On Conference Etiquette and Poor Talks

We’re starting Conference season in my small corner of the data world, with Tableau and Alteryx conference happening simultaneously in London and Vegas respectively. Sadly I’m missing out on my first Alteryx Inspire in a number of years – I hope my friends in Vegas have an amazing time.

As these conferences draw near we’re always treated to an array of advice from seasoned attendees around how to get the most of your experience and so I wanted to add my opinion to this growing pile of tips and tricks. In doing so I want to challenge what seems to be accepted wisdom in conferences I attend among the many bloggers and tweets I follow, the advice goes something like this:

“If you’re not enjoying a talk then walk out and find something else – your time at conference is valuable”

Personally I think this is the worst advice you could be given. Not only is it rude, it also makes a bad situation worse. So let’s show you how to rescue those poor talks and turn them into a positive experience.

1. Choose your talks wisely

Take time to use the conference apps and schedules well in advance of the conference, take the time to research the speakers and topics. If you wish to learn something in particular, or already have some knowledge on the subject, then seek out opinions from peers or the speakers themselves, if you can reach them, on whether your attendance is worthwhile.

Sometimes it’s worth attending a talk not for the content itself but in order to connect with the person afterwards, particularly if they share a common interest or specialism or the same industry.

Whatever the reasons for attending the talk make sure you are clear on them before you walk through the door to attend. Ask yourself (if there are multiple sessions you wish to see) if there are ways to get the same outcome without attending, e.g. arranging to meet the speaker for a 1-to-1 (most speakers are only too flattered to be asked for a coffee to chat through their subject in detail) or watching again online. Try to choose the talk you’d like to ask questions in if the sessions are recorded.

In summary I’d perhaps go as far to say there’s no such thing as a bad session, only poorly chosen ones. You owe yourself, and the speaker, the duty to choose your session carefully.

2. Walking out won’t help

So, if you followed the above advice, you chose, quite deliberately, to come along to this talk. You know why you came and you know what you want to get out of it. You consider the speaker to have something interesting to say, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

But now the talk isn’t going well. Perhaps the speaker has a voice that belongs on the shipping forecast more than a conference, or perhaps they’re having all sorts of technical problems – those perfect dashboards just won’t render on the conference screens – or maybe they’re nervous and can’t get their words out quite as they intended. Maybe they just didn’t have time to prepare. Maybe they’re reading out their slides to the audience! Whatever the reason walking out is likely to only make a bad situation worse.

Why? Firstly you now have to run across a large conference venue and, if you’re lucky, join your well researched second choice talk rather late. More probably you didn’t have a second choice and so you just run into the nearest room, or your second choice is full and you can’t get in. You might even be forced to just grab a coffee and play pinball. Whatever happens you won’t have the clear outcomes you wanted from your primary choice – and so you’re likely to not find it as valuable (not least because you missed some).

More importantly though what happened to all those reasons for attending the first talk? Did they go away? Of course not, so you’re giving up on a massive opportunity to rescue your original mission.

auditorium, chairs, comfortable

3. Just be Polite

As a speaker I have to say there’s nothing more off-putting than seeing people leave. At conference, in a large venue then really it is to be expected, but many speakers at our data conferences aren’t professional speakers and they’re in relatively small rooms. They’ve given up there time to prepare a talk (which take a lot of effort – more than 99% of attendees have done). The least effort you could put in, having decided to attend, is make a small commitment of all 40-50 minutes of your time.

So make sure you’ve been to the bathroom, make sure you listen and engage with the speaker, try and avoid WhatsApp conversations moaning about the speaker to your friends in other sessions, avoid Facebook for an hour, because you can use the opportunity to potentially turn what could be a wasted 40-50 minutes back into a great learning opportunity.

If you do think you’re prone to voting with your feet then please sit by the door and try to avoid a minimal fuss as you leave. Also remember doors can slam in conference halls – so close doors behind you.

4. Rescuing the Situation

Yes, poor talks happen, as we’ve said, for a variety of reasons, but assuming you’ve decided to stick around then you can rescue the situation and still achieve your original objective for attending the talk.

How do you rescue the situation?

  • Be patient – speakers, particularly customer speakers, are often nervous and so they’ll take a while to loosen up.
  • Think of questions – focus on what the speaker isn’t saying, that’s often the more interesting stuff. How does that tie in with what you wanted to get out the session? Write down a set of questions as the speaker goes through?
  • Ask questions at the end – new speakers will more often than not under-run, leaving plenty of time for questions. This is your chance to really get what you need to know. Tie questions back to what the speaker was saying to show you were listening and ask them to expand on areas of interest to you. Often getting a speaker ad-libbing about something they feel passionate about is where you’ll really start to learn something.
  • Approach the speaker at the end of the talk – as the room empties make sure to say Hi. You could even offer to buy them a coffee if you still haven’t got what you wanted from the talk. Remember you chose this person as an expert in a field you were interested in, one bad presentation doesn’t mean they don’t have something interesting to say.

Prepare well and remember your objectives

In conclusion you owe yourself the duty of preparing well for the talks you want to attend, that preparation will help you focus on what you want to achieve and help you through any sessions that don’t live up to your expectations.

Walking out and leaving poor survey feedback isn’t your only choice, in fact it is likely to be the worst choice you can make. Make the most of the experts the conferences lay on for you and enjoy yourself.




2 thoughts on “On Conference Etiquette and Poor Talks

  1. Well said Chris – I wouldn’t dream of walking out of a talk: good, bad or indifferent, and I was a bit alarmed at the suggestion that people might suggest it as a good idea! Though having attended your excellent talks in the past I’m sure it’s unlikely to happen to you.

    As someone awaiting making their first corporate presentation next week I know my talk will appeal to some and be underwhelming to others. That’s human nature and my job is to make sure the latter category is minimised. But I know it won’t be zero, so I hope people to Tableau’s conference next week read this first. We’re data professionals, not seasoned comedians so I’ve got no well-rehearsed put-downs. Walk out on me and I’ll be mortified!

    I couldn’t agree more – choose carefully and for what, at the time, you think are the right reasons.

  2. Pingback: The Pre-Conference Compendium : #Data17 | POINTS OF VIZ

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