Horizon 2020, the largest European research and innovation fund to date, was launched three years ago in the Dublin Convention Centre. I was hard pushed to find a seat in the impressive 2000-capacity auditorium as I had arrived late. It occurred to me when I sat down, though, that I should have arrived later.
A minister, an EU commissioner, and three senior people from research bodies made up the five speakers each due to talk for five minutes to introduce the Horizon 2020 research programme. After that it would be a short discussion and then out into lobby for a ‘networking lunch’.
At the last such event I had attended there were skewered olives, fruit compotes and mini casseroles – or were they were hotpots(?) – and I was in good spirits and quite looking forward to my lunch. However, as the talks progressed my energy levels drained. What was wrong with the speeches? Simple: they were speeches.
The problem with speeches is that they are pre-written. There is no spontaneity and no connection with the audience in the room. The speaker decides in advance what he or she is going to say and reads it out. For the audience, this is boring.
Not only are the cadences of a speech unlike that of natural conversation, and thus not as easy on the ear, but the fact that the speaker – or should I say reader – is going to plod through the material regardless of anything the audience does or says is very demoralising.
The magic ingredient of a presentation is its live-ness. The communicator is right in front of you, in the flesh. If you were to ask them a question they might answer it; if you look at them, they might look back. And even if this engagement is limited, as it might be at a larger event, it still creates a buzz in the room that a scripted talk cannot match.
In my opinion speeches are colossally overrated. Sure there have been good ones – ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and all that – but these occur infrequently, are given by great orators, and tend to accompany momentous historical events. The best ones get replayed and mesmerize people into thinking they are a good idea but rarely can they compete with a knowledgeable person just talking.
There were other problems. The 5-minute speeches were 15-minute speeches; I exaggerate not. There were no images, videos, demonstrations, examples or analogies. There was no humour. There was no interaction with the audience. There were no stories. In short, everything that a presentation should actually be good at was missing. Awful.
But here’s something to reflect on. These were all experienced, trained, polished speakers – ministers and the like – and because of a complete lack of understanding of how a presentation works, their talks were rubbish.
And here’s something else to reflect on. When I pointed this out to people in the networking session afterwards, most smiled and shrugged and said things like, ‘Well, there’s always the boring speeches at these things, isn’t there.’ In other words, awful is expected. Awful is accepted. Awful is normal.
There is a positive note to sound, here, though. For all you nervous, inexperienced speakers out there, there is very little you have to learn. Put another way, learning how to speak doesn’t make you a better speaker. A sensible choice of content will make your presentation work; you already know how to talk, you’ve been doing it all your life.
And, as it turned out, even the lunch was a little disappointing that day in the Dublin Convention Centre. No hotpots.