The Art of the Conference

3CD62A58-7C5E-4117-B427-816FC0F83DEDYes, I know, it has been nearly nine months since I last graced this blog with my presence. What can I say, it has been a busy time… But as they say, if you want me something done, ask a busy person, and eventually they will get around to it. Just ask @hostunknowntv about the podcast I have been preparing for the last eleven months.
One of the reasons I have been busy (apart from the day job that sees me frequently travelling abroad) is that I have been somewhat in demand at conferences and forums. This is a lovely stroke to the ego when asked to keynote somewhere, but also a challenge because I have to come up with a new twist on an existing talk or even a brand new talk. Creating a talk from scratch takes hours and hours, much longer than the 6 CPE hours that (ISC)2 and ISACA allow you to claim. I would estimate anything from 20 to 40 hours for a 25 to 50 minute talk.
I am not complaining mind, the process may be long, but it really helps me form opinions, generate new ideas and even form unique points of view that I can apply to my day job (one of the reasons I always recommend standing up and presenting your ideas to your peers in the industry as a great way to further your own career).
So it frustrates me immensely that after I put this huge amount of effort into producing not a only a presentation, but also a performance for a conference, that the tools I am given to do so are all to often below par. Let me explain;
I like using Apple Keynote; it has a better look and feel to Powerpoint, handles animations better, and allows a finer control of the placement of images and text. I realise this is probably an entirely subjective perspective, but it is one I stand by. I can’t tell you the number of times a conference has insisted that I can’t use my own laptop and have to use PowerPoint. The conversion process not only screws up the formatting, but also the general placement and even the fonts. Those slides I spent hours on look like something from a Dunder Mifflin sales deck.
Secondly, when I can use Keynote or my own laptop, the audio visual teams almost always insist on using VGA;more often than not this messes with the proportions of the main screen, leaving my widescreen presentation stretched into a square shape. Again, I spend hours making sure the images are not distorted, text looks balanced, and then lazy A/V makes my slides look like they are being viewed through a fishbowl. Surely HDMI or even DVI is standard enough now, and the digital signal is far less likely to screw up aspect ratios.
Thirdly, secondary  and tertiary screens are important. The normal “comfort” screen in front of the speaker is starting to become more popular, but more often than not it only displays what is being shown behind me, not the secondary presenters view of the current slide, next slide and timer (the latter of which are rarely used by most conferences…). At RSA in San Francisco I was presenting on their Live TV stage, and they had a comfort screen with the presenter view and at the back of the room a screen with my main presentation on as well. Perfect!
Why is this so important?
I personally feel that the quality of presentations at most conferences, InfoSec or otherwise, is very poor. There is plenty of subject matter expertise, but it is delivered in a poor way (see this video for some heinous examples). Conference organisers should be doing everything they can so that a presenter can deliver as effective a presentation as possible, and not worry about their deck being messed around with by either the A/V or a sub optimal “presentation laptop”, or even having to struggle with their delivery. The easier it is in the speaker, the better the presentation and the more effective and impactful an experience it is for the audience.
Should I be able to stand up and talk without my slides, not rely on comfort screens or even know what slide is coming up next? Yes, of course, in an ideal world, but very few people who speak are professional presenters, have demanding day jobs, and often finish their decks days or hours before the day. Conference organisers, please help us produce the very best performances for the benefit of your audience, and get some of these basics sorted out!
And hopefully that bar will raise just a little bit higher and benefit everyone in the industry and community.

About Thom Langford

An information security professional, award winning security blogger and industry commentator. Available as a speaking head and presenter on topics relating to information security, risk management and compliance.

3 responses to “The Art of the Conference”

  1. CISOReport says :

    It is best to personalize the content. When that is not feasible, just aim for highly relevant and succinct content.

    • Thom Langford says :

      Content is something I can control and (fingers crossed) haven’t had much trouble there. The environment in which I present is something I have virtually no control over, and often can only become familiar with minutes before the presentation.

  2. Gemma says :

    Noted! Some very useful feedback here for conference organisers everywhere. Its a whole new domain to add to the production plan, that I’m sure many of us are to blame for not taking this into consideration. I’m just glad we don’t have too many ppt (OR Apple Keynote) presentations at our events! Thanks Thom.

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