Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Conference Speakers

Posted on May 14, 2014

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Knucklehead of the Week: Tommy Lasorda

The Local Government Confidential returns refreshed and more confidential than ever. You are now reading a column that is exclusive to ELGL members. No more lurkers reading these masterpieces. You must be a member to have the pleasure of counting grammatical errors in each article. Over/under for this column is five.

lushsoapsLimiting access will allow me to provide more in-depth, useful information such as which cereal my kids ate for breakfast and what I bought my wife for Mother’s Day. (The answer to the latter is I spent a lot of time in Lush “trying on” various homemade lotions and potions. If money didn’t matter and I could work any job in the world, you would find me working at Lush in the morning and mowing lawns in the afternoon.)

Moving along, we enter this new confidential world, (I am typing very quietly as that seems very confidential-like), with the beginning of our series on professional conferences. The series stems from the ongoing ELGL survey on the ideal conference experience.

To date, more than 60 ELGL members have completed the survey. Planners, city recorders, city managers, blackjack dealers (just making sure you were paying attention) and others from Oregon to Florida have weighed in. The only ways to obtain the survey results are to either complete the survey or buy me a new lawn mower. Survey link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/7PMLFXL.

My Opinions Under the Black Light

black-light-4This series of articles on professional conferences will be the Cliff Notes version of the results with high level data and random planking pictures. (As a typed “professional conferences” I wondered what other types of conferences are there; are there “unprofessional conferences” or just “conferences.” Why does life have to be so confusing?)

Anyway, it’s important you know my biases and preconceived notions before reading any further. Quite simply, I am not a huge fan of professional conferences. I think many conferences teeter on the edge of being boondoggles (what a great word).

Not to be the crazy uncle or rabid dog (if dogs could talk), but we are accountable to the public and in today’s virtual world there is a diminishing need to attend a conference in person. Sure, it might help some with networking (that is, if you don’t hang around the same people you already know) but I doubt is worth the taxpayer money spent on travel and conference registration.

In my opinion, ICMA has the right idea with its virtual conference. The cost is reasonable and you avoid worrying whether your Stetson cologne (or Nalgene water bottle) will make it past airport security.

I do somewhat know what I am talking about. I attend several conferences a year which have provided fodder for my skepticism. My time at a conference is often spent making a “to do” list for the next five years while a presenter lectures me and the rest of the audience.

tumblr_lkqm18vzpG1qiyxa2o1_500With regard to this week’s topic – conference speakers – if I had completed the survey (which I didn’t since I created the questions and thought that would be the equivalent of talking to myself), I would have droned on about speakers who talk down to their audience.

I am not a 12-year old, I don’t need candy for answering a question or a high five for answering what day of the week it is. Anytime a speaker says “listen up you might win a prize” I immediately tune out (unless I hear iPad Air mentioned).

4636_1169000027913_1759877_nI give my dog Michael Jordan treats for answering basic commands. A presenter should not treat me the same but with worse rewards – no one wants another pen or sticky pad plastered with some random company logo. (Yes, that picture is MJ and that is my flip-flop and semi-hairy leg in the background. MJ won this prestigious award five years ago in Sunriver, OR.)

My suggestion for conference sponsors: use the money spent on undesirable office supplies for conference scholarships. I am more likely to remember a company that funded a scholarship than a pen that stopped working after one use.

I now remove myself from my high horse and present findings on conference presenters. I must mention upfront that my favorite comment about what people dislike about conferences — “mean people.” Apparently, the Mean Girls treatment has seeped in local government which means I will be looking for Lindsay Lohan at the next council meeting.

Cover Story:

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Presenter

May 14, 2014 http://youtu.be/Ezbssw11724

The title of this article originates from the popular children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. You might have felt like Alexander if you have been sequestered in a bland, windowless, cold hotel conference room while a presenter “wows” you with their ability to read PowerPoint slides and run over their allotted time by 30 minutes.

