OSCON 2009: What Are Your Session Dealbreakers?

The 4:30PM Wednesday slot was packed at OSCON. I’m talking about three sessions I was either “eager” or “very eager” to attend at a conference where 95% of the conference titles were outright inscrutable. (eg. “Sun GlassFish (OpenSolaris) Web Stack – The Next Generation Open Web Infrastructure” — see what I mean?) One session concerned graphic design. Another risk models. The third session listed as “Antifeatures,” a title which was tough to resist in its own right.

I told myself I’d pick one and sit through the first five minutes. If, at that point, it had met certain criteria, I’d bail on it for one of the other sessions.

If you are loathe to leave a session under any circumstances, consider yourself exempt from this writing prompt. Otherwise, if you value your time and you vote with your feet, how do you judge a session by its first five minutes? Again, it’s possible the session turned into a winner exactly six minutes in. Under these constraints, though, we don’t have the luxury of patience.

I’ll post my own criteria to the comments shortly.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school teacher, former graduate student, and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. Passion and accessibility.

    If the speaker starts of droning as if he/she is bored to tears, there is less of a chance that I’ll be interested in the topic.

    The second part refers to the level at which the material is being presented. If it is something that is so familiar to me and the speaker isn’t extending my knowledge/thinking, there’s little point in my being there. At the other extreme, if the speaker is assuming prior knowledge that I don’t have and the whole thing is going over my head, my time will also be better spent elsewhere.

  2. Can I apply the same criteria as I do with movies?

    Sometimes the first 5 minutes does nothing more than introduce a compelling character. That can be enough to have me stay with it and usually the story evolves.

    Sometimes I have a preconceived idea of the content and when it moves away from that, I have to make an even hastier decision as to whether the deviation is still of value.

    If in the first 5 minutes you haven’t in anyway peaked my interest or challenged my beliefs, I’ve changed channels.

    Not sure that’s a fair analogy but one that I’ve felt fairly tied to. I view all presentations as a story. I’m all for non-conforming or straying from formula approaches but the plot or characters ought to be compelling.

  3. I would definitely agree with Jackie about passion. To some extent, I want to be entertained as well as taught new material and passion is entertaining. Adding to that, a sense of humor always makes these things more enjoyable.

    Next, I want a way to try and apply whatever they’re teaching. Are there resources or templates I can use and modify? Are there instructions on how to create my own version? Is there any kind of support or people available to help me?

    And also, how is it presented? Is it a dreaded PowerPoint or lecture style? I want to learn new ways to present and I want to see that effort was put into the presentation to appeal to the audience.

    Lastly, is the speaker authentic? Is the topic useful or interesting. This is usually determined from the title but the first few minutes should explain exactly why this thing is wonderful and how it is important to my life. If it’s not moving me forward, then I’m moving out.

  4. There is a state of being bored, inattentive, and obviously going to spend the next hour ditzing with my iphone/calculator that screams LEAVE NOW.

    Reiterate Jackie’s point about content way above/below my expertise.

    In general if I feel like I’m wasting my time, I’m out. I can’t point to a telling, universal canary in the coalmine that indicates a session is a waste of time, though. I can think of examples… the guy who launches into the nitty-gritty of some webtool I’ve never heard of, without demonstrating why it’s useful. The lady who tries to demonstrate the relevance of her topic to a math class with an utterly contrived example. The guy whose presentation is hamstrung when he finds that most of his demonstration websites are blocked in the school, and can’t recover beyond sighing dramatically. Pertinent question: is this a waste of my time?

  5. You should pick conference sessions based on the people giving them, and you should have remembered that I often blog highly of Mako Hill, who was giving the Antifeatures talk, and gone to it.

  6. “Again, it’s possible the session turned into a winner exactly six minutes in.”

    Reminds me of something a buddy of mine would say if I leave a party early “You shoulda hung out man… A minute after you left…”

    According to a study by Ambady and Rosenthal, as popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, “thin slices” of about 30 seconds should be enough to gauge the effectiveness of teachers. Maybe you should go in for 30 seconds and leave if it’s not right for you. If anyone asks, it’s plausible that it took you 30 seconds to figure out that you were in the wrong room.

  7. my tiebreaker for deciding which presentation to attend has little to do with the opening five minutes. generally speaking, unless the presenter 1) completely stinkbombs out of the gate, or 2) explains in an overview that the talk is very different than what i thought it was going to be, i stick around.

    what i use as the tiebreaker, after looking at who’s giving the talk (as tom wrote), is to look at who’s going. perhaps this is easier to do in the small circle that is international education in asia, but i typically recognize at least a third of conference participants, and there will usually be at least a half dozen attendees that i know quite well. so – i follow people whose opinions i respect, and i recognize some windbags and steer clear.

