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The Most Important Rule to Follow When Giving a Presentation or Teaching a Workshop

At The O'Reilly Open Source Conference
With Tim O'Reilly, the publisher of my book
July 2002

When I spoke at large software conferences back in the 90s, where 1,500 folks might pay to listen to hear me prattle on for a few hours, my preparation went like this:

  1. Discuss with the organizers the kind of talk to give.
  2. When the conference program comes out, see the actual title and description of my talk.
  3. Prepare a talk that exactly conformed to that advertised title and description, even if it differed from what was discussed in advance.

Even the most fantastic presentation is destined to make people feel cheated if attendees arrive expecting to hear about something else.

I know this from unfortunate first-hand experience as an attendee myself. For example, once I showed up to a presentation by Famous Computer Guy expecting to hear the talk advertised in the conference program, only to be subject to the advertised speaker inexplicably giving a different talk, apparently recycled from some earlier conference. It wasn't a last-minute schedule change; I think the speaker was just lazy.

Perhaps there was overlap between the two target audiences — those interested in the advertised talk and those interested in the delivered talk — but I was not among them and so my time and my attention was completely wasted. I felt deceived and disrespected.

This applies to most any kind of teaching/presentation situation where folks choose to attend based upon the description.... from the aerobics lesson at a gym to a college class to a presentation at a conference to a play or music performance:

What you advertise to provide is the basis by which folks make the choice to attend, so make sure to actually provide the content that you advertised, or you will certainly disappoint.

I showed up at my local gym today and thought I'd give a particular aerobics class a try. It was advertised as being for beginners for whom dancing is not a strong point, so it was up my alley to get in some low-impact sweat. I think I was the only first-timer in the class because when the instructor put the music on, I was the only person who didn't launch into a complex choreographed dance (like a high-energy version of Michael Jackson's Thriller). It left me just standing there dumb, wondering what to do. Perhaps it was just a warmup? After a few embarrassing minutes of just standing there amid the flailing high-energy limbs and torsos, I eventually bothered anther student to ask when the instruction could come, to which I found out there wasn't any.

Nothing was wrong with the lesson nor the description: the problem is that they didn't match. This is fully the instructor's fault (though the gym also bears responsibility for allowing such an instructor).

Feeling absolutely stupid and deceived; I slinked out of the room and returned home, devoid of both sweat and a good mood.


Comments so far....

There’s a more general principle here: when a customer (however defined) is unhappily surprised by something, it’s usually your fault; avoiding surprises is good customer service.

— comment by Steve Friedl on November 14th, 2013 at 4:22am JST (10 months, 17 days ago) comment permalink

Maybe they were beginners when they began practicing the routine together several years ago.

— comment by Zak on November 15th, 2013 at 4:03pm JST (10 months, 15 days ago) comment permalink
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