Talk Tropes and Conference Cliches
Over that last 12 years of attending, speaking and organising conferences, I’ve seen a lot of talks. Probably upwards of a thousand. I’ve seen talks that have inspired me, talks that have challenged me, and talks that left me welling up. During that time I’ve seen themes start to emerge; topics our industry find fascinating and love to revisit time and time again.
Many of these topics I’ve used myself, and were I ever to write a “101 things I learnt at architecture school” style book for the interaction design industry, these tropes would feature heavily.
After spending two days binge watching talks in an attempt to find the last couple of speakers for a conference I’m organising, I was amazed how regularly these tropes appeared. I was also surprised how certain traits and behaviours kept repeating themselves across speakers. So I thought I’d jot them down, on the off chance people found them useful. Either as things you hadn’t heard of before and wanted to explore further, or topics and behaviours you wanted to avoid in a search for originality.
Top Talk Tropes
One of the earliest tropes I can remember is “paving the cow paths”; the idea of designing for observed behaviour rather than imposing strict architectures of control. This concept beautifully illustrates the fields of user centred design and lean startup. It’s also one of the pervading philosophies behind the web; that there is intelligence in the system, and it will find its way around any blockage. In the retail world, “cow paths” are also known as “desire lines”, and are used to maximise product exposure. In past talks I’ve used this example to explain why milk is always placed at the back of the store, and how casinos in Vegas are designed.
If desire lines can be seen as a highly optimised user journey, the “peak-end rule” is a similar short-cut our brains make for judging how we experience said journey. Research from the field of hedonic psychology has shown that we tend to judge an experienced based on two things; the intensity of the peak condition—positive or negative—and the end state. This is one reason why the most memorable customer experiences are often the result of something bad happening. We remember the intensity of the bad experience, plus the happiness caused by a positive outcome, and the differential between the two frames our perspective. That’s not to say that we should deliberately try to manufacture negative experiences. However it does suggest that people will judge experiences more favourably that have peaks and troughs of emotion, but ultimately end well, rather than an experience that was consistently good, but not noteworthy.
A related cognitive bias is the idea of “change blindness” as illustrated perfectly but the classic basketball video. Viewers are asked to count the number of times the basketball changes hands. So fixated are they on this task, a good proportion of viewers fail to spot the 100 pound gorilla in the room, both literally and figuratively. This goes to show that even when we think something obvious is happening with our designs, many of the people using our products literally don’t notice the things we’re carefully designed.
One tool to help craft these peak experiences is “The Kano Model”. This model classifies features into three different types; basic needs, performance pay-offs, and delights. I usually describe the Kano model in talks by using the analogy of a hotel. A hotel room just wouldn’t function without a bed, a door, access to a bathroom, electricity and a few other must have items. Theses are your MVP feature set. However in order to compete in a crowded market, you can add performance pay-off features like a bigger TV or after broadband. Over time, these nice-to-have features eventually become basic needs, which is why most MVP aren’t very minimal. It’s the third type of feature in the Kano model that interests interaction designers and product managers the most. The small additions which have an unusually sizeable effect. This could be the warm cookie waiting for you at check-in, the free bottle of champagne in your room, or something as simple as a handwritten note from the cleaning staff, letting you know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow.
All these items can be mapped as peaks on some form of journey map. They can also form part of the classic “hero's journey”, another common trope. If you’ve not heard of the hero's journey before, it’s essentially the idea that many well known stories follow a common archetype. Somebody is given a challenge, they set off on a journey, aided by a wise confident. They overcome a series of increasingly difficult challenges, only to return back to the start a changed person. Stories like the Hobbit and Star Wars follow the heroes journey closely, which is one of the reasons they have endured so well. Narrative storytelling is all the range in the interaction design world at the moment, in large part thanks to the work of content strategists. We’ve actually used the hero's journey framework in the case studies on our new site, making sure to cast the client as the hero, rather than ourselves.
The preceding tropes are good, but I think my favourite one has to be Stewart Brand's “Shearing Layers” diagram from his book, How Buildings Learn. The original diagram was used to demonstrate the different speeds at which buildings grown and evolve, as well as the friction caused between layers moving at different speeds. I tend to use this as a megaphone for organisations structure and learning. Add to this the idea of pioneers, m settlers and town-planners, and you have a powerful tool for describing why different teams, disciplines and functions within organisations often struggle to work together.
