I love speaking at conferences, especially big ones with big crowds. It brings out the best in me and many other speakers I know. I think many speakers tend to forget what conferences are all about; entertainment.

A friend of mine was recently chosen to speak at Cisco Live for the first time. Like me, he understands the value in entertaining attendees and conducted some basic market research. On Twitter, he held a poll to ask what kinds of demonstrations he should do: live, recorded, a mix of both, or none at all. I was shocked to see less than 50% of respondents chose live demos. While still the most popular choice, I expected this number to be closer to 80%.

I was grateful for the unsolicited and useful explanations many voters offered on why they chose recorded demos. These helped confirm my hypothesis around two key behaviors. I feel quite confident people voted based not on what they wanted, but what they thought my friend wanted to hear.

  1. They assumed conference attendees want "facts" only.
  2. They assumed my friend was afraid of his demos failing in real-time.

These comments completely miss the mark as they are based on the assumption that conferences are like formal schooling. First, in school, students show up and learn primarily through lecture. All of us will agree, school was downright boring most days. Second, if you are afraid of your demo failing in real time, then your demo is poorly planned, your product/service is either faulty or you don't fully understand it, or you are simply afraid of what other people will think of you. I've had demos blow up in my face; stop being timid and own it. Demos with training wheels are not interesting for anyone.

Let me share a secret with you. Conference attendees want and need to be entertained. If people just wanted to learn a technology, they could find any number of discount training providers or watch the reruns on the Cisco Live website at no cost. I am not suggesting adding cheap, unrelated humor. When I was in US Marine training in late 2008, instructors would begin a lecture with a stupid video of some guy falling off a bike or Marines blowing something up. They would then launch into a poorly delivered "death by Powerpoint" session. Rather than applying real innovation to create interesting material, they prepended "attention getters" to the course which were worthless.

If you speak at a conference, just know that you an entertainer first. Your transmittal of facts should be the side effect of a great show, not the focus.

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