  8. At this year’s OSCON I went to several sessions discussing topics that I knew something about already, and the first 10 or 15 minutes were very exciting and interesting, followed by a half hour of going through slides that I could have written myself.

    I think next time I will avoid the sessions where I have already heard or read about the topic and rather go to ones that are completely new to me.

  9. I’ll give you an example from the conference I just got home from, Building Learning Communities…

    If you spend the first five minutes of your session fooling with clickers (aka student response systems), asking for the audience to punch buttons and not addressing anything in your description, I’m gone.

    (BTW, the other 95% of BLC was outstanding)

    I also agree with Tom about choosing sessions based on the presenter. I avoid anything vendor sponsored and most speakers with a corporate affiliation, although the later is subject to modification based on recommendations from my PLN.

  10. Yeah, good stuff. I’m partial to indicators here that are easy to measure, that are less abstract. (eg. I prefer Tim’s “is the presenter still fumbling with technology?” to Jackie‘s “passion” and “accessibility,” even though they’re all useful.)

    Here’s my list.

    If I see a bullet point, I walk.
    If the presenter is still referencing his credentials, qualifications, the people he knows, I walk.
    If I see a corporate logo, I walk.
    If the presenter is dressed two or more standard deviations above the mean dresscode, I walk.
    If the slides are available online, I walk.

    Also helpful here is Jeff’s, “where are the people I respect?” I knew no one at OSCON so I checked the Twitter hashtag compulsively.

    If another session is receiving positive buzz at the same time that my presentation is barely engaging me, I walk.

    And I more or less agree with Dean and Mr. H’s Gladwell-derived assertion that you can kind of pretty much tell inside of thirty seconds if a session will be a dog or not, especially if you’ve been to a lot of sessions.

  11. I pre-screen all the presenters by looking them up online. Usually the ones with good websites or blogs are the ones that will also be good presenters. Not always … but it’s a good bet.

    No online presence? Then they probably haven’t read anything about good presentation design or learned that presentations don’t HAVE to be PowerPoint.

  12. @Maria, exactly. A web presence was my tiebreaker, in the end. If a presenter can design a compelling online experience for someone they have never met face to face, I give them good odds in the face to face confrontation. I imagine that, personally, that’s a pretty large component of your job.

  13. Not sure I agree with your criteria about the slides being online as a deal breaker. In that case, no one would come to my sessions.

    I offer the slides online for others to use that have heard my talk and understand the context of the slide. As you’ve talked about before the stand alone deck is most often useless without the talk but if you’ve heard the talk, the slide deck can trigger ideas and may be reusable to others in telling stories.

  14. Can’t speak for Maria’s point but I was just referring to a web presence period, full stop, not necessarily the slides. A blog, in particular, lets me sample the quality of writing which, itself, is a good proxy for the quality of thought.

  15. Hehe – all good points. It’s important to choose your seat carefully so you’ve got an easy escape route without causing fuss.

    For me, quality of the first few slides usually tells me what I need to know. Above points also apply to webinars, where leaving is so much easier…click!

  16. If the slides are available online, I walk. seems wrong. Its punishing the presenter for having an online presence. I’ll do it in the case of a conference with an overabundance of good presentations but I’ve rarely found that sort of great conference in or outside the education community.

    Otherwise I’ll echo prior comments; if its a vendor talk in disguise I’m gone. If I haven’t learned anything new in the first 5 minutes I’m gone. If I’m still thinking about the last presentation after 5 minutes I’m gone (although I’ll probably go someplace to ponder the ramifications of whatever is still holding my interest).

  17. re “if the slides are available online, I walk.”

    This isn’t a penalty or an indicator of bad presentation practice. It means that, all things being equal, I’d rather go to a session that has nothing for me to glean online — no slides, no slide notes.

    For example, I saw that the design axiom speaker had an enormous amount of session material online so I didn’t go. I’ll read it later and get maybe 50% of the experience, which is better than nothing.

  18. Although, I didn’t physically leave any sessions due to uninspiring presenters at the World Gifted Conference held last week in Vancouver, I did leave mentally. Here were my dealbreakers for departing:

    1) When the presenter was promoting himself or his book. I’ve taken enough university courses from professors who did this so have zero tolerance.

    2) When the presenter delivered a message without evidence of effectiveness.

    3) If the presenter read the ppt. slides aloud like the unprepared actor who doesn’t know his lines.

  19. I have attended several conferences on Learning and Technology, with most of the presenters from a mix of technologists and educationalists. One of the best ways to find is look up their material or contribution online and we will know the quality.

    In several of these, I found that for the presenters who talk value would surely have created a presence in online education forums or tools. And usually they would have a presence in a well known online education platform or a well known blog.