Presentations Versus Conversations

Conversations versus PresentationsRecently I listened to Moira Gunn interview Steve Rosenbaum about content curation in her podcast, Tech Nation. I heard Steve present on a similar topic at Confab. Interestingly, I found the podcast, which was a conversation between Moira and Steve, more interesting, fluid, and natural than Steve’s Confab presentation.

Steve’s presentation at Confab was great. But all presentations, by nature, have a different rhythm and organization than conversations. In a presentation, you usually have a deck of slides that you move through sequentially, following a predefined structure to your ideas.

In contrast, conversations are more spontaneous. At times you may pursue tangents, or skip around to topics that you might have originally thought to delay until later. Order is decided at the moment, based on the interviewer’s questions, his or her responses, and the level of perceived interest. Overall, I think conversations allow for more discovery and excitement based on the unplanned direction of the conversation.

In addition to presentation and conversation formats, other formats blend the two. Last Friday I participated in a MindTouch webinar that was a hybrid between a presentation and a conversation. Scott Abel is the host of a series of webinars by MindTouch. Before the webinar, he asked me to send him a slidedeck of my presentation. He then selected out the  slides he wanted to discuss, and modified them a bit. He also inserted some of his own slides. About 15 minutes before the webinar, he sent me a PDF of the slides, but I hardly glanced at half of them before the webinar began.

During the webinar, we moved through the topic in a conversational way. Scott used the slides to move the conversation forward when it lagged. Sometimes this worked well, as the next slide provided a great segue to explore a new angle on the topic. Other times I realized that I already discussed the information on the next slide, or the slide took us backwards instead of forwards in the conversation. Regardless, the slides gave a sense of structure to what might otherwise be a loosely focused conversation touching a lot of different points somewhat randomly.

Regardless, I admit I prefer conversations more than presentations. Many presentations, particularly at conferences, can often lack engagement. In contrast, the conversation format puts the listener as a player in the topic game. You have some control about the direction and momentum, rather than just being a spectator.

At South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW), a lot of times the formats are panel discussions. A presenter may give a 20 minute presentation followed by 30 minutes of question and answers. I haven’t been to SXSW, but in listening to the recordings, these sessions are appealing hybrids of conversation presentations.

Preparing for a conversation to take place during a presentation is a somewhat risky move for a presenter. At the STC Summit, I presented for 30 minutes, and then opened up a question and answer session. It went all right, but the Q&A component was multi-directional, since it’s a conversation with a crowd rather than an individual.

The crowd conversation doesn’t work as well as a one-on-one conversation because the crowd’s questions are much more random. The questions don’t have the same focus and flow as the questions that a skilled interviewer might follow. A skilled interviewer will pick up with your response and build on that response with a new question. The conversation has a direction it’s heading, even if neither person knows exactly where it will end up. In contrast, the crowd Q&A is a start and stop motion, with no sense of forward  momentum or progress building on the responses.

Having a conversation in front of an audience is another approach, somewhat like listening to a live podcast. The limitation here is that the interviewer’s questions may not represent the crowd’s questions.

Overall, what’s the best format for delivering information to a group? A conversation, a presentation, or a hybrid of the two? I’m not sure. Conference season has ended, so I don’t have any upcoming presentations I’m planning. But when I need to give another presentation, I think I’ll move toward a short presentation followed by a conversation. The job of the presentation should set up the fuel and momentum of the conversation. The presentation should naturally start the conversation.

I doubt this format will catch on for most conferences, though. It requires too much on-the-spot performance and risk. It’s much easier to bank on your own presentation content, load up your PowerPoint with 50+ slides, and sail your way across the harbor — even if your audience remains on the shore.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Scott


    Good points. You wrote:

    “Many presentations, particularly at conferences, can often lack engagement.”

    And I have to agree with that. But is that due to the presenter, the nature of the session, the time constraints in a conference, or all three? When I was at the Open Help Conference earlier in June, all of the presentations morphed into conversations which went over the allotted 40 minutes. The speakers and the organizer were able to get away with that, if only because it was a small conference.

