4 things your upcoming conference presentation really oughtta be

Like you, I’ve been to my share of presentations. I’m that annoying guy near the back who takes a lot of notes during it: jotting down the awesomeness, the nifty sound bytes, the structure, and the ideas it sparks. If the thing is failing, I’ll jot that down, too, and try to suss out the reason to make sure that when I present I don’t make the same mistake.

After years of doing this, I’ve come to group these successes and failures into four big criteria that every conference presentation ought to have. I’m going to share them with you now in the hopes that a) I’m right and b) more presentations will fall into the “awesome” rather than “regrettable” category.

Please, please, please make sure your presentation is:

  1. New
  2. True
  3. Useful
  4. Beautiful

You can get away with having only three of the four, but if you try, those other three better be pretty stellar to make up for it. More about each of them...

New

Has what you’ve said been said before? If so, why are you saying it again?Covering the fundamentals makes sense in a classroom, but when a group of practitioners or academics meet, it’s to sniff out the zeitgeist, to get a sense of what’s going on now. It can be that you’re presenting things in a new way, or going deeper than someone has before, or even taking a step back to bring something to light. But know what’s come before. (We live in the age of the internet, and there’s little excuse not to.)

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If it’s not new, it better be an awesome review of what’s already known. Like a lesson from the best professor in your memory.

True

Is your thinking clear? Do you have evidence or reason to back it up? Can you speak on the subject with authority? Have you acid tested your reasoning with people who are smarter than you? Have you checked all your facts? Conference attendees have hair-trigger bullshit detectors, and the moment you slip up, they will either zone out or condemn you with ignoble Twitter ridicule. Make sure it’s true.

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If it’s not true, it’s got to be some pretty entertaining stuff. Like a good stump speech by a politician, or a Superbowl advertisement.

Useful

How is someone in the audience meant to make use of what you’re saying? What are we meant to learn or takeaway? This often involves taking the concrete facts of the past and abstracting them into something that others can use in the future: Tips and tricks, ways of understanding, things to do, things to avoid, or concrete calls to action.

Crystal Method Concert - St. Louis

If it’s not useful, it should be an experience that is itself worth our time. Like a great concert, movie, or stand-up comedy act.

Beautiful

Is the title and description engaging, poetic, accessible? Have you rehearsed so that you’re succinct, at ease, eloquent? Are the visuals you’re presenting supportive of your talk? Are they engaging and amazing to behold? The experience of your talk should be as pleasant as the talk itself.

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If it’s not beautiful, the content itself better be mind-blowing. Like Reddit, maybe, or a spinach smoothie.

Language-nerd shout out

Language nerds might recognize similarities in this list and the four Gricean Maxims. These were a set of unspoken agreements that conversationalists have with one another. According to Paul Grice, listeners interpret what they’re hearing with these assumptions in mind to understand the pragmatic meaning of what’s being said. The dynamics of a presenter to an audience are different enough from that of a conversationalist to a listener that my list doesn’t exactly match up to his. But if you want to dig further into a similar philosophy, that’s a good place to start.

Incompleteness

So, rock on. You’ve put in the work and are now able to put a confident checkmark by each of these. Are you done? Are you guaranteed a TED spot, red carpet, and adoring throngs? Of course not. There’s loads of other positives that your presentation could be: Inspired, mysterious, revolutionary, titillating, groundbreaking, etc. I think these four are more like a Maslovian foundation. A bedrock to build on. Failing to set up these pillars just makes it a lot harder for those other positives to shine through.

A call to present

Planning a presentation? Got an idea for one in mind? Check what you’re thinking against these criteria. Hopefully they will spark some ideas on how you can improve things a bit, make it more novel, engaging, and meaningful. Your presentation will be better for it, and your audience (especially that guy in the back taking notes) will thank you.

Some of Cooper presentations

(We think these rank pretty high.)