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Lecture in how not to do it

Posted 14/12/2011 by sevans

The title of the lecture presentation sounded so interesting. It promised to be an insight an area about which I knew very little, but was already starting to generate a little publicity.  I still couldn’t tell you much about it, though – even after sitting through a 40 minute presentation. 

Talking to some of the other attendees, it’s clear I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just the breakneck speed of the delivery – clearly intended for a more specialist audience than the one presently assembled – but also the content of the talk itself: too much time spent thanking people most of the audience had never heard of and plugging a company with information that could have been had with a five minute visit to the firm’s website. 

Frustratingly, the really new and interesting bit of the talk was relegated right to the end, by which time the speaker was already receiving signals that he was going over-time.

A quick headcount indicated there were 50 people in the room. Assuming, optimistically that half of them had really appreciated (understood) the talk, that’s still 1000 hours wasted – not to mention the loss of salary and productivity when they could have been back in the office at work. As a journalist, I generally get to go to these events free of course – but staggeringly, most of the people in the room had actually paid. 

We’ve all been there before of course, so why isn’t anyone doing anything about it? 

It’s all very well asking people for feedback after these events – as conference organisers typically do these days, sometimes way after they occurred – but they also need to act on it more quickly, and think of different ways of organising their meetings. So here are three of my own ideas for starters:

International speakers should have the benefit of a professional translator, rather than struggling to have their messages heard in a second language;  

All speakers should be required to put together five slides summarising their talk, available in a delegate pack available on the day of the meeting;

And what about another more radical suggestion; how about we forget a lot of the lectures and instead run these events as a series of professional interviews, with a knowledgeable interviewee already primed with questions as well as those thrown in from the audience - a sort of Newsnight for scientists?

It’s time we stopped being so polite and demanded more of our conference organisers – and started to get more from the valuable time we spend away from the office. Let us know your own ideas.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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