Antidotes for the deadly conference presentation

Picture this: You’re at an exciting event in a new city, with new people and new ideas. You sit in a vast conference room, anticipating. Then, up on stage, the presentation begins. The speaker is a star, or so you’ve heard. But somewhere around his third PowerPoint slide, your eyes glaze over. Weariness cloaks you like a wet blanket. One yawn inspires another, and you face a choice: get moving or start napping.

This happened to me just this past weekend. I was in Brooklyn, attending an amazing conference called “Bridging Profit & Purpose,” where a large group of investors and entrepreneurs convened to explore new modes of capitalism. At one session focused on “racial equity in impact investing,” a panel discussion explored a topic that I care deeply about. The panelists, each a distinguished, charismatic African American executive, projected wisdom and authority. They sat in leather chairs in a row across the stage. And it was not more than ten minutes before I realized I was working harder to stay awake than to comprehend the words being spoken. Soon, I was out in the hallway, slapping myself to regain a semblance of energy.

Why does this happen? How can a brilliant person with an important message become a blathering cure for insomnia?  The problem is not simply the inevitable weariness of a multi-day event. It’s the essential somnambulance of your typical business presentation.

To avoid anaesthetizing the audience at your next presentation, consider these three suggestions:

1) Deliver experiences, not platitudes

One surefire way to crush an audience’s interest in you is to yammer on theoretically about some important point of wisdom you’ve gained, without sharing any of the hard, human experiences that delivered you that knowledge. You can hope that people are so compelled by your fabulousness that they’ll do the work of converting your pontifications into relevant insights. Or you can reveal the flesh-and-blood dramas that led you to your beliefs. In other words, you can tell a story.

A story is an experience of human transformation, and good storytellers know that they’re in the experience-generation business. Delivered well, your story handles the heavy lifting of engaging and persuading an audience.

Your high-level insights matter, of course. But your stories are what people will remember.

2) Don’t make your audience swallow everything

Legend has it that in 1955, an African rock python ate a 130-pound impala. It took a week to digest, and the snake barely moved for several months afterwards. This is an apt metaphor for the experience that many people have in attempting to survive a multi-day conference, summit, or gabfest.

The human mind is not wired to comprehend complex, arcane topics, delivered sequentially over an extended period in a single setting. Some of us are gifted with the disposition, attention span, and bladder to enjoy this. Yet most of us struggle. If you want to engage the tired, unwashed masses, your best bet is to dig into the dirt of your topic and find the one or two human dramas that reveal an essential truth that speaks to the lesson you want to impart. Share a representative moment, and you might just move mountains.

Middle America woke up to the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic not through scolding lectures, but by the accounts of 13-year-old Ryan White’s agony following a transfusion of infected blood. The Civil Rights movement was a distant dream until a woman named Rosa Parks chose to be arrested rather than suffer the daily humiliation of Jim Crow segregation laws that forced black women like her to sit at the back of every bus. Your topic may not have such urgency or weight, but it probably includes memorable moments that are rich in human challenge, failure, and triumph. Bring these to life, and trust that your audience will come to your way of thinking.

3) Avoid panel discussions at all costs

A firing squad consists of a row of soldiers pointing rifles. A panel discussion consists of a row of professionals pointing fingers. Each can be fatal in its own way. At least with one, you get a cigarette and a blindfold.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible for a panel discussion to be compelling. But I’ve never seen it. You could put the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on stage, and my hunch is that within twelve minutes you’d be mired in monologues about food production and arms control.  The format is all but doomed to failure. The problems are inherent: panelists who won’t shut up, a focus that wanders all over the stage, and – worst of all – a moderator who can’t control the flow. The list goes on.

I advise anyone to avoid attending or participating in panel discussions unless the moderator is a proven rock star of the genre, the topic is crystal clear, and there are only a select few, highly compelling panelists. If you happen to be one of them, the best way to distinguish yourself and land your message memorably is to couch your insights in near-gossipy anecdotes, backstories, and vignettes. Choose the ones that naturally segue into the bottom-line points you want to make, and odds are that not only will the spotlight linger on you, but people will be awake to see it.

One final note: To gauge just how powerfully storytelling cuts through the mire of a soul-crushing presentation, just look around and see how people deal with the boredom. More times than not, they’re sneaking glances at their screens – not to explore whitepapers corresponding to the topic on stage, but to check social media feeds, trade messages with friends and colleagues, or just read the news. In other words, they’re retreating to story – simply to get by.