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Still frame from Everybody Needs a Ninja

Ever look on a conference session list and see a presenter listed whose talk you’ve seen before? I certainly have, and depending on who it is, I’ll either go for a “repeat” session or skip them and see someone else. What makes the difference? Whether the presenter is an informer or performer.

I’ve talked to some presenters who believe that constantly changing your presentations is bad, the sign of an inexperienced presenter. If the goal is performance in the sense of performance art, then they are absolutely right. The goal is for the show to be as smooth, as flawless as possible. These folks have their shows timed perfectly, and it’s an art to watch and enjoy. Tom Hopkins is a great example of the performer as speaker – he can recite his presentations literally word for word from his books, which is no small accomplishment since his books are hundreds of pages long. That said, if you as a member of the audience got the message the first time, chances are you don’t need to see the show again unless you enjoy it for the performance that it is. Every subsequent performance will be a literal re-run.

I’ve talked to some presenters who believe that every speaking opportunity should be unique, with content tailored to what the audience is there to learn. If the goal is education, teaching, and sharing of knowledge, then they are absolutely right. The goal is for the education to be as thorough and as current as possible. The informer’s presentations will be rough around the edges. There will be stumbles as the presenter sees data they just slotted in the night before from the latest research study, or odd pauses as ideas hit them literally right on stage. There’s less polish, but you can go see the teacher at every single conference they’re at and get new ideas, new information, new perspectives, and new stuff to test.

Which is better? It depends on what you value. I value learning first and foremost at conferences. I’ve been in some sessions in which the presenter was awful but the data was valuable, and I was there principally to learn, so I got what I came for. I’ve been in some sessions in which the presenter was marvelous and I was incredibly entertained. That said, I walked away with nothing new from the presenter, so I didn’t get what I came for. If you’re a conference organizer choosing a keynote speaker, you may well value the polished, perfectly timed, perfectly nuanced performer for your center stage spotlight because they’re a known quantity and a reliable performer.

Can you have the best of both worlds, a presenter who is both a performer and an informer? Yes, you can, but such teachers are rare masters, true experts who have incredible expertise in their areas such that new information and new ideas are seamlessly integrated into their decades of existing knowledge and ability. Go watch someone like Stephen K. Hayes teach martial arts and you’ll see decades of experience and new learning all at the same time. What’s truly incredible about teachers like this is that they can present in such a way that everyone, veterans and newbies, walks away having learned something.

I’d imagine at the end of the day, most speakers who want to be on stage for a living aspire to be both informer and performer, masters of knowledge and delivery equally. I know I certainly do, and in a few decades, I hope to be able to do both flawlessly.

What about you? Which do you value more? Which do you enjoy more? Does this reflect who you choose to see at conferences?

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