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Jinfo Blog"Predux" - How to improve conferences through peer-reviewed rehearsals

Tuesday, 1st November 2011

By Theba Islam

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Abstract

Conferences are great places to get up-to-date and generally build your knowledge, but how often has a conference been less than perfect because of the quality of some presentations? This is where the “predux” comes in. As Theba Islam explains, this allows speakers to test out their presentations, and receive constructive criticism, from a small group of their peers before an event.

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One of the most established ways of knowledge sharing in business is the conference setting. It provides ample opportunity for face-to-face networking amongst delegates, and a good conference programme will expose them to thought leaders in the field. Delegates can hope to come away with a fistful of business cards, and a head full of practical new ideas to try out when they get back to their office, library or school. A key component, then, are the talks themselves. In the London User Experience Design community, we've begun to try and organise ourselves better to improve the quality of talks that our peers are giving at conferences around the world.

If you are a conference speaker, then there are plenty of places that will offer to coach you in the art of public speaking. What these courses won't give you, however, is an honest critique of the content of your talks. The most confident delivery in the world won't make a talk more useful if it is ill-structured, unfocused or makes assumptions about what the audience does, or doesn't, know.

In order to address this, before the big events in the UX calendar, we've been holding "predux" sessions. "Predux" is a rather ugly word. It comes from the idea that, if you might hold an evening "redux" session, where people try to cram the lessons of an entire conference into one night, then doing that before the conference takes place must be a "predux".

The basic premise is to have a small group of peers from the topic area get together with people who are going to be talking at a specific event, and allow each speaker to rehearse their talk. The rest of the group then give a constructive critique, aimed at improving the talk – and consequently improving the conference for everyone. In London this year we've held events in the run up to the UPA conference in Atlanta and EuroIA in Prague.

Here are some of the guidelines we have developed for running these nights successfully.

Allow plenty of time

On the conference programme a speaker might have 25 minutes allotted. On a predux evening, that can easily extend wildly. Firstly, the timing of their talk may not yet be spot on – in fact, that is one of the things you might want to help improve. If you've got the informal atmosphere of the event right, then the speaker will feel free to break off and take notes, which can also add time. Finally, the group discussion at the end can sometimes last as long as the talk itself did.

Small groups work better

For the recent EuroIA predux we had seven speakers rehearsing on the night. Rather than getting everybody to do their talk in front of everybody else, we broke them up into three streams. The biggest group had three talks, with three additional non-speaking critics. The smaller groups had two talks with a couple of additional people listening in.

Get the right balance of people

We've had the most success when we've invited the audience. It means you can make sure you get a mix of people who know and respect each other, and who are in the right frame of mind to give and receive criticism. Remember, this isn't an opportunity to discuss "the grand theory of the universe", but an opportunity to help one person present their perspective on "the grand theory". Everybody in the room needs to be conscious that the aim of the event is to improve the talks and the confidence of the speakers in their material.  

Get a mix of experience in the audience

Most conference audiences will have a mix of abilities in the room, from the veterans who are giving talks elsewhere on the programme, to people new to the field attending their first event. If you can, try and include a couple of junior people or students in the critique groups. They will be much more useful in pointing out where a speaker has made assumptions about what is common professional knowledge than a bunch of grizzled old pros.

Invite people who know the conference culture

It is helpful to invite reviewers who are attendees of the conference and know the audience well. For the EuroIA predux, at least one regular attendee of the conference was placed in each group. They were able to offer a cultural perspective that could easily be missed. Was the style of humour appropriate for a European IA Community? Are they confident that the opening used is the most effective with a Czech audience?

Time it right

We've found that holding the predux about three weeks before the main event seems to be the right timeframe. For one thing, for the – ahem! – less organised conference speaker, it brings forward the deadline for producing their slides. No more last minute hasty editing PowerPoint on the plane for them! Three weeks also leaves a gap after the predux to reflect upon the feedback and make any changes in a considered fashion, rather than unsettling a speaker with just a couple of days to go.

Let the organisers know

It is always a good idea to let the main conference organisers know that you are planning the event. Mostly you'll find that they are thrilled that people are working so hard to make their event a success. What you definitely want to avoid, though, is that they suddenly see that someone is putting on an event just a couple of weeks before their conference, featuring a whole host of their speakers. Make sure they know it is a select invite only rehearsal session, not an attempt to steal their thunder and – more importantly in a recession – their ticket sales.

Don't tweet or blog details on the night

In a similar vein, make sure people understand not to blog or tweet the contents of the talks on the night. It is fine – and, in fact, positively encouraged – to tweet things like "I'm excited to be at the conference x predux", or "@such-and-such is going to rock conference x with their awesome talk". But not the details of the talks. You can use a predux event to build up anticipation for the main event, but not to scoop the details.

Conclusion

The key to getting the predux right is creating an environment that’s helpful and constructive, where speakers are able to test their ideas and presentation skills in a comfortable and friendly setting. This not only improves the quality of the talks delivered, but also strengthens our community.

We think the predux evenings have been a really interactive and personal way of coaching and improving the speakers coming out of the London UX community. So why not give it a try?


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