I often speak at conferences so I attend a large number of conference sessions. While not a public speaking professional, I know how I react as a member of the audience. Since I bet that many others have similar reactions, I believe my “lay” views will be of value to conference speakers.
I’ve been to a number of presentations where the speaker seems to draw an imaginary line on the floor and then walk back and forth on this line throughout the talk. It shouts out, “This is what my speaking coach taught me to do.” There is nothing natural about it. My reaction was exactly the same as if I sat next to someone who did not stop shaking his leg. It’s annoying and makes me nervous too. It’s distracting and takes away from the content. Recently I heard several speakers who followed a variation of this pattern. They traversed the imaginary line, stayed at the end and talked there for a short while, then talked while they walked to the other end of the line and talked there for a while, repeating this pattern until the talk was over. This was better than the constant walkers, but not by much.
At this particular conference, the speakers who followed this pattern had excellent content and were otherwise excellent speakers. I cared about what they had to say. But my mind was distracted with thoughts such as “Do you think they have the same coach?’ or “Do many coaches train speakers to do this?”
Many speakers move naturally which brings energy into their talks. They may walk into the audience and connect better with their audiences this way. But pacing back and forth on an imaginary line does not have this effect, at least for me.
Other speakers put much more energy into special effects than into the content of their presentations. They may come from companies with art departments and multimedia departments who prepare fancy slide decks and multimedia effects for them. That’s fine if it’s in addition to, rather than instead of, excellent content.
Another annoyance is speakers who do not time their talks and end very early. They create dead space: there is not enough time to go to the exhibition area but nothing to do other than just sit there and wait for the next session. Session chairs often prevent the opposite problem of speaking too long from occurring.
Different conferences seem to have different problems. For example, at statistical conferences I see many speakers talk to the slides instead of the audience, have too much information on slides, and be guilty of other speaking faults, but I don’t remember the pacing problem. Each discipline seems to have its own speaking genre.
My takeaways from these experiences are to do my best to prepare excellent content, rehearse and time my talk, and be myself. What are your conference pet peeves? How have you changed your presentation style as a result?
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