Lessons learned from 300+ conference talks

Lessons learned on how to give an engaging and highly rated talk from analysing over 300 talks at UXDX.

Lessons learned from 300+ conference talks

Have you ever seen a talk at a conference and thought “This is perfect - the presenter is really engaging and I’m really learning something” and then you watch another talk and see the opposite - the content seems cobbled together and the speaker is difficult to relate to. How can two talks, that follow a similar format, be so different?

We’ve been running conferences around the world for the past 5 years and we gather feedback on every talk. This detailed feedback, along with the video recordings of over 300 talks, have allowed us to identify some of the common mistakes that people make as well as the things that make some presentations really shine.

1. Set clear Goals for your Audience

Early on in my career I was implementing a new CRM system at Vodafone. Improving the efficiency of the sales team was a key goal and one of the big concerns was stale deals - they make revenue forecasts look better than they should and they waste sales people's time. We came up with a solution - the sales reps would just need to log a note about every meeting / call that they had with customers into the system so that we could calculate a recency score. Management loved the idea - but the sales reps didn’t. Their job was to sell, their commission was based on selling, and they wanted to spend their time selling. Often they would be on the road making calls as they were driving between customers. Having to stop and note down every interaction was going to be a huge time sink for them. And that was when I learned one of the most important phrases for product development - WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). We had solved the management problem but we had introduced an even bigger problem which would harm the efficiency of the sales team, which was our core audience.

When creating a talk you need to understand who your audience are and what value you want them to take away from your talk. Build your talk around their needs - not your own.

Common Mistakes:

  1. No obvious takeaways
    The lack of clear goal runs the risk of you adding in unnecessary content when preparing the talk, and it makes it harder for the audience to understand the value. Talks without clear takeaways are rated lower.

Better Presentation Tips:

  1. Find out about the audience
    Quiz the event organisers to find out who will be sitting in the audience. Ask what insights the conference organisers have on the key challenges that the audience is facing.
  2. Keep focus on the main goal
    Set the key learnings that you want the audience to take away from the talk and build your presentation around these points. Remove tangential content.

2. Actionable Examples

Having clear goals is great - but how do you get people to actually take on board the messages that you are trying to share? There have been a lot of passing fads in product development so you need to ensure that your message both resonates with the audience and can break through their skepticism barrier. Actual real-life examples showing what you are talking about are key.

Common Mistakes:

  1. Spending all your time on theory
    It might resonate but feedback from audience members is that it is not actionable.
  2. Going too specific into your company case study, without highlighting generalisations
    When presenting a case study if you go too detailed into the nuts and bolts of what you did it can be hard for the audience to relate to their situations and see how the learnings are applicable.
  3. Going too specific into the tools
    Its great that you use tools - highlight the benefit that you receive from them but don’t dwell on the specifics of how you use them. Tools are a means to an end - share the end.

Better Presentation Tips:

  1. Align your case study with generic principles
    Getting the balance here is critical. People want to see the case study for proof of execution but they also want to see how the approach could be applicable in their situation. The best presentations mention a generic principle and then share the example of how this was put into practice in the case study.
  2. Share the Challenges
    Any new approach, tool or way of working will have challenges in implementation. Share your challenges with the audience so that they can avoid making the same mistakes. Feedback shows that people feel they learn more and it makes the presenter more relatable.

3. Know your Environment

The theme of our conference is always the same - to help teams to build better software products, faster, together. This is a broad area with a lot of different specific topics that can be discussed in detail, but the most important change is a shift from Waterfall project development to long-lived Product teams. Given the ubiquity of this step, and the fact that it is still not in place in a lot of organisations, a lot of presenters like to touch on this topic. Repetition can be good to reinforce a point but when you’re in the audience and you hear it for the 10th time that day it does seem a little redundant.

Common Mistake:

  1. Repeating other speakers' content.
    Given our conference focus a lot of talks discuss the need to break down the silos between traditional Product, UX, Design and Development functions to create customer-focused Product teams. If you’re the first speaker of the day you might get away with it but feedback shows that the audience starts rating talks lower if there is too much repetition.

Better Presentation Tips:

  1. Find out what to avoid.
    Ask if there is anything that gets repeated so that you can jump over it quickly.
  2. Find out what works in this conference
    Ask for examples of talk types and formats that resonated best with the specific audience that attends the conference. By learning from past success you can increase your chances of looking like a superstar on stage.

4. Promoting the Right Way

Public speaking is a great promotional tool. Whether you are trying to promote yourself, your product or your company there are good ways and there are bad ways of going about it. If you get this wrong you can lose an audience which delivers the opposite effect of what you were hoping for - feedback often comes back saying they have been turned off a product because the talk seemed like it was just a sales pitch.

Common Mistakes:

  1. Long introductions about you
    Some presenters will give a detailed history of their career and achievements to date. Speaking is great for self-promotion, and establishing why the audience should listen to you seems like a good idea. But your name has been on the agenda for some time, your bio will be beside that and people have chosen to turn up to your talk. The best way to ensure people remember you is to wow them with your content.
  2. Long introductions about the product / company.
    Often speakers have to include some points about their product or company in the talk. But spending 20% of your time talking about your product will just anger the audience. Being forced to watch ads before the content sucks - but when the ads shrink the content it makes people even angrier.
  3. Pushing too hard.
    By pushing your product too hard people will get turned off the product because it will come across as desperate. Advertising has moved away from the hard push for a reason - it doesn’t work. You need to convince people of the benefits of the product, not tell people how great it is.

Better Presentation Tips:

  1. Get people interested early.
    People are least invested in your talk at the start. You need to win them over fast so skip the long intros and jump straight into the content. A lot of TV shows have a quick hook at the start and then go into ads. This way you can capture people’s attention, which allows you to, subtly, distribute your key messages across the talk.
  2. Think product placement - not ads
    Product placement in movies and TV shows is an $11B industry for a reason - it works. Rather than telling people about yourself, your product or your company in an upfront introduction, scatter examples of the product in action throughout your case study. This also works for your profile - you could use examples from different companies that you worked for to demonstrate your breadth of experience.
  3. Demonstrate value through examples
    Don’t just tell people how great your product is - demonstrate it through the case study. Just make sure that the examples you choose are relevant. You don’t need to do a full pitch for your product - showing one or two examples is enough to get people interested.

In short, based on feedback from over 300 talks the best way to ensure that you deliver a well received talk is to set clear goals for what you want the audience to take away from your talk, mix theory with real-life examples, to balance the underlying principles with applicability, and distribute your key promotional messages (personal and company overviews) throughout the talk.

Give it a try and let me know how you get on.