Why do so many speakers have cold feet about digital conference handouts?

Hans Romaen

Published by Hans Romaen on November 25, 2016

Speakers’ opinion on digital conference handouts

I’ve written it before. What inspired the crowdbeamer concept is the idea that conference delegates need digital conference handouts to go hand in hand with note-taking capabilities on their tablet or smartphone. But that’s only part of the story. To be fair, I should also tell you a bit more about most speakers’ opinion on making digital conference handouts available to their audience.

Keeping the attention of an audience is a challenge

Keeping the attention of an audience is a challenge indeed. But it is a challenge that gifted speakers like Sir Richard Branson accomplish with ease. I could personally experience that at the launch event of the 4th International i-SUP Conference on Growth & Sustainability. At the time, I was coordinating the design and organization of that conference on behalf of VITO. VITO is a leading European independent research and technology organization in the areas of cleantech and sustainable development.

On the other hand, many experienced speakers find it increasingly challenging to keep the attention of their audience throughout a presentation. Even if they know quite well how to give an engaging presentation. I will not try to judge if that is so because humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. At least, that is what a recent study conducted by Microsoft seems to suggest. But I know one thing for sure. And that is that most of us are not just constantly pressed for time. We are also overloaded with information and get so easily distracted.

And that’s exactly why many conference speakers are not a big fan of distributing digital conference handouts upfront. It’s not just me saying that. We recently conducted a survey among people that regularly present at professional conferences. 8 out of 10 presenters clearly confirmed a strong willingness to share presentation contents with their audience. But even then, most of them insisted it should not be possible to preview upcoming slides.

Are you frequently presenting at conferences? What is your opinion on sharing digital handouts?

No audience engagement without active listening

I’ve seen it so many times at so many conferences. Whenever handouts are made available to the audience, conference delegates tend to quickly browse through them. They only look for the parts that they find most interesting. That always has a negative impact on audience engagement. So if you want to understand why conference speakers do not like to distribute digital conference handouts upfront: do not look any further.

But when you start to think about it: searching forward in conference handouts is not a good thing for conference delegates either. Surely their first mission is to build a set of personalized and relevant information on a number of selected topics. At least if they want to learn from the views and the experience of conference speakers. Taking notes helps them do that. But there is simply no such thing as note taking without listening. If conference delegates do not actively listen to a lecture or a presentation, they are not fully engaged. Their notes – if any – will mirror that.

Putting two and two together

Conference speakers are willing to share presentation contents if previewing of upcoming slides is disabled. Conference delegates want to take notes on digital handouts. These observations made me put two and two together. And when I think of it now, that really made the beauty of the crowdbeamer concept. It’s a solution that not just gives an answer to what conference delegates expect these days. It also addresses a number of concerns that so many conference speakers have.

Everything is just-in-time these days

One of the things I’ve seen happen over the years is that presenters increasingly tend to work just-in-time. They keep making changes to their presentation until the very last moment. That makes it a bit tricky for them to deliver digital handouts upfront. The handouts will usually be outdated by the time the presentation is actually given.

I’ve learned to appreciate the commitment of many conference speakers to deliver the best possible presentation to their audience. But still, conference delegates generally have a different view on that. They do not really like handouts that do not match the presentation projected on the big conference screen. Usually, most of them are momentarily at a loss. That’s when you see them searching through their handouts. Next, they forget to take notes. Until it finally dawns on them (too late!) that the speaker is presenting something altogether different. Having access to live handouts solves that problem. It puts conference delegates at ease. And it lets them focus on listening and taking notes.

Freedom of speech delivery

But believe me: being pressed for time is not the only reason why conference speakers like to make last-minute changes to their presentation. Conference speakers are storytellers. Whenever they give a presentation, they want to tell a story to their audience. And make sure it is easy for their audience to pick up that story and to take notes. That’s why they spend time and effort to deliver a presentation and a matching set of handouts.

To be honest, their motivation to do so is not entirely unselfish. In the end, an up-to-date presentation and a matching set of handouts make it much easier for them to deliver their presentation freely. It gives them full freedom of speech delivery.

Are you frequently presenting at conferences? What is your opinion on sharing digital handouts?

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