Yes, attendees, it’s OK to walk out of an educational session. In fact, I would venture to say that you owe it to yourself, the speaker and the event organizer to forego all deadly sessions in favor of ones with content and presentation styles that engage you.
I know, I know, “it’s not polite.” But look at it this way: If you sit there bored out of your mind, you’re not only wasting valuable time, you’re actually robbing yourself of the chance to join a more rewarding experience that’s happening just down the hallway. Also, letting the speaker and the event organizer know that the content is not engaging is going to help everyone improve what’s being offered. (And if you wait until the post-event survey, it may be too late.)
So, in honor of everyone who really wants to learn, here are my top 10 warning signs that you should close your notebook, put on your walking shoes and start looking for a more “educational” session:
- The speaker is unprepared. If you’re at the 15-minute mark and the speaker still hasn’t made a point or addressed what you’re going to be learning, give up all hope and head for the door. The first thing they should tell you is why they’re here, why you should care and what’s in it for you.
- They’re not sharing anything new. If they’re only stating the obvious, you’ll probably be better off looking up the topic on the Internet or reading a book about it. Life’s too short to sit through an entire 60- or 90-minute session that has maybe one thing you can use.
- They are an “expert” rather than a speaker. The world is full of experts. But public speaking requires very specific skills, primarily: the ability to tell a story and be comfortable in front of an audience. Speakers also need to be good writers and editors of their work, so they can present even the most complex materials in an interesting and clear way. They also need to have a certain amount of flexibility so they feel comfortable veering from the script to answer questions or can adjust topics to fit the needs of their audience. If they can’t, they should be put on a panel, not given an hour of your precious time to waste.
- They’re there to sell, not show and tell. Whether it’s a sponsor who’s promoting their business because they paid for a spot or a speaker who only has one solution to the problem they’re speaking on (buy their stuff), being shilled to in an educational session is a drag.
- They leave nothing to the imagination. If your speaker tries to cram as much text as possible into each slide, you’re doomed. That’s the mark of someone who is just going to read aloud to you, and you’ll spend the whole session either trying to keep up with them or waiting for them to move on to the next slide instead of actually listening to them.
- They can’t walk the talk. I once went to a session on how to green your meeting. The speaker’s handout was 20 double-spaced pages in extra-large font, printed only on one side. That told me everything I needed to know about what she could possibly teach me about planning more eco-friendly meetings. I went and took a nice nap, instead.
- They freak out when challenged. I don’t care who you are, you can’t know everything. And that’s OK. Most great speakers welcome a challenging question, because it can lead to great discussions and a-ha moments. They also can admit to being uncertain if they don’t know the answer to a question, and can use that as an opportunity to start a new discussion or learn something from the audience. If your speaker can’t, that’s not a good sign. Either they’re too unprepared to welcome dialogue, or they’re afraid they’re going to lose control of the room.
- It’s all about them, not you. Some speakers have a stock presentation that they do over and over again, regardless of who’s in the audience. Some speakers tell a lot of personal stories, but forget to explain why that’s relevant to you or your industry. Either approach is indicative of a lazy speaker who doesn’t particularly care what you take away from them. If they truly cared, they’d have taken the time to research your industry and customize the information so you’d know how to apply it.
- They apologize and make excuses. The minute a speaker starts to point out or apologize for mistakes, everything’s going to go downhill. If they had just gone on with the show, chances are you wouldn’t have noticed that they messed up. Now it’s all anyone in the room can think about (including them).
- They demand your attention, they don’t earn it. Any actor can tell you that it’s impossible to have every single audience member’s uninterrupted attention all the time. But, if you stay honest and connected to your material, you will have their full respect and attention, eventually. Unfortunately, some speakers don’t understand that, and they’ll lash out at the audience rather than try to create a more interactive and meaningful experience. This can become especially awkward if the speaker tries to browbeat the audience into submission or misunderstands how the audience is using technology to enhance the learning experience. The person typing away on their cell phone was probably taking notes or Twittering something nice until the speaker started being such a jerk.