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When Nobody Shows Up to My Conference Talk (davidbisset.com)
62 points by ingve on May 21, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 70 comments

Not a conference, but once, I wrote a book. The local bookstore, bless them, staged a meet-the-authors, tech talk. I showed up two hours early, lugging a suitcase with extra books. Cookies and lemonade were laid out, along with pristine pens and pads, chairs in perfect alignment. A very nice, gentle old lady showed up early. I was hopeful. I soon discovered she was retired and occupied her time by going to these library things. We gamely began our prepared talk. Half an hour later another person wandered in. He was probably homeless and was there for the lemonade and cookies. This very kind pair stayed until the end and even asked some questions -- that had nothing to do with the subject, and I doubt they understood a thing I said.

It's great that you can talk about this with humor (I actually laughed out loud and had to explain to my wife what it was about). I hope you can see that the event had nothing to do with the quality of your work, and more than that, it shouldn't make you question writing it in the first place.

Thank you sharing this. It's nice you can reflect on this in such a light. Heart warming!

This made me smile. What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing!

I've given talks where I think at the time that we'd have been better off giving everyone in the audience a cheque for $500 to read our blog post rather than fly me to the US for a week.

But then one person in the audience likes what they hear or asks a really insightful question, and then next year they're giving their own talk about your work because they're using it and you realise it was worth it.

And I think a counterpoint to this, as a conference attendee, is that if you walk by a room and it's embarrassingly empty, then jump in, make eye contact with the speaker while they're talking, and ask a good question afterward, to help them out.

There must be a better format than conference talks. They are a significant commitment for both the presenter and the audience. Both must make the choice to attend before knowing details of the content, and it reaches a relatively small audience.

I'd much rather see a format where talks can be viewed or subscribed to individually, rated, and open to feedback/discussion.

This is basically life in general. We often don’t know if an outcome is going to be worth it, so we either take chances or do nothing reasoning that it probably would have been a waste of time.

One of those approaches is guaranteed to never get anything.

You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

While conferences are somewhat of a self-perpetuating industry, they overall work for companies. And both attendees and, for the most part, speakers like going to them for the opportunities to interact with peers and (truth be told, to get out of the office).

If you're just looking for presentations there are tons of webinars and virtual events.

Especially when you get into multi-day conferences with multiple tracks and things like evening events, it's easy to create "death slots." The slot right before the party on the last day of the conference, a morning slot after the party on the final half-day, a breakout slot before the keynote, or a breakout at the same time as one or two hugely popular speakers. I've sometimes been surprised by how many people have attended sessions of mine in clearly pretty awful time slots.

I'd argue that there are some practices that are sub-optimal but it's really hard to avoid some time slots being inherently better than other. And TBH to the degree that having sub-optimal time slots means there can be more speaker slots, that's not necessarily a bad tradeoff for a lot of speakers.

I find that having a small number of attendees isn't necessarily a problem, as long as two conditions are met:

0. There's a critical mass of people so it doesn't feel too small--say, at least 10 people, and 1. The room isn't so big that those 10 or so people are spread out with a bunch of empty chairs between them; empty chairs suck the energy right out of the room

One solution is to have dramatically fewer sessions during those "death slots," so that the few people who show up at those times aren't divided up between too many rooms.

I once attended a C++ conference, where the last session on the last day was awarded to Andrei Alexandrescu.

His talk on lock-free wait-free data structures and programming violently changed by direction of my programming for the next decade.

I shudder to think that I almost decided to skip the session that day...

I had a two hour presentation once right after lunch on a Friday, the last day of a four day conference in Orlando. People were dropping like flies.

Don't forget "at the same time as the big keynote" for example.

Fortunately, I haven't seen that too often given that conferences typically want to fill up their keynote seats.

The first conference I attended, I presented in the last time slot of the final afternoon...in Hawaii.

Fortunately I had presented other sessions on previous days, so I had something to compare it to.

