A decade ago, while attending a conference in an unprecedentedly prosperous and westernised Moscow, I went to interview the British KGB double agent George Blake in his dacha outside town. It was meant to be just a newspaper article, but it spiralled out of control, and my biography of him appeared last year. Other recent books of mine emerged from running into the right people at conferences in Doha and Istanbul, another city that has since almost dropped out of the international ideas exchange.
Conferences are essential to that exchange, and now they are restarting. I recently attended my first in two years (where I didn’t find a book, but did catch Covid-19). These events can change your thinking, or even your life. But so poor are most people’s presentation skills that sitting in a conference hall is the closest I’ve come as an adult to being a 13-year-old bored out of my skull in physics class. In a bid to boost quality, here’s my advice for would-be speakers:
Know that the audience is bored even before you open your mouth. You are also competing with the phone in each person’s lap. Your first redundant words — “Right, so, well, errr, as Sheila says, I’m going to be talking about . . . ” — are a signal to them to switch you off. Your mission is to prevent that.
Your listeners will remember at most one idea from your talk. The ideal is therefore to present a single important, surprising insight, and back it up with evidence and telling anecdotes — which people absorb more easily than ideas. That’s why the TED Talk format usually works even when the content is bogus. The single-idea method isn’t about simplifying, but about focusing.
Help keep the audience concentrated by speaking for less than your allotted time. If you have 15 minutes, finish in 12, instead of overrunning and trying to dash through your last slides, which just looks like bad planning.
Don’t read out your speech, because that will sound boring. Memorise it by saying it out loud once a day for five days beforehand. Repeatedly hearing yourself speak should also encourage you to make the language more human. Bring your notes onstage in case you blank, but you should find yourself able to deliver it freely.
Most of us are boring to look at. Make your performance more visually interesting by walking around the stage and looking at the audience. There’s a reason why singers, political speakers and clerics don’t tend to perform from their chairs.
Use slides or videos to give people a break from looking at your face. But don’t fill the slides with large slabs of text. Your mouth is for words, and slides are for pictures.
Don’t make the “difficult hour after lunch” joke, and if you’re a moderator introducing a panel, resist the “and finally last, but definitely not least” line. Jokes are good, but only funny ones.
If English isn’t your native language, use simple words. Barred from waffling or using jargon, you may find yourself speaking better than in your own language.
Don’t say things that are obviously true, because they are redundant and people will switch off: “This isn’t a panacea”, “All stakeholders need to work together”, “We must be sustainable.” Also don’t say things that are obviously false, such as, “We value all our employees.”
Don’t use a Marcus Aurelius quote, because people will know you got it from the internet.
If you follow these rules, then measured over an active conference-goer’s career you will improve the experience of tens of thousands of people. You might even influence somebody, or just possibly forge a human connection.
However, some speakers can obey all these rules and still say nothing worthwhile. It’s best to avoid talks by people who represent a company or other organisation, as they are generally only there to advertise it, and won’t say anything that isn’t official policy. (An exception to this rule are chief executives of a narcissistic bent who have a tendency to say whatever they want.) The ideal speaker has deep knowledge of a topic and intends to reveal it. Some conferences feature zero people of this description.
Of course, at many conferences the talks are irrelevant anyway. You’ve come to escape your family, or to visit a city that you may never see again, perhaps because it will disappear from international society. The problem then becomes faking avid attendance. One august historian has found the solution: show up on day one in a flowery shirt and ask lots of questions. Everyone will remember you were there, and you can then spend the rest of the time out on the river or interviewing double agents.
Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at email@example.com
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Letters in response to this column:
Pithy Q&A advice on a pet conference peeve / From Eithne Kennedy, Singapore
A pre-lunch drink makes things run like clockwork / From Major (very retired) Clyde Aylin, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, UK