    As for the “right” format, it all depends on the speaker and the subject matter. When I speak, I try to engage the audience — their ideas and opinions are as valid as mine. But that doesn’t always work.

    Thanks for this post. It’s definitely food for deeper thought.

    • Tom Johnson

      Presentations can often lack engagement because the traditional conference format sets the presenter up for failure. The presenter typically prepares a set of Powerpoint slides (the more slides, the safer you feel). This slide-based format can lock you into a specific direction and path. It can remove the possibility of discovery and spontaneous pursuits.

      It takes a skilled presenter to break out of the mode, to cut down to maybe 10 slides max, to engage in conversation with the audience, and to move forward based on the momentum and direction of the discussion. I’m not that artful of a presenter, but it might be a goal for me to move toward.

      By the way, I read your writeup of the Open Source Help conference. I’m wondering what you do with the open source community. Do you participate in book sprints, write Unix documentation, or something else?

      • Scott

        “I’m not that artful of a presenter, but it might be a goal for me to move toward.”

        Well, you’re doing more than most presenters will by just setting that goal. It’s tough. I’m still learning …

        As for what I do in the Open Source community, I try to take part in FLOSS Manuals book sprints, I advocate the use of Open Source, and I write about it. To be honest, I’m not in the thick of any community; I’m sort of viewed by some as a strange guy who straddles both the Open Source and proprietary worlds. My feet, philosophically speaking, are more in the Open Source world though.

  • Mark Baker


    You make an interesting distinction, and I can certainly empathize. My presentations have a way of morphing into conversations, or, at least, question and answer sessions. I’ve never quite understood why. I’ve also noticed that the people who will ask questions during a presentation or Q/A session seem to be different from the people who will find you in the lunch queue or in front of the book stall and strike up a conversation about what you presented. In some sense, I think, people use presentations to audition people they might want to initiate a conversation with.

    One interesting hybrid that turns up from time to time but never really seems to catch fire is the poster session. The presenter stands beside their poster, like a presentation, but engages people one to one or in small groups, like a conversation. I’ve always found them lively, and I wonder why you don’t see more of them. Of course, one of the problems with poster sessions is that some presenters are mobbed for the whole session while others stand forlorn and unnoticed beside their posters. Perhaps that is why they are not more widely used.

    • Tom Johnson

      Mark, thanks for commenting. I agree that poster sessions are interesting and under-used. The last poster session I attended was a student design showcase at Kennesaw University. Poster sessions are an interesting format, since it puts the presenter in more of a passive situation, waiting to receive questions. The poster needs to jumpstart the discussion on its own.

  • Sarah O’Keefe

    One problem with engagement in a presentation is that not all questions are “useful.” Let me give you a few examples:

    * In an advanced DITA session, a participant asks “What is DITA?” This is a legitimate question, but it is probably not of interest to the other 100 people in the room. Do I go on a tangent to answer this question to help one person, or do I defer it for a private conversation? The latter makes a better presentation for the overall audience.

    * An attendee asks a detailed question that is specific to their environment and is going to require a detailed answer. Again, I can help that person, but should I do so at the expense of the others, who are not particularly interested in that specific problem.

    * Sometimes, questions are intended to showcase the questioner’s expertise. (These questions typically start with, “Wouldn’t you agree that…”)

    I really appreciate getting questions, and they enrich the presentation by making it less static. But I think it’s important to manage the questions — if you think that a question is not quite “right” for the overall audience, it’s the presenter’s responsibility not to take up everyone’s time with it.

    • Tom Johnson

      These are some tough points to counter, and they highlight how problematic it is to answer questions during a presentation. I find that when I’m listening to a presentation, and others ask questions, I often focus on something else because I usually can’t hear the person asking a question, or they don’t do a good job articulating their question, or it’s irrelevant to me, etc. But if I’m the one asking the question, my heart races a bit with adrenaline. So I like conversations when I’m the one asking the questions. But that hardly seems fair to everyone else in the room. What do you think of formats where everyone watches two or three people have a discussion? That way the questions aren’t random and scattered. The person who asks “What is DITA?” then moves forward in a more logical progression.

