Creative conference talks

6 minute read

Conference talks are boring. Everyone expects it. Work is boring, right? If you change something about yours, you can really stand out.

Jessamyn says that conference talks, science communication and stand up comedy are all performances, and benefit from the same techniques. I’ve made a point of trying to surprise audiences and mess with their expectations in professional settings. It works great. Once or twice it worked so well that it earned me an invited plenary slot - that’s how I ended up speaking to 400 of my international colleagues about what they could do for LGBT rights, so that seems like a win.

And then sometimes it was a miserable failure. Which is good news: I screwed up so you don’t have to.

“But I have to cover…”

Your presentation is different though: you’re not selling iPhones or giving a TED talk, you have to give an update on your project and that has to be boring because it’s work. Not so, there is a way around this!

Start with the title. Scott Berkun’s book, Confessions of a Public Speaker has great advice on choosing a presentation title. Whatever you’re doing, there are dozens of interesting stories you can tell about it. Instead of “an update on the process of trunnion widget production” (translation: “it is now safe to go to sleep”) find one of those stories.

Tell me about how we can use the techniques of trunnion widget manufacturing to help my own work (because of these updates to our process…) Tell me about how trunnion widgets are helping clean water projects in Somalia (thanks to our increased production, which is because of these updates to our process…) Or even tell me about five mistakes you made, and how things went wrong, and how you were able to fix them (with these updates to our process…)

Once you have a title like that, the presentation becomes much easier to write, as well as to listen to. We’re wired to tell stories (“no shit, there I was…”).

“But what can I do?”

The most wonderful gift we have as speakers is that the audience doesn’t know what’s coming next. Even if you had to publish your slides in advance, most people haven’t read them and no one’s memorised them. So when you mess with their expectations, people look up from their laptops, and now you have their attention in a way that most speakers would die for.

I’ve tried a bunch of ways to mess with the audience’s expectations, and the talks I admire most do this too. A very simple way is to have an ulterior motive. I’ve given a talk to a non-technical audience about network monitoring, that was really about how to make sure your suppliers aren’t lying, lying cheats. (It’s also kind of what I’m doing above - a talk about a change in manufacturing process that’s also about how widgets can save your career.)

“The whole truth and nothing but…”

You have to tell the truth. If you use rhetorical techniques to be dishonest, you’re a scoundrel and we will meet at the cliffs of New Jersey with pistols at dawn.

But you’re not on the witness stand. It’s ok to varnish the details a little, if it aids understanding.

This isn’t as unethical as it first sounds; we do it all the time. The Science of Discworld novels have the concept of “lies to children”, things that aren’t true but are helpful steps in getting to a full understanding. Your chemistry teacher did this to you when they taught you that electrons are tiny little spheres that orbit the nucleus of an atom in shells. They do no such damn thing. But there is a path to an understanding of quantum mechanics that begins with first building - and later unlearning - that not-quite-true picture.

So your conclusion has to be honest, and the evidence you use to support it must be genuine. But if it helps to go “so then we thought, what if we mix paint A with bleach B” as a shortcut to how you ended up with formula C - provided that it doesn’t really matter how you ended up with formula C - then we’re cool, and the duel is off.

“Getting accepted”

This works for abstracts too. Conference reviewers, on their fortieth submission that day, are perhaps even more bored than conference attendees, because they’ve had to work through ALL the proposed talks, including the ones that we never see. If you make it clear that you’re doing something different, you’ll pique their interest, and hopefully flip the over into looking for reasons to accept, rather than reasons to reject.

“A bit gimmicky”

Gimmicks are okay! On one condition: they’re not the main point of the talk. The greater the gimmick, the more the talk has to deliver. I’ve given a conference talk in persona as a medieval person - dressed for the part - and it sure as hell got attention. But people liked it because a few minutes in, when the novelty had faded, the talk succeeded at highlighting the relevance of old design techniques to what we do today.

That one was my highest stakes gimmick, and I wouldn’t risk it with most audiences. And for any gimmick, it’s essential to have the conference organisers on side; these ones knew that it was the right kind of risk for their audience, and trusted me to pull it off.

But whatever you do, it must support your point, not distract from it.

“What if it goes wrong?”

Changing the format is scary. If you stick with the herd, you might not be the most noticeable presentation at the meeting, but at least you don’t risk embarrassment, right?

The thing is, every conference audience has expectations, and you have to deliver on those expectations by the end; but the freedom is in how you do that.

There is an improv lesson which says: don’t go for the joke. If you’re in a scene and crack a joke, then you had better be really good at cracking jokes. What surprised me about improv is that it goes for the opposite: if you’re honest and true to the scene you’re playing, the result is much more satisfying, and very often funnier. The comedy just naturally appears.

You can see the same thing happening in one of the talks I most admire, Bret Victor’s “The Future of Programming.” There’s wonderful humour here, but he clearly never sat down to write jokes. He just makes an honest portrayal, and the humour naturally arises out of it… as do other even more powerful emotions. I won’t spoil it further.

When you bring your audience on a journey that messes with their expectations, you’re seeking their indulgence. If that’s all you’ve got, then it had better be a hell of a journey. A comedy routine when the audience were expecting something else had better be an amazing comedy routine. (I tried this once. It wasn’t. The feedback was exactly as terrible as you think.)

But if you bring the audience on a journey that deposits them back where they expected to be, via a new route, they will be very grateful. They got what they came for, and more. And it’s much, much easier to write something great.

You don’t have to mine your creativity, emerging with one shiny diamond and a lot of dust in your lungs. If you’re open and creative with your ideas, always toward the goal of what your audience needs, your stories will delight.