In the early 80s I got an, at the time, revolutionary new, inexpensive home computer and brought it along to the local university computer club monthly meetup. It created an awful lot of interest and I was asked to give a "short informal talk to a few people" at the next event. I declined countless times but eventually I was persuaded to do it - after all, How Hard Could It Be? I turned up the next month and got asked to report to LT2 whatever that was.. LECTURE THEATER 2!! must have been 400 people in there. I'd like to say I gave an insightful, detailed presentation on the hardware and software aspects of the device. I did not. I was so nervous that I don't even remember most of it but I am sure it was simply awful. Since then, I've never been able to speak in public in any shape or form. Getting help or training is on my bucket list of things to do one day but as much as I want to improve, the idea of it literally makes me quake.

Check out Toastmasters then - it helped me a lot. https://www.toastmasters.org/

A book “confessions of a public speaker” has quite a few very nice and useful anecdotes and tips.

And a random personal anecdote:

I had a really difficult time even at toastmasters dealing with my Uhms and Umms. Having someone count them somewhat works, but I decided to experiment by just watching my daily speech to be the same “quality” as public speech, and try to suppress the garbage words even during no-stress moments.

It took maybe half a year of practice, but as a result I started to speak slower and (probably :) clearer in the day to day life, and this during the public speaking too, with zero effort.

Edit-append: the most useful exercise is taking the projector, presenting in an empty room as if for the crowd, recording this “from a seat” and watching yourself. Extremely weird at first, but you very quickly see the areas to focus on. And since you must rehearse any talk anyway several times (at least that is the case for me), it is a zero-cost and high return activity.

Video has helped me to calm my hand motions down. And editing podcasts makes me ever so aware of the verbal tics that I (and my guests) tend towards.

My High School debate coach loved to sit in the back of the room during practice with his hand in the air counting the number of "Uhmms". Disconcerting at first, but then you start actively trying to keep the count from increasing, which backfires for a while, and then you get past it.

Sounds like great advice - thanks. I did have to give a (kind of) public talk recently and it wasn't great but one of the things you mentioned helped me a lot - namely, slow down. I felt like I was talking much too slowly at first but slowly realized it was okay.

Happy if it will be of use!

There are two things at play with being too fast:

first, you know what you are talking about (thus are giving a talk) - and tend to want to give as much info as possible.

the second, and more important one, is the adrenaline rush that every performance gives.

It probably is this:


Consequently rehearsals help (they remove the worry about what to say)

Also one thing that helped me a lot is taking “dominant” poses five minutes before getting on stage. I can’t find the study that claimed it to work - but it did.

Later I have read the research that had claimed it didn’t work - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/28946020/ is one of the studies I could find quickly, but for me this technique still works, so maybe it’s the power of the placebo :)

Interesting, thank you and I see there are an unbelievable number of affiliated clubs near where I live.

A lot of companies (though probably not many startups) do offer presentation skills classes. They don't beat practice but worth checking out.

I definitely found the big room effect scary at first even if I should probably have felt less pressure than presenting to my CEO in a small room.

Yeah. My company has a modest education budget per employee and I've been told that improving my communication skills is a perfectly acceptable use of it - time to put it in action!

I find it uncomfortable. I'd probably hate acting classes. But, even as someone who does a lot of presenting, classes are really useful and I've benefited when I've pushed myself to take them. You'll probably find it more useful in the long run that something about the framework du jour which you can probably do equally well on-line.

That's fine, and extremely common! I know some accomplished speakers and more than one of them have shaking hands for the first few minutes of a talk. They're just used to it. Some people get over their fear of public speaking, others get over their fear of the fear.

You're in good company. Fear of public speaking is (one of?) the most common phobia(s). For one example, Warren Buffett was terrified of it - and took specific steps to overcome it, including taking the Dale Carnegie course on public speaking - and when he withdrew from fear before it began, signing up for it again. https://www.inc.com/carmine-gallo/3-steps-to-overcome-stage-...

The key seems to be repetition - just do it, realize it is OK, and do it again.

Good luck!

For some reason it helps some people to admit to the audience that they are nervous about speaking there. Depending on the context you could even mention exactly this anecdote and ask them to therefore bear with you if it turns out to be not as smooth as you were hoping for?

