June 23, 2011

TEDxUCLA: Maybe next time



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In TEDxUCLA: The good and the great, I talked about what I thought worked well at the conference, both in terms of the speakers and in terms of the organization and logistics of the event itself. Today, I'm going to talk about what I thought could have been done better. Most of these things I also mentioned in the TEDxUCLA post-conference survey, so yes, they have received my suggestions.

Let's call today's list the DON'Ts.

1. DON'T: Skimp on breaks

The speakers were scheduled tightly; there was no official break until lunchtime. And, along with this tight schedule, there was a policy of not letting attendees return to their seats if they came back into the auditorium after the speaker had begun. This is a noble concept, but it leads to problems.

If I got up to use the restroom at the end of a talk, there was no way I could make it back before the next talk started (the women's restrooms each had only two stalls and thus, a line. There was no way to get in and out quickly). I would have to wait until the end of the next talk to sit back down. This did happen once, and I missed the first few minutes of an excellent speaker who I was unable to write about because I was standing at the back of the auditorium holding my laptop.

Some might argue that the built-in interactive stretch breaks, led by a personal trainer and an athletic coach, would suffice for bathroom breaks. But I would argue that these were fun activities that the audience wanted to participate in, and therefore, another example of "missing out" if we left the room.

Many of us cannot wait two or three hours to use the restroom, and we should not be punished for that. I don't want to feel like I'm missing something just because my bladder has a mind of its own. People need breaks for other reasons, too, not just for the restroom. I suggest packing in fewer speakers and offering real breaks between them. One long lunch break doesn't cut it.

Note: This is not the first conference I've attended that made this mistake; it's extremely common, in fact. I wonder who decides that there will be no breaks... someone who can hold it all day?

2. DON'T: Dim the lights

This is another common conference mistake, where seeing the speaker's PowerPoint takes precedence over the practical needs of the audience. There are three problems with dimming the lights:

1) The audience can't see their notebooks or laptops to take notes (I thought I had a light-up keyboard, but apparently I don't)

2) The audience gets sleepy, especially after lunch

3) The speaker can't see the audience, and therefore is unable to make eye contact, read their level of engagement, or fully interact.

It is possible to have lighting that enables us to see the speaker, see the slides and see our notes. As long as there are no lights shining directly on the screen, we will be able to see the slides. PowerPoint should never be the deciding factor in lighting a room.

3. DON'T: Skip offering assistance to your speakers

Most of the speakers at this event were good, if not great, although many could have benefited from coaching (we can ALL benefit from coaching!) and review of their slides. There were only a couple who I found difficult to listen to. One was so memorized that, when her PowerPoint remote didn't work and she had to signal the A/V guy to advance her slides, her rhythm was completely thrown off. Another spoke in a monotone, didn't move during the entire presentation, and was difficult to understand.

They both had excellent messages, and several good sound bites. Their content was strong, but their delivery made it very hard to concentrate on the message. Is it their fault that I didn't fully enjoy their presentations? No. The organization chooses the speakers, and someone in the organization should be responsible for making sure all speakers are fully prepared and coached, if necessary, on how to give an effective presentation.

Furthermore, if a speaker needs extra assistance, the organizers should be prepared. I don't know if the speaker has a speech impediment or is simply a mumbler, but it's up to the organizers to make sure he can be heard clearly. These things need to be anticipated and prepared for in advance.

4. DON'T: Miss the opportunity to start the day with a bang

As I've said, the diversity of speakers and topics was impressive, but not all speakers brought the same intensity or energy to their presentations. This is okay, and every speaker doesn't have to be a high energy entertainer. But at the beginning of the event, when anticipation is high, I like to see a speaker who gets me excited for the rest of the day. I like to see a speaker who kicks off the event with an energetic presentation.

I enjoyed the first speaker, Rebeca Mendez; her presentation was almost a meditation, a beautiful and astounding journey following the Arctic Tern, supplemented by stunning photography and sound effects of glaciers cracking. But it did not kick off the day the way a more energetic and participative presentation would have.

5. DON'T: Overdo the logos

There was a projector screen in the middle of the stage, behind and above the speakers. To each side of the stage, there was a projection of the TEDxUCLA logo with the TEDxUCLA hashtag and speaker's hashtag below. There was also a banner hanging from the projection screen (directly behind the speaker) with the TEDxUCLA logo and tagline. (See image at the top of this post.)

At any given time during the day, the audience was looking at three TEDxUCLA logos, and sometimes four, if one was projected onto the main screen. The banner behind the speaker was particularly large and distracting.

When I'm trying to pay attention to the speaker and there's a giant logo behind her, it bothers me. I don't want the speaker to have to compete with a logo for visibility. And I know where I am; I don't have to constantly be reminded. But if it's necessary to find more ways to post logos, a more subtle use of the banner might have been on a side wall -- and with two side walls, there was even room for two banners.

As I said in my previous post, the conference overall was very well done, and the positives far outweighed the negatives. These are all issues common to conferences everywhere, not just TEDxUCLA. Balancing the needs of the speakers, the audience and the event will take care of most of these problems.

Thanks, Dave Proffer (@deeptwit) for the image!


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