This article focuses on what you have identified as the biggest problem with speakers which is they are often disconnected from the audience. Not disconnected, in that they don’t have Wi-Fi, but disconnected in that, they are presenting in a way that does not engage the audience.

downloadWe have been told since grade school about the importance of knowing our audience, whether writing a book report on Moby Dick or presenting a science fair project. Yet, according to survey findings, a disconnect between speaker and audience is the reason presentations fail to meet expectations.

Answering “why” a speaker becomes disconnected from the audience is more difficult and comes with a range of answers. The laundry list of reasons vary from being subjected to Death by PowerPoint to slow-talking presenter. (I smell geographic bias).

We turn to our experts (survey respondents) for help identifying, to borrow a performance evaluation term,  a”Fails to Meet Expectations” speaker.

  • Presenters that too far removed (past their prime) from the actual business culture true for today.
  • Monotone presenters who lack excitement about their expertise.
  • Really dry, boring speakers with PowerPoints full of numbers.
  • Don’t state the obvious throughout the presentation. Tell us something that we don’t know.
  • Tell us stories and give real life examples. Emotionally grab us.
  • Don’t read from PowerPoint slides. Keep them brief and interesting.
  • Speakers who are not well prepared and/or who don’t know their audience
  • Boring speakers with bad slide decks–too many words, no images and they just read straight from the slides.

One of the most insightful anecdotes discussed a “tipping point” for when a presenter loses the audience.

“When I attend a conference, I want to hear the stories and lessons of others, but to draw a story out over the course of two and a half hours that could be told in 30 minutes is so useless and tiring to me.”

Finger Pointing

It’s easy to blame the speaker for delivering a subpar presentation but conference planners are also at fault according to our survey results.

imagesSelecting speakers and topics for a conference should be a thoughtful process void of: “selecting speakers as a favor.” Your members are demanding new topics and new speakers. Trotting out the same speaker with a different topic every year is not an effective strategy, and may result in feedback such as “same old, same old content – backward looking rather than forward looking.”

“Death by PowerPoint” is another shortcut to losing an audience.  Yet some professional associations encourage it by requiring presenters use a visual aid such as PowerPoint or Prezi. Requiring such a presentation is the equivalent of leaving out a large bucket of candy outside your house with a “Take One” sign on Halloween night. Visual aids do not automatically translate into an effective presentation.

Advice from the Peanut Gallery


Before transitioning to what topics and which speakers should be included in your conference, our experts would be irate if I did not pass along these tips:

Remember the audience is not expecting a speaker to jump through fire-lit hoops on stage to be entertaining, but they should not boring. Specifically, avoid any speaker that compares favorably to Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

This might sound like a minor complaint, but it really throws off attendees when speakers don’t manage their time appropriately. If a presenter goes beyond the designated end of his session, or doesn’t give his entire presentation because he runs over time, it distracts people away from his message and it gives the appearance of being unprofessional. Urge your presenters to practice their speeches and plan to make them a bit too short (and leave time at the end for questions) rather than trying to cram in too much information. I’ve seen this happen many times!

Watch out for sessions with panels…. they are very difficult for even great speakers to provide in depth content or meaning… they by design are shallow.

Panel presentations where the speakers have not coordinated their material and waste valuable time that could be left open for interactive dialogue.

When the session is nothing like the brochure described, or the session has no meat to it or no practical relevance to my job.

And our favorite…..not enough coffee equals a tough crowd.

Add These, Not Those, Speakers and Topics

download (3)Now that our know-it-all survey respondents have you questioning your conference lineup, you would like an answer on who should or should not be speaking at your next event.  We hate to disappoint but we avoided asking for names of ineffective speakers. But, hold on, we did compile a list of topics and speakers that are recommended by our respondents.

Multiple respondents listed Al Gore, Daniel Pink, Amy Cuddy, Rhonda Hilyer, Sen. Cory Brooker, Amy Webb, and Eugene Robinson as effective presenters. (Why no mention of BJ the Clown?) Several of you highlighted the Governor’s panel with Gov. Gregoire and Gov. Kulongoski  and Dion Jordan from #ELGL13. (Extra pats on the back to those respondents.)

10335583_10204119992782815_1215987821_oGeorge Lakoff, Don’t Think of the ElephantPatrick Rollens, Village of Lombard (IL), Andrew Zolli (futurist), and Chris Merritt, Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs also received votes.

