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I went to a presentation but a conversation broke out*

March 20, 2019

I was at a conference last week, where as usual the standard presentation style was “death by PowerPoint”: wordy academic-style slides, presenters reading the slides to the audience, and so on. I dreaded attending presentations because of this but was hopeful that I’d find something at least a bit interesting and worth my time. The stage was set for a happy accident.

As it happened, at the first presentation that I attended, the projector was late in arriving. After a bit, the session Chairs decided we had better proceed. The presenter really wanted to use his slides, but sitting in rows, we couldn’t all see the little computer screen. Someone brilliantly suggested we sit it a circle in a way that made it possible for everyone to be a bit closer to the computer screen.

The screen, nevertheless, was still hard to see. As a result, pressing on, the presenter had to go ahead without relying on the slides and just repeating their content (not saying that that is all he would have done otherwise, necessarily, but that is usually what we see). Suddenly, he had to talk to us.

All of this seemed naturally to make asking questions at intervals during the talk seem more appropriate than waiting until the end, so it wasn’t just one person talking in the circle. That seemed to lead to a natural back and forth on any given question, bringing in more than one person’s ideas. We started to really get into the subject, and the presenter seemed just as pleased as anyone else.

The projector was delivered after a while, but by then we didn’t want to use it. We wanted to keep doing what we were doing. I really enjoyed that session, and was engaged and interested throughout, as I believe the others were as well.

The next presenters in the series went back to the PowerPoint presentation routine, and the contrast was amazing to me. Suddenly I was bored, irritated by the wordy slides, read-along presentation style and lack of interaction.

I have been a proponent of well-designed presentations for a number of years now, building in story, structure and imagery, and have discounted the idea of engaging in dialogue instead, at least in a conference-style context. I thought that this was a better idea for business meetings. Now I wonder.

I’d like to try designing a discussion for my next presentation. I’ll still use, I think, a core set of very few slides to structure things and help focus on key points, as well as to impart a story line. Or, maybe not. Maybe I’ll just have a handout. But I’d like to spend most of my time in conversation, fielding or bouncing around questions and comments. I hope the next conference organizer is ok with this, but you know, projectors do tend to mysteriously break down.

*That’s kind of like “I went to a fight but an Irish wedding broke out”.

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