Conferences Are For Why, Not How

There are dozens of solid ways to level up as a developer. Online video, blogs, niche mailing lists, books, reading source code on GitHub, and of course simply building something. So how do conferences compete? What are they good for? Where do they fail?

I’ve presented over 70 sessions at conferences across North America and Europe over the last three years. I’m clearly a big believer in the format. After attending countless sessions, I’ve discovered a simple principle: Developer conferences should be about why, not how.

Stop Teaching, Start Selling

Many developers start their speaking career by fixating heavily on the how. They want to explain the details of the implementation. They strive to walk through as much code and technical detail as they can jam in an hour. “This parameter does this…This overload initializes that…” This is a mistake.

Effective conference sessions aren’t fixated on the how. They’re about the why.
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It’s certainly possible to teach the how at a conference. But lets consider the strengths and weakness of the conference format by contrasting a typical conference session with alternatives like a book, blog, or online video.

Timeframe

The typical conference session lasts one hour. This arbitrary constraint creates a fundamental challenge: How do I address my topic comprehensively in this short timeframe? Books, blogs, and online video allow you to select the length based on the complexity of your topic.

JavaScript The