How to avoid bad conference presentations

Pic by Peretz Partensky

Think about the conferences you have gone to.  How many of the presentations were really good?

They had a few clear messages that were memorable, relevant and credible. They engaged the audience – perhaps to affirm,  perhaps to challenge.

They were clearly based in good practice and a good understanding of theory. And they provided some ‘take away’ skills, ideas or arguments that were discussed during and after the conference and applied to practice.

And how many were a terrible waste of time?

They didn”t communicate clearly.

They displayed ignorance of existing knowledge about evaluation (making claims about practice based on a narrow experience of it, or claiming innovation for something that is well established).

They used the allocated time poorly – making unimportant points slowly and skipping over important points (common mistake – a long description of a program and the findings from the evaluation and not enough time spent talking about the evaluation process and issues raised) .

Went over time, leaving other presenters without enough time for their presentation (very rude).

Made the least forgiveable mistake – doing “karaoke powerpoint”, where the presenter reads the words on a powerpoint.

(What are the other types of bad conference presentations that bug you?)

Evaluation conferences should set a high standard.  After all, these are people who either do evaluation or manage it, whose main focus is gathering and presenting information.  And yet evaluation conferences have far too many examples of poor presentations. And the way to avoid them is NOT to sit near the door, but to actually improve the quality of presentations.

This year the American Evaluation Association has introduced the Potent Presentations Initiative, to improve the quality of presentations at the annual conference, and to improve evaluators’ professional skills in presentation.

Stephanie Evergreen, AEA’s eLearning Initiatives Director and self-described general data communications geek, has developed some materials to help presenters prepare for the conference, including a preparation checklist and slide design  guidelines.

So here’s the schedule for July for those presenting at the AEA conference in October (the checklist also has good advice for those presenting at the Australasian Evaluation Society conference in August or the European Evaluation Society conference in October):

  •  Choose 1-3 key content points to be conveyed and then develop notes regarding what you wish to share relating to each key point
  • Gather photos or images for use in slideshows
  • Check in with copresenters on key content points and preparation timeline
  • Expect to hear from your session chair by email
    • Ask about length of time for your presentation, discussion time to be reserved for audience questions and a discussant, and the sequence of those events during your session. Papers have about 15 minutes. If you are part of a panel, demonstration, think tank, etc, determine with your chair and copresenters how much time is to be devoted to what content
    • Ask about your colleagues’ presentations and coordinate content to limit overlap and respond to one another’s work

Ok, so July is near or at its end already (depending on when and where you’re reading this) – but it’s not too late to work through this part of the checklist.

I’m off to contact my co-presenters  …

7 comments to How to avoid bad conference presentations

  • I love it! Today I heard the complaint that people use their slides as their teleprompter.

    Thanks for the promotion of our Potent Presentations work. We’re just a day or so away from announcing more training to remedy some of the ailments you’ve listed here.

  • Patricia Rogers

    Look forward to learning more from the PPI, Stephanie!

  • Rosalind Dibley

    I just gave a presentation about presentations at the ANZEA conferences which talked about good presentations. I like Nancy Duarte’s stuff about presentations and used some of it in my presentation. She talks about the importance of the presentation being totally different to the report and about giving the audience the opportunity to take away the big idea that you are trying to get across.

  • Patricia Rogers

    Thanks, Rosalind. Is there a link to anzea presentations, or other links you can recommend?

  • Good post!

    In choosing 1-3 key content points to be developed and shared, it’s been very helpful to me to use, let’s say, “nonlinear” presentation software.
    Contrary to classic Power-Point, software based on a big blank canvas (instead of a more or less hyper-connected sequence of slides) seems to me to be more appropriate for sharing important details and keeping people attention (understanding) on the whole thing.

    Software like Prezzi (a zoomable and sometimes dizzying canvas you can use as a multimedia white board) or Pptflex (a powerpoint plug-in that allows you to arrange slides on a canvas and then zoom between the slides during the presentation) helps you to explain things clearly and effectively.

    Somehow, in using them, you are driven to identify those important points, put them on a canvas as a mind map, write within them more detailed information and draw connections between ideas. In short, it seems to be a good help on making more comprehensible the overall focus of a given speech or presentation.

    Unfortunately most evaluation conferences I have known in Europe warn that “only MS Power Point presentations may be used”. Do you imagine some way of getting round logistical difficulties that a more open policy in software presentation could bring to such a big event as October’s European Evaluation Society Conference?

    Thanks ;-)

  • Patricia Rogers

    After my initial “wow!” reaction to Prezi, I am less enamoured of it. Partly from having now seen lots of bad versions where the zooming and spinning does not support the messages but gets in the way.

    Increasingly I am interested in how we can use the basic tool of powerpoint in a much better way. Stephanie Evergreen’s guidance on atomic slide development, based on her great presentation at last year’s AEA conference, shows how much more effective powerpoint can be. There is also scope for providing a mind map of the presentation a la prezi.

    I’m currently revamping a presentation on evaluation for public sector managers and will share this in the next few weeks to explore these ideas a bit more.

  • Ramon Crespo

    Definitely, atomic message development seems to be the way in making presentations comprehensible and easy to remember. Really useful approach in designing “blank canvas” presentations as well (as long as zooming and spinning psychedelic impulses are kept under control ;-)

    Thank you!