  • Larry Kunz

    Sarah mentioned managing the questions and I agree that that’s vital. Even better is managing the whole presentation.

    You can use an interview format, like you and Scott did, and still have it be a presentation. The key is discipline: you go in with a (fairly small) set of key ideas you want to be sure to cover; you keep yourself from going off on tangents; and you bone up beforehand so that none of the questions will take you by surprise. I hesitate to make the comparison, but this is how politicians prepare for debates. In fact, by watching the debates you can easily see that some people are better at this than others.

    I listened to you and Scott, and while I thought it was a great conversation I thought the slides were superfluous for the reason you stated: they didn’t always jibe with the flow of the conversation. It might’ve been better if you’d just put the slides on Slideshare and mentioned specific ones at opportune times during the conversation.

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Larry. I specifically remember that during my STC presentation, one of my slides was “out of order,” but really it was just because in the moment, I decided to discuss them in a different way, and then my slides no longer fit. That’s partly why I hate slides — they lock you into a sequence that becomes awkward to break free from.

      I once gave a presentation at Podcamp SLC without any slides at all, and I felt a bit naked. I felt like I needed to apologize for not having any slides, and it seemed like I could have merely put together everything 10 minutes before the presentation. I’m not sure where I get this faulty assumption.

      I also get really anti-Powerpointy before presentations, as I’m watching and listening to others, but as I prepare for my own presentations and get closer to the presentation date, I start stacking on the slides. Each slide becomes a comfort measure because it ensures I’ll have something to talk about. (I’m sure that’s the sign of a novice presenter.)

      With my STC presentation, I reached the end of my slides earlier than I thought I would, and it caught me by surprise a little.

      I guess overall, I’m not entirely sure what the best format is. To pull off a conversation that appeals to lots of people, you need a skilled interviewer asking insightful, sometimes difficult questions. So in that sense, you need two presenters.

      • Larry Kunz

        WIBNI PowerPoint gave us the ability to call up slides in random order? Our presentations could be more free-form — more “in the moment” — but we’d still have the visuals on a screen to back us up.

        Which reminds me: have you ever attended an unconference? By definition, the presentations aren’t set in stone ahead of time. The result is that there’s much more interaction between speaker and audience, much less PowerPoint, and (maybe this is the key) much lower expectations among audience members that they’re going to get a polished, comprehensive presentation.

        • Tom Johnson

          The closest unconference I’ve attended was something Anne Gentle put together at DocTrain several years ago. I loved it.

          The PodcampSLC conferences are supposed to be barcamp/unconference style, but they never format them that way. We end up with a regular presentation schedule because the organizer feels the unconference style might not work — a bunch of people might be sitting around with little to discuss. You need some serious expertise to give a brilliant impromptu presentation. At least that’s the assumption. In reality, you’d probably have a lot better conversations taking place that way.

  • Stan Stansbury

    I don’t think it’s useful to decide about conversation vs. presentation as a means without first deciding what your goal is.
    Do you want them to remember 3 important things about x?
    Do you want at least one of them to call you about a consulting gig because you know so much about y?
    Decide what you want from the audience and then structure your actions to maximize it: with or w/o slides, with or w/o Q&A, standing on your head, everything you do should point the audience toward what you want from them.
    Most often, I leave STC or any other organizational presentations with precious little sense of what the presenter/speaker/leader what trying to accomplish, and no sense of what I’m supposed to do with whatever it is.

