Presentations Versus Conversations
Recently 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.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.