So I've been lucky enough to speak at or attend quite a lot of conferences lately and I've decided that the biggest problem with conferences is that far too many talks suck.
Now the good news is that most talks suck for the same few reasons, so hopefully mentioning these things will help raise the bar a bit.
And by the way, don't get too smug if you're not a speaker, because I'm gonna give you attendees a hard time too at the end.
Here's the first reason that most talks suck: (boring)
Boredom is the leading cause of death among conference talks.
Most speakers mistakenly think that their most important job when speaking is to convey information, but that isn't true.
Your most important job as a speaker is to be INTERESTING.
Being interesting is more important than being informative because if you're boring, no one will listen to you.
Damn near everybody at a tech conference has a laptop, which means as a speaker, you need to be more interesting than the internet. Now that's a tall order, but you've gotta try if you want to teach people anything.
The best way to not be boring is to be excited about what you're talking about. If you don't seem like you're excited about your topic I promise no one else will.
After ensuring your excitement the next best way to keep a talk interesting is to just put yourself in your audience's shoes.
Do YOU enjoy going to talks where the speaker reads from slides with bullet points?! Of course you don't, so don't make your test like that!
Almost every technical talk I've ever been to that had slides would have been better with live coding. Show, don't tell.
Okay, next problem.
The second reason that many talks suck is that the speakers' slides suck. This is such an easy thing to get right that I can't believe I still see people mess this up.
I've seen so many slides at conferences that look like this (code).
When this slide hits the projector, the speaker usually says "Hopefully you guys in the back can read this". If you say that during your talk, you're an asshole, for two reasons.
First, you should have known you can't fit that much text on a slide. This should be common knowledge at this point. Stick to huge fonts.
But secondly, even if you didn't know this you should have discovered it when you did a practice run of your talk the day before. Every time I speak now I show up a day early, plug my laptop into the projector, and walk to the back of the room. I make sure everybody in the audience can read everything I'm showing, because I give a damn, and you should too.
Here's another common mistake (text at bottom).
It's extremely common for rooms to be set up such that only the first couple rows can see the bottom of the screen. Don't put text down there.
If you can manage to not be boring, and have readable slides, your talk probably won't suck. You're still a long way from awesome, but at least you won't disrespect your audience with a crappy session. And that's what bad talks do, they show a lack of concern for your audience's time. And when you waste 40 minutes for 200 people, that's 133 person-hours wasted, and that's a crime.
Now I promised I was going to be mean to you non-speaking attendees too, so here's a quick parting shot before I go.
If you come to a talk, and spend the whole time writing code or answering emails, you are a jerk. If you want to do that, sit in the lobby. As a speaker, it is demoralizing to look out at your audience and get no eye contact. Not only that, but the moving stuff on your screen is distracting to your neighbors who are trying to listen. Don't be a jerk.
Now if your speaker is boring, and you want to salvage the time by getting something done, I think that speaker is getting what they deserve. But don't start the talk with your laptop open. Keep it closed, try to listen, and give your speaker a chance to hold your attention.