  • Jonovitch

    Hey everyone, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the best (and worst) ways to use PowerPoint, trying to rid the world of bad slides (I’m pretty passionate about it). It turns out, I just thought of a way how you *can* jump from slide to slide in PowerPoint (like a conversation). It’s a bit of a workaround, but it can work. Here’s how:

    First, (in PowerPoint 2007/2010) go to View > Slide Sorter. Your presentation should now look like a storyboard. It’s an underused but fantastic way to make sure your “story” is flowing correctly. Don’t worry that it’s sequential — just make sure you break up your story into separate self-contained “chapters” (i.e., themes or topics). Refer to this storyboard view often. Once your story is built (with complete chapters), you are ready jump to whatever theme or topic comes up by just finding the right chapter. So how do you find it in the middle of the presentation? Like this:

    Go to the Slide Show tab/menu. In the Monitors section, click the Use Presenter View checkbox. This will make the slides appear full screen on the projector, but on your laptop you’ll see a lot more: the current slide, a virtual pen to draw on the slide, a scrolling preview of all the slides in your presentation, and all the notes you wrote for the slide (important side note: please move all your text off the slide itself and into the notes section — I and your audience will thank you). When you’re ready to move on to the next topic, you’ll have to scroll through your slides to find the “next” chapter, but your audience won’t see that — they’ll only see the “next” topic appear at your command, as if you meant to order the slides that way. Brilliant!

    Of course, always always always test the dual-display setup way before your presentation. And make sure you’ve selected the correct monitor in the “Show Presentation On” drop-down list (again, in the Slide Show tab/menu). I hope this helps.

    Lastly, don’t rely on your PowerPoint (especially if it blows up at the last minute). *You* are the presentation. Your slides are just the visual aids.

    • Jonovitch

      I forgot to mention (just in case), to see this in action — assuming you have dual monitors at work/home — just hit F5, or go to the View tab, then click Slide Show.

  • Laura Mahalel

    Hi Tom,
    A format I really enjoyed was conversation followed by Q&A where the questions were written on cards by audience memebers, collected, and perhaps “curated” a bit. The subject was political, and during the conversation part, the speakers took different points of view. While they were still on the same “side” of the issues, their discussion gave room for nuance that is so often lacking in political discussions which tend towards debates.
    Anyway the card format worked well: duplicate questions were filtered out and possible crackpot queries were tossed.

    I once saw Lou Reed speak after screening a film he made about his cousin. He got one question which he firmly refused to answer. I deeply respected that move. Probably doesn’t come up as much in our field :), but it’s good to remember that while the audience may have an agenda, you still *own* the agenda of your talk.

    • Tom Johnson

      Laura, it sounds like an interesting technique. I’m curious to know if the presenters had a third-person curate and organize the cards after collecting them. It seems that if the presenters curated them, there would be a 10 minute lag time between the presentation and the Q&A, though perhaps that would be a welcome break. I do like this technique, because you can also order the questions into a logical flow. And you can read them yourself so that others can hear. Other audience members won’t have to listen to another person drone on and on quietly or pretentiously for 2 minutes asking a simple question in a roundabout way. Thanks for the tip. I may just use this technique the next time I present.

      • Don Day

        I was on a panel at the Congility conference in May where Scott Abel did exactly that technique of collecting questions on cards and then curating them literally on the fly as the panelists were responding to the first questions. It is a useful technique in the “able” hands of a facilitator like Scott. On the downside, I wished that certain questions had been asked, but because they were not in his hands at the time, there was no easy way to inject them into the discussion. For the individual presenter who IS effectively the Scott Abel holding the cards and answering them, adding personal observations into the sequence of questions can be done more gracefully.

        Whenever I’m an audience member at a Q&A session, I’m always wondering, “What does the speaker know that we are not asking?” A successful session, by this metric, is probably one that you leave feeling satisfied that you got to taste everything at the table. Perhaps the act of collaring the speaker afterwards is proof that conversation really is part of completing the presentation?

        • Tom Johnson

          Don, interesting observations. I usually don’t find myself asking “What does the speaker know that we are not asking?”, but that’s probably a much more healthy mindset. If anything, I ask myself, “What are the problems or assumptions with the speaker’s argument?” This perspective is probably the result of being a former composition instructor grading student essays.

          I think you’re right about collaring the speaker afterwards as proof that audience members like to engage in the conversation.

          Glad to hear you were able to attend Congility. How was the conference in comparison to other conferences you attend?

  • Adeyemi opeoluwa

    The brain and the mouth works in both, but the speed and energy of work,is the difference. Nice one