Last Modified:                                                                                                

Homepage / Publications & Opinion /

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Conference Turnaround
Presentation is everything, as they say - and here's why...

I'm in the US at a conference with around 100 people from organisations all over the planet. Every seat has a power outlet, a high-speed LAN connection, a microphone for questions, a voting button and a Wi-Fi access. I can see 62 laptops scattered around the room and 59 screens are up and running. There are also a large number of PDAs. A minority is using paper. As I walk around the room at least 20 are doing their email, about 10 are writing documents, a couple are doing complex graphics and the rest seem to be searching the web.

The first speaker is using all the latest PC and net technology available and giving an unusual business model overview that seems to have limited appeal. His delivery style is interesting but somewhat monotonic. Only a few people are sticking with it and the majority are busy working on their laptops. Having recently watched the movie Gladiator, I have the feeling he is being given a collective thumbs down.

Europeans are often taken aback by American directness and usually read it as rudeness rather than efficiency. The protocol of the two continents is entirely different. In this experimental environment the response of the audience has been almost unanimous and little time has been wasted. In Europe a similar conference would have this speaker wasting roughly 100 man hours of life for every hour he was talking. But not here. People are vaguely listening with one ear while getting on with productive activities.

Finally, the speaker reaches the punch line, receives his applause, has no questions from the audience, unplugs and retires. A golden opportunity to influence 100 minds has been missed. I wander back to my seat and start typing these words as the next speaker sets up. I relax in the knowledge that I can continue working, irrespective of the quality of the remaining presenters. As it turns out the next presenters in the series are younger and bring with them a higher energy level and great content.

To gauge the audience impact I keep going to the back of the room for a coffee to scan the screens. None of the screens are closed down but there is less keyboard and mouse activity and it looks as though a larger percentage of imaginations have been captured. But like the rest of the audience I keep listening and working with an enhanced attention span focused on these new speakers and their material. The availability of the materials online also affords all of the audience the further advantage of being able to annotate and record the content to hard drive in a semi-real time environment.

This conference modus operandi is almost unique and for me one of the most productive formats I've experienced, with all the technology used to enhance the experience rather than detract from it.

It is always unfortunate and annoying when someone arrives at a conference ill-prepared and ill-equipped. To wander on to the stage with overhead foils resembling the Dead Sea Scrolls, or a laptop computer you can't drive, and then fumble in front of the audience for half an hour trying to get a picture on the screen, or getting the right slide set sorted out, is unprofessional and time wasting. It is also highly embarrassing all round.

If you are prepared and the technology goes wrong everyone is sympathetic but these days that is seldom the case. Gone are the days when people would hold their breath in anticipation of nothing passing from the computer to the projector. I do wish presenters would acknowledge their responsibility to the audience to be well prepared and professional and to stretch the technology to the limit so that they can communicate in a short time what has taken them years to understand.

There are a few more innovations I would like to see. A direct link from projector to my laptop so I could capture all of the pictures and movies directly would be really convenient. Most leading edge speakers never supply advance materials. They generally prepare right up to the last minute, adjusting their presentation in accord with the prior speakers. They supply their materials after the event but it would be far easier to deposit those bits in real time. It would also be relatively easy to record the spoken word to include with the presentation materials.

I would also like another facility - but for the speakers. I think an interest and comprehension indicator based on audience voting or keyboard and mouse activity would be really useful, especially so if it were visible to both the speaker and audience.

I've often craved such a facility when presenting over video links. It is very difficult to present to a TV camera or a sheet of glass. More often that not the audience audio feedback is considerably subdued in an attempt to limit any acoustic problems. As a presenter in front of an audience you also depend upon eye contact and any body language in general. I think we could enhance presentations with a few electronic cues as to whether people are in fact engaged and literally online.

People express themselves differently depending on whether contact is face-to-face, by telephone, email or written letter. In classroom and lecture theatre peer pressure, time and numbers stilt protocols but an additional indicator set from voting and keyboard could add a new dimension. No more embarrassment at admitting to a lack of understanding or requesting a slow down. The anonymity of the e-world could be a real positive.

Typed in real time during a morning session at the conference described, with added reflection on my school, college and university experiences. Stored for quite a few months, to be polished and despatched from a conference at the Suntec Convention Centre Singapore, via one of three available Wi-Fi services.