What Makes a Good Conference Session or Keynote?

One of our FreeCon Chicago brainstorming exercises was to talk about what makes a good training session, conference session, or keynote speech.  I started it by asking a few questions.

And yes, these are the cool kids.
Sign of a bad session: all the cool kids would rather stay out in the hallway.

Does a successful session require a packed room? I was so happy to hear the attendees answer, “No.”  A packed room has absolutely nothing to do with the success of a session: a packed room has to do with the success of the conference schedulers picking the right room size for a given topic, abstract selection committee picking the right abstract for the audience, and speaker’s marketing ability in getting the word out.  You can’t even judge success by the population in the room at the end of the session, either, because many attendees won’t leave mid-session out of sheer politeness.

Does a successful session require demos? The attendees universally answered, “NO!”  The best explanation I’ve seen comes from a post Jeremiah shared in our community newsletter: Why how is boring and how why is awesome by Benjamin Pollack.  No, most audiences don’t really want to watch you click and type and fix typos, but even if they did, conference rooms are horrible, awful places to watch demos.  You can’t see the screen well, you can’t take notes fast enough, and you need a step-by-step reference that you can follow along later anyway.  That’s not to say presentations with demos aren’t successful – indeed, they can be.  It’s just that demos aren’t required to be successful.

Does a successful session require slides? Again, the answer was simple: “NO!”  We talked about some all-demo sessions that were spectacular, Buck Woody’s sessions where all he used was a whiteboard, and panel discussions.  We even liked the Actor’s Studio style where a session is nothing more than a very well-conducted interview.

I have presentations that are on both extremes: my Virtualization & SAN Basics presentation is 100% slides, and my Blitz: SQL Server Takeovers presentation is 100% demos.  Every now and then, a fellow presenter will come up to me afterwards and say (with more than a little disdain), “I noticed that you didn’t use any (slides/demos).  Do attendees ever leave bad feedback about that?”  I totally understand their point of view because presenters are used to certain delivery mechanisms, but instead of the tools, we need to focus on the storytelling.  It’s a tough concept for us technology people to get because our very business is tools.  Instead, we have to take a step back and ask the audience what they’re really here for.  At FreeCon, the answer from the attendees was loud and clear.

A successful session requires one thing: engagement. Attendees have to feel that they’re interacting in some small way.  They want eye contact from the presenter, but much more than that, they want to feel a sense of belonging and bonding with both the presenter and their fellow audience members.  They want a session that engages their brain, shows them something interesting and new, and gives them something to talk about.

Because they serve beer.
My Kind of Keynote

Think about how you engage at the ball game. Whether it’s our kids playing soccer or a visit to a baseball/basketball/football/drinking game, we engage.  We talk back to the announcer on the loudspeaker, we yell at the players, and we share our feelings with the people sitting next to us.  If we’re lucky, we interact directly with the players by catching balls or catching their eye as we sit courtside.  We build up rituals like the seventh inning stretch.

Presentations are spectator sports. We pay for tickets (sometimes), root for the home speaker, share our thoughts on Twitter, and hope to catch a thrown t-shirt.  Engagement gets harder as audiences get bigger, but it’s still possible.  As I walked into my “Tuning T-SQL Step by Step” presentation at Connections Orlando this spring, I realized my session had been moved to the developer track, not the typical SQL Server track.  When the big room filled up, I took a show-of-hands poll to see the mix of developers versus database administrators.  Since it turned out to be a diverse audience, I engaged the audience throughout the presentation by pitting them against each other.  I’d say things like, “Well, you developers know how those DBAs are – they’re control freaks, aren’t they?”  I tried to pick on (and promote) both sides evenly so that everyone in the room would feel like I’d taken their side at least once.

If it’s a blowout or a bad session, we vote with our feet. When I first started going to conferences, I heard the experienced veterans say the same thing over and over: “I’m skipping the morning keynotes – they suck.”  I understood the motivation – many of us partied late into the night – but in my wide-eyed naïveté, I showed up each morning hoping to see the home team knock it out of the park.  Unfortunately, many of the keynotes I’ve attended have just plain sucked.

Which brings me to a question for you: what should we tell new speakers?  What makes a good session or keynote?

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • I think engagement and flexibility are crucial. A plot is good; a script, not so much. If you are going to use demos, make them an accessory, not the main attraction. Also, if you don’t have a sense of humor or a commanding voice, perchance live presentations are not your best option.

    Also, why do keynotes suck? you’d think they’d be, you know, a key part of the conference.

  • Keynotes do not have to suck. But they generally do. Why? Because they’re all too often seen by conference organizers as a way to slip in some kind of marketing message delivered by a clueless executive. The topics are boring, the slides are just a bit too pretty, the talk not technical enough, and generally the executive will make the biggest mistake possible: speaking down to the audience. Massive fail.

    The best keynote I’ve ever attended was at one of the DevTeach conferences in Montreal. Ted Neward–an excellent speaker–introduced Indigo (which later became WCF). He engaged the audience, taught something new, and really got everyone thinking about the topic and looking forward. That’s what a keynote at a technical conference should be. Not a way to slip in a marketing message that no one cares about, but rather a way to get people into the correct frame of thought for the rest of the content at the event.

  • I never like watching a presentation that’s full of demos – I’d much prefer to be told why something is important and shown screenshots. What’s just as valuable to me is a set of scripts or code that I can run at home and play around with. That’s going to do me far more good that a set of examples. Of course, it also takes a lot more work, so I’m not really sure what the best answer is.

    Adam hit the nail on the head for all presentations, I think, we he said that a keynote should be engaging, teach something new, and get you thinking about the topic. I shouldn’t walk away from a talk saying “Good, now I know how to do that.” I should walk away thinking “Ah ha! I now know something new. How can I use this to make life better?”

  • What makes a good keynote? Two words: Dr. Dewitte

    Hit me with technology. I had zero interest in column stores until I saw his excellent presentation on just how crappy disks are in great detail and oh, by the way, we’ve got this cool new technology that helps address that problem. Sold!

    • Grant – can you elaborate more to help readers who may not have seen that presentation? What made his session different from the other ones you’d seen on columnstore?

      I should also mention for readers that Dewitte is a professional educator – he teaches computer science for a living, and that gives him some pretty good advantages over, say, a marketing person. (And I’m not referring to you, Grant, hahaha.)

  • Hi Brent,

    The best example for the best presentation is your’s that happened today 26-may-2011.

    I like the way you have expressed the real world consulting experience and pains in that.

    I do believe in live interactive presentation that has NO Slides and No Demos. Just transferring knowledge to the audience is the key success.

  • Edwin Sarmiento
    May 29, 2011 10:37 pm

    Presentation styles vary depending on the message and the presenter. I’ve almost always try to incorporate a story around the presentations I’ve done. Creating a storyline is a difficult task especially for the geeks like us since we think logically. Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate talks about how to build story structures within presentations and capture the audience. And while our very own stories would resonate with the audience, a more powerful one would be something they could really relate to.


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