Six Words That Are Killing Conferences

I believe that six seemingly innocuous words have been decreasing the quality of conference presentations for nearly 20 years now.

These words are so common that you’ve probably written or seen them a hundred times without giving them second thought. Yet every single conference I’ve spoken at during the past 20 years has included these six words in their instructions to presenters and subject matter experts:

Conference attendee sleeping in empty conference room
“Please send your slides in advance.”

Why are these words so damaging?

´┐╝The reason is simple: They make the assumption that slides are necessary and expected in all presentations delivered at the conference. However, as research now shows, this assumption decreases communication quality, ultimately leading to lower comprehension and retention among conference attendees.

According to three separate studies from universities on two continents, if each presenter delivered the same information without showing a single slide, conference attendees would receive 20 to 30 per cent additional educational value.

Researchers from Purdue, Barcelona and Munich tested understanding and retention when exactly the same information was presented with and without slides. Depending on the study, those who receive information without slides being shown score 20 to 30 per cent higher on quizzes administered after the presentation.

And, all three studies confirm that what is lost in oral retention during regular slideware presentations is not made up anywhere else. “It is remarkable,” the Munich researchers wrote, “that this suppressive effect of regular slides on retention of information from speech could not be demonstrated to be the downside of a trade-off in favour of the retention of information on the slides.”

What Alternatives Exist?
Ultimately, the best way to eliminate this problem is to simply encourage conference presenters to
turn off the projector, leave their laptop open and deliver their presentationdelivering exactly the same information without showing a single slide. I talked someone into this exact approach at a professional development event with excellent results. But to help others ease into a new paradigm, I have a few other suggestions.

First, let speakers know that they can use a projector, but they’ll have to pay for it themselves. This works particularly well with not-for-profit organizations. You can generate significant savings and your audiences will ultimately learn more. (I recently helped a client save $10,000 by removing projectors from breakout rooms.) You may not want to ask your keynote speakers to pay for their projectors, but you can encourage them to focus more on telling compelling stories than showing slides.

Second, ask speakers to contribute articles and information that can be sent to participants to “prime the pump” in advance of their presentation, rather than slides as handouts after the presentation. When everyone gets together, tell stories about how the information can be applied. Case studies, examples, anecdotes and comparisons aid retention. Bullet points kill it.

Third, make sure flip charts and/or whiteboards are available in each presentation room—particularly breakout rooms. If someone has 30 to 50 participants in a breakout room, a flip chart will work well when a visual is needed (and any visual used in that medium can be precisely adapted to the needs of the group and that conversation at that moment in time). Consider removing projectors in breakout rooms with fewer than 50 seats.

Fourth, encourage dialogue. Again, if someone has 30 to 50 participants in a breakout room, why should everyone wait until the end to ask questions? They should be able to ask questions throughout. Everyone benefits when the process becomes two-way and receiver-driven.

These are a few suggestions; there are many ways in which dialogue can be enhanced (panel presentations that encourage structured dialogue with all the speakers, for example). But the bottom line is simple when it comes to “Please send your slides in advance.”

Please don’t.

Please don’t ask. And, if asked, please don’t.