There are dozens of other common tropes I could mention here, like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, the classic three ringed Venn diagram with whatever the speaker does shown in the middle, or the classic illustration depicting lean start-up by showing a product move from skateboard, to bike, to scooter, then finally ending up as a car. I won’t bore you with my thoughts on that particular diagram here. Suffice to say there are a lot of common trends repeating themselves in the speaker circuit, and for good reason. However if you’re goal is to present something new and original, it may be worth picking something slightly more obscure.
Common Conference Cliches
As well as picking up and using a common set of tropes over the past 12 years, I’ve also adopted common traits and behaviours from other speakers. Behaviours like asking the audience about their backgrounds, or whether anybody has heard about the topic you’re about to discuss. It’s a way of building rapport with your audience, while making yourself feel comfortable on stage. However as audiences become more savvy, asking questions like “who here has heard about Lean” becomes increasingly meaningless, especially when their response is unlikely to change the direction of your talk. I’ve witnessed several awkward moments where a speaker asked an audience if they knew about a certain thing—when they clearly did—only for that speaker to launch into a 10 minute scripted description of what that thing was, making everybody feel like they hadn’t been listened too.
A similar faux pas is spending a sizeable portion of a talk introducing who you are and where you come from. A little context can be helpful, but I once witnessed a speaker give a 15 minute bio of pretty much every job they had had in their career. By the time they reached the meat of their talk, they had completely lost the audience—in some cases literally as around 50 people had walked out. The frustrating thing is the rest of the talk was amazing, or at least what I saw of it was, as the speaker ran out of time and had to cut the bulk of the talk short.
In this case I suspect the speaker simply felt nervous and wanted to justify why they had earned the right to be on stage to the audience. However from the audiences perspective the speaker had already earned their place on the stage and were expanding on information that was already in there conference programme. So rather than being interesting or helpful, it actually came across as self indulgent and disrespectful of the audience's time. From that point on I decided never to introduce myself on stage, assuming that if people were interested they would read the schedule or check out my online profile. I’d urge folks to do the same, although if explaining your background is important, a great way to do it is part way in. I call this “The Hollywood opener” as you throw your audiences right into there middle of the action, and only introduce them to the main character once they’re hooked.
Making the audience feel uncomfortable is never a good idea, so having an understanding about the audience and their culture really helps. I’ve seen plenty of amazing speakers have great success with audience participation on their home turf, getting folks to stand up, stretch, introduce themselves to their neighbours, or discuss something that’s challenging them at work. I’ve seen those same speakers crash and burn in more conservative regions, where force social interaction makes people feel awkward. One particularly uncomfortable incident featured an exuberant North American speaker, a room full of stoic Europeans, and a compulsion to high-five everybody in the front row.
Ironically I’ve also seen audience participation go too well, with speakers allocating 30 seconds to something that should actually take 5 minutes of more. In that situation the audience is having such a good time chatting to their neighbours, having the speaker cut them off to get back to the talk can actually be quite jarring and a little insensitive.
One of the most challenging forms of audience participation has to be the Q&A at the end of a talk. I’ve seen some fantastic Q&A session that were actually more insightful and interesting than the talks that preceded them. However I’ve also witnessed my fair share of awkward sessions where a shy audience is cajoled into asking meaningless questions, just to break the silence and make the speaker feel liked and appreciated. More often than not these Q&A sessions suck the energy out of a carefully scripted talk; like a Director being forced to explain the plot-points of a move once the credits have rolled. They also get in the way of the audience members getting coffee, grabbing some food, making an important call or a much needed comfort break. So can also be a source of discomfort to some. As such I think it’s better to finish a little early than force an unwanted Q&A session.
This brings me to my biggest bugbear of late—not least because I’ve used this one plenty of times myself. It's people making THAT joke about being “The only thing between you and food/beer”. It was funny the first couple of times I saw a speaker say that, and its' always resulted in a titter of approval when I’ve used that line myself. However at a recent conference I saw two consecutive speakers make exactly the same joke, to clearly diminishing returns. As such I think THAT joke has now jumped the shark, so I’m going to do my best to stop using it.
It’s worth noting that there’s nothing wrong with any of these talk tropes and conferences cliches in and of themselves. They all have value if used appropriately. As such there is no judgement on anybody using them. After all I’ve used most of them myself. Instead I present them to you more as an observation from years of conference speaking, attending and organising, in the hope that both new and experienced speakers find them interesting. What you do with the information, if anything, is up to you. However I thought it was worth adding that caveat as you know how touchy people on the Internet can be.I'd hate for anybody to overreact or anything like that :)