Thanks for all the extremely supportive comments and suggestions. I've been inspired to go investigate the seeming multitude of resources out there that I had no idea existed.

Maybe one day, I'll make a post to HN describing my first talk to a big crowd and how much I enjoyed it :)

Thanks all.

May I suggest - ummoapp.com - not affiliated in any way, just a happy user.

This was a good collection of speaking tips.

"I was the last talk of the last day. Only about a dozen people attended that talk."

From the title I thought literally NOBODY showed up. I've done talks at 8am on Saturday in a room built for several hundred people where only about a dozen showed up and it didn't even occur to me to be upset. I was surprised & happy that many people showed up! I guess my expectations are low.

I once had a talk where literally one person showed up. (Years ago, for a sponsor talk I got stuck with that had very little to do with the event.) We had a nice conversation though :-)

Dozen people or so? So long as at least a few of them are paying attention, I'm fine with that. I've had small audiences where I've ended up chatting with people for 30 minutes afterwards. I'm fine with that.

Good call, database couldn't keep up

I'm the author of this post. I just wanted to say even with the embarrassment of my site going down (the blog was on a $5/month Digital Ocean plan, never figured I would write something only my mother would read).

I'm reading through your comments. Thank you for sharing your insights and stories. Would love to do a follow up post at some point.

A small point: "weigh" on them.

Thank you! There's a billion typos in there, you just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

When you are hustling to raise a seed round, you end up at some strange conferences.

I was invited to speak at a VR conference last minute a few years back. It was a good opportunity so I flew out to SF (from LA) for the day. My company had just finished research that would be interesting to the attendees and, frankly, positioned my startup in a strong light in front of the niche investors who I hoped would be there.

This was so last minute that I didn’t even have a deck completed. Instead of going to the first half of the conference I holed up in a coffee shop and worked on the presentation. When I get to the conference it is the end of the day so I don’t bother checking in.

I head to the room where I’m to speak and watch the second half of that prevention. He leaves. It’s 5pm. The room clears out and I setup. I never like that small conference, self-service mad-dash to hook into HDMI and hope the connectors work, but all is well and I’m ready to go on time.

No one enters.

Literally not one person.

I poke my head out and people are milling about, you can tell it’s time to go home. I notice the sign in front of the room that lists the presentations. I’m not on it. The one prior was the last of the night.

So I wheel the TV out into the hallway and present to everyone and no one all at once. I’m good at projecting my voice and actually drew in 10 or so people for the entire presentation. I carnival barked at investors I recognized (from their LinkedIn. I made flash cards of them, we’d never actually met) and sort of captured their attention. Security thinks about saying something. I run through my talk, someone even asks a question and that was that.

Somehow the organizers never actually booked me. They said they did, it just never made its way to the program. Had I gone to registration to get a badge I would have learned that fact earlier. It’s probably for the best that I didn’t.

This story would have been awesome if I found a lead investor from it, but in the end that company didnt work out. It is my favorite conference story though, with my presentation to an entirely Chinese-speaking audience coming in second. Good times.

Haha very cool!

In another life, I was in a hip hop group. We did shows up and down New England. Once in a while, we did shows for 100 - 200 people. Often we did shows for 20 - 30 people.

One time, we booked a show in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. We asked a few other acts to play, and they all came in from 50 - 100 miles away. We promoted the show beforehand using all the normal channels we used, and even handed out fliers at other local shows.

The acts all show up. The bartender shows up. The sound person shows up. No one else rolls in. We wait, but nothing. Not a single paying entrant after a couple hours.

All the acts performed anyway. And nobody ended up showing up.

Even if the room's near empty, you never can tell how many people will watch a recorded conference talk online.

I don't know about other folks, but I can rarely get out to conferences for time/money/family reasons, but I'll often watch the talks online.

If you give a good talk and it's recorded and online, with luck you'll eventually find an audience.