A few of the more interesting suggestions included:

Jenna and Barbara Bush. The duo discusses how to encourage volunteerism in your organization and talk about what they do in their own lives to make the world better. Their talk is reviewed as being very inspiring and avoid becoming political. (ELGL will shoot them a Snapchat inviting them to #ELGL14.)

Dave Sanderson. He talks the life changing experience of being the last guy off the plane that landed on the Hudson River.

Bob Dole and Al Gore. The duo sits side by side and banters back and forth on a wide range of topics.

Steve Young. The former San Francisco 49ers QB talks about learning from the “School of Hard Knocks.”

Craig Rapp. Craig was city manager of Brooklyn Park, MN while Jesse Ventura was mayor. Craig was bopped on the head by Mayor Ventura with a gavel during his first council meeting.

Developing a specific topic for the presenter to cover is important to avoid the dreaded disconnect between speaker and audience. In considering topics, multiple respondents encourage you to consider:

  • Silver Tsunami and Future of Government Professional
  • Making the Move from Assistant Manager to Manager
  • Navigating Workplace Culture,
  • Ideas for Partnership with Other Organizations,
  • Tips for Cross-Training Employees
  • Changing Face of Workplace Politics
  • Working with Difficult People and Challenging Behaviors
  • A New Way of Engaging Citizens
  • Urban-Rural Divide

Along with the above topics, our experts encourage you to try different approaches and involve a diverse audience. A couple of examples are:

download (1)60 Ideas in 60 Minutes: A traditional 3CMA session that changes topics each year. Each panelist gives new and unusual ideas to accomplish a goal or task that will generally benefit the entire group. The session gives us the inside track on new info, tips and tools that are unusual and up-and-coming. Quick plug: ELGL will be presenting at the 3CMA Conference on May 22 and 23 in Bend, OR).

An Illinois city manager shares their experience in developing a inclusive presentation.

A topic I present on with my fellow colleagues was on a bypass expansion…the topic could have been about anything but it was good because it was the analysis of public project by current MPA students. Students can sometimes offer a fresh perspective and/or learn from the perspective of current professionals.

We have covered the importance on “connecting” your speaker and topics. In the next article, our experts cover key aspects of conference planning. Who should be involved? What needs to be done?

Hat Tips, Hat Tips

cc9e5841_1adcpIn the past few weeks, we had the opportunity to discuss partnership opportunities with a number of professional associations. Each conversation is invigorating and confirms the value of ELGL. We tip our hat specifically to Jack Madans and Garrett Jacobs, Code for America and Alison Hellberg and Candice BockAssociation of Washington Cities. Our meetings with each group will benefit every ELGL member and add value to your membership. You will begin to see those benefits in the coming months.

Thanks, and best of luck to ELGL leaders Kirsten Silveira and John McCarter who are entering into the exciting world of local government.

Kirsten is moving to the Inner Harbor – Baltimore, MD. She will be a Budget Analyst I for the Baltimore Bureau of Budget and Management Research. She will be working with departments to develop annual budgets, monitoring current year expenditures and revenues and conducting policy research!

John McCarter is deep in the heart of Texas as a management assistant for the City of Sugar Land.

Book It

download (2)The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities by William D. Cohan: On the surface, you may think this book has nothing to do with local government. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The book is a case study in town-gown relations, law enforcement on the local level, and media relations. It’s a lengthy read and does not include any pictures, just a heads for those of you to book with more words than pictures.


In case you forgot, Mother’s Day was Sunday and Colt 45 used the occasion as a marketing opportunity.


Since you were wondering, here’s what Wikipedia thinks of your state.

Bne1UlrIgAEUsDQ   Picture from one of the best Twitter accounts Busted Coverage.

 Frank Underwood’s cryptic tweet.

The NFL draft produces a countless amount of fodder for the World Wide Web. The hashtag – #BeforeManzielGetsDrafted is an all-time classic and this picture highlights a classic love story. 

My parting shot leaves you with “peace and love, peace and love…..no autographs, please.”

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