Why Most Conference Presentations Suck

Why Most Conference Presentations Suck

I'd love it if we saw more strong praise of great presentations, and more honest private feedback to speakers and organisers when they haven't delivered the goods. (Yes, I know I talk too quickly when I present. I do like listening to great speakers and entertaining presentation does improve things, but there are better places than SEO conferences to go for stand-up comedy, so generally, I'm there to learn things. There's a huge difference between preparing the slides and giving a great talk. is a good way to make you up your game. Recipe for success: Organisers This rant is mainly aimed at speakers, who I think are the primary culprits, but for organisers, while I realise that larger conferences especially don't want to micro-manage every session the way Rand and I have been for the Pro training seminars, can I beg for one small thing? Don't invite speakers back if they didn't add value last time Everyone runs those follow-up surveys and knows which speakers were loved by the audiences and who phoned it in. [Rand wrote a whole post a while back with his thoughts on this from an organiser's perspective]. This post is really aimed at speakers not organisers] Rand and I actually tend to harangue our speakers with instructions a little bit like those above asking them to bring their 'A' games. Beyond a certain point, it hopefully gathers momentum because no-one wants to be the guy giving the sales pitch when everyone else's presentation is rocking.

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Normally, I tend towards the uncontroversial when I write. I haven’t been the author of many posts that have caused debate.

But I’ve had enough. I need to speak up.

Most conference presentations suck

There. I said it.

I remember being amazed (and, back then, pretty heartened) when I went to my first SEO conference and realised I already knew most of what was being said. Amazement turned to disappointment at my second conference, which was billed as “Advanced” and where the same old basics were trotted out by too many of the speakers.

Since then, I’ve been to hundreds of presentations. I’ve learnt a lot, but from a surprisingly small proportion of them. (Thank you to those speakers who consistently turn out the excellent stuff!).

I’m no exception

This is as much a criticism of myself as anyone else. Looking back, there are some presentations I’ve given that make me cringe now (especially early ones). Early on in my speaking career, it wasn’t necessarily that I phoned them in. I was suitably scared / motivated to do a good job – I think I just didn’t know how. More recently, I think it’s probably happened when I agreed to talk on a subject I didn’t really know enough about. I’m definitely trying to learn that lesson.

So before I go any further, if you’ve had to sit through one of my presentations and learnt nothing, I’m sorry.

If it happens in future, email me and tell me (my contact details are easy to find and always on my last slide).

I’m a strong believer in the idea that you should praise in public and criticise in private so I’m not asking you to tear presentations apart on Twitter. I’d love it if we saw more strong praise of great presentations, and more honest private feedback to speakers and organisers when they haven’t delivered the goods.

Basic has its place

Before I go any further, I wanted to point out that I am often called upon to give “SEO 101” type presentations and these wouldn’t teach any of you anything. I hope this doesn’t mean that they are bad presentations. It’s all about knowing the level of the audience I guess. This rant is squarely aimed at “advanced” presentations of one form or another.

Delivery is important, but it’s not a substitute for content

If you start googling “how to give a great presentation”, you’ll find masses of advice on slide design, how to speak at the right speed, the kind of opening line to use, what to wear etc. All of this stuff can help, but I would urge implore you to work harder on the other axis. Make the content kick-ass and I’ll listen to you even if you mumble at your feet in a monotone looking like a scarecrow. (Yes, I know I talk too quickly when I present. One day I’ll fix that).

Content is more important than delivery

I do like listening to great speakers and entertaining presentation does improve things, but there are better places than SEO conferences to go for stand-up comedy, so generally, I’m there to learn things. You can get away with slightly weaker content if your delivery is awesome but please remember this highly scientific chart:

Why bother?

And you know what? I don’t even care if it’s a sales pitch if you are teaching me stuff. It sets the bar higher and I’m more likely to criticise you if you pitch your own stuff without teaching me anything, but if you do teach me stuff, you can bet I’m going to check out whatever you’re hawking.

By content, I mean new stuff

In the past, just to avoid embarrassing myself, I have:

  • Learnt new things (this was about how to do first touch tracking in Google Analytics):
  • Carried out research (this slide shows a correlation I established between search volume for the 2006 world cup and…

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