Presentation Blues

By | May 24, 2010

This is a copy of my weekly column for the Loose Wire Service, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I attended a conference the other day. I’m amazed, frankly, that we still do conferences. Weren’t we supposed to have stopped this already?

But, upon closer inspection, conferences are, if we’d let them, a reaffirmation that technology cannot penetrate our souls and we should give up trying.

Think about it. Everyone in a room, looking at one person on a podium saying “lend me your ears.” It’s so old wave. The medium is so antiquated. We’ve tried to jazz it up over the years but no one is really fooled.

PowerPoint just puts people to sleep. And in most cases it never works properly. There’s that awkward moment when the next speaker tries to find their PPT file and you can see the innards of Windows Explorer as file names litter the screen with names like “Talk — Use this one” or a file with its modification date of more than three years ago clearly visible. You know you’re in for a wild ride when someone hasn’t updated their deck since the Eisenhower Administration.

Or the person is a Mac user and it’s a Windows machine, or vice versa, and they throw up their hands and peer into the audience for moral and technical support, complaining feebly that they’re not a Mac/Windows person. And this from someone giving an inspirational talk about ‘Moving Outside Your Comfort Zone.’

Worse is when someone tries to include audio or video in their presentation, increasing further the chances of technical malfunction. Either there’s no visuals or no sound, or the audio suddenly crashes through the speakers like a light aircraft landing in the conference room.

Or the video is all in Serbo Croat and has subtitles people have to stand up to read. If they laugh then everyone else stands up, meaning no one can see the screen, or no one laughs and they all sit down as if the vicar’s asked them to sit for the reading of the lesson.

Or worse, the speaker wants to visit a website, and only belatedly realizes there’s no Wi-Fi, or they don’t have the password, and then you have those painful minutes where, in full view of the room, they laboriously type in the address of the webpage and try to make small talk while it loads (“So, anyone from Kigali here tonight?”)

The conference I was at handed out big karaoke microphones to the speakers, which we had to hold in front of our mouth like pop stars or stand up comedians, or, we were told, the interpreters, parked in another room, couldn’t hear us properly. So of course hand gestures were out, since as soon as we made one our voices went inaudible and those non-English speakers in the room yelled out in anger and ruined the punch line.

Despite the great content, it was all strangely disjointed, as if technology was conspiring against communication.

Which is the point.

Conferences are still popular because we want to be spellbound, and still the best way to do that is to tell a story. It’s not as if there’s no place for audio-visual aids—there were some powerful pictures at this conference, that moved some of the audience to tears—but the truth is that we come to conferences to see and hear people.

In the halls, in the auditorium, in the bars afterwards.

We are transported by people talking, if they talk well. If they talk badly they shouldn’t be allowed near the stage, but we don’t expect polish. We expect authenticity. We’re amazingly tolerant, for example, of people who talk off the cuff. One East European had the audience in stitches when he took out a digital recorder, pressed record and put it in his shirt pocket, saying his English teacher had included the speech he was about to give as part of his exam. After that he could have said anything and the audience would have forgiven him.

Just two sentences are enough to capture an audience if they start them off on a story. We all want to know what happens next. Must be something to do with our campfire genes.

But instead we hide behind technology. We hide behind bullet points, or whizz bang slides, or showing the audience a video that someone else made. The problem with visuals is that we are drawn to them like moths to a flame. Put an image in front of someone and they’ll look at it rather than you. Put a moving image in front of someone and they’ll stare at it until they fall asleep, die or crash.

Once we acknowledge that conferences are about people, and storytelling, and ditch the visual aids, we’ll all be a lot happier.

Humanity 1 Technology 0.