I speak publicly a bit more than monthly from groups of 50 to over 400. When I have the last slot, I make sure do a few things:

1) make the title salacious as I can; 2) engage those "survivors" more. In the past when in Vegas I've ordered a tray of drinks and offered them up as prizes for participating (this also works during early morning session of the last day of a big conference... Highest rated session lol); 3) depending on size (like less than 50) give them things I wouldn't necessarily give to a captive huge group, like templates, checklists, etc. 4) make damn sure my content is exciting. This means making especially not boring slides. Give them a progress bar at the bottom. 5) be more conversational, especially if it's less than 50.

Anyway, my few cents ;)

The best way for a conference to address this is to put a headline level general talk in place to close out the conference. It gets people to hang around specifically for that big talk which will keep people from leaving early if the last day is only track talks.

At least for a single day conference, it can work pretty well to have a "name" close out a conference because, as you say, people who might have been inclined to skip the last breakout or two otherwise to beat the traffic will end up sticking around.

The challenge at multi-day conferences is that it's just a reality that many people will take off early for travel and other reasons. So any big talk you put in the end may get some more people in seats at breakout but is also going to attract fewer people, less coverage, etc. than it would earlier in the event.

The last Elixir Conf I went to pulled this off on a multi day and it was very effective.

I was scheduled to talk at an InfiniBand conference. The day arrived - and my talk was cancelled. By the sponsoring organization Microsoft. Because I was going to talk about deficits in interface specifications. Microsoft hadn't fleshed out their plans in that regard, and didn't want anybody talking about it without their marketing message being foremost. They were paying for the conference, after all.

But it left a bad taste in my mouth.

At least from the surface, that's just really poor event management. Sometimes "stuff" does indeed happen but, in general, whoever was choosing talks should have been aware of potential landmines. Disinviting people has a pretty high bar if it's from a change of strategy on my end.

To be honest I was aware they were reluctant to talk app-layer interfaces. They were hoping to 'capture' InfiniBand similar to how video was captured with DirectX.

Once I submit and paper and was accepted, I assumed they'd relented. But day one of conference I was gone from the schedule - the session time slot was blank.

> Also realize that many WordCamps and conferences record talks and those are usually available to the public web, where many others can discover and view them.

This. I've only given one real conference talk—a lightning talk at Globus World 2019—but I do wish I had a recording of it.

It can be a bit hard without talking to an audience (at least it is for me) but consider just recording a talk at home--if only with your phone--and putting it on YouTube, etc. I'd actually argue that if you can make a 10 minute or so version that's probably better for online than an hour talk recorded at an event.

Not exactly the same thing but we have a family band and play at various low-key events, we've been on stage where there have been maybe 10 people in the audience and they were probably all organizers or vendors who had booths at the event. We still try to give it our best each time but it can be awkward.

Talks to smaller groups can be more fulfilling. Lots of 1-1 engagement, and the audience is much more engaged and truly cares about the topic. Real relationships are formed.

Sometimes to an audience with 100s half the people are on their laptop or phone. And can’t give you feedback as they listen to your talk.

Better title: "When everyone shows up on my website"

"When someone outside of my mother and children show up on my website" would be more like it (i'm the author, trust me on that).

"Error establishing a database connection"

Well, maybe most people can't even access what his events are about?

The server probably went over capacity ...

the wayback machine and google search cache are also empty as well...

"Error establishing a database connection"

When Nobody Can Read My Essay About Nobody Showing Up to My Conference Talk

Given that the article was positive and upbeat, but the site is down, I think the author practices what he preaches with the slide shown in the main image "It's ok to break code. But it's not ok to break yourself."

Ironically, the talk was at WordCamp ..

Wordpress is like seatbelts that appear normal, but fail open in a crash.

Every time I get "Error establishing a database connection", it's a WordPress server. The worst part is that there's usually hardly any interactivity on these sites, they could have just as easily been statically served.

"Download our tool to fix your database connection"

<<modal dialog pops up>>

SIGN ME UP FOR THE TOOL [subscribe]: ________


Error establishing a database connection.

Error establishing database connection.

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