.
(2) Unconfortable chairs - a couple rooms had these bamboo-looking furniture...
(3) Lighting - I was always looking for the chair under a spotlight

Do you think it would be possible to ask speakers to send a video of either a practiced presentation or a previous conferennce?

BTW - it was a great conference overall - highly recommend going next year...

November 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

Hi Kenn,

I chuckled at your second suggestion. As a frequent speaker, I have learned I have no control over:
The comfort of the chairs.
The temperature of the room.
Whether there is dessert at lunch.

I suspect many keynoters and invited speakers are asked to send sample tapes. I don’t have or use one since usually people who invite me to speak are ones who have already seen me present at other conferences (and must be really desperate.)

Glad your conference was a good one!


November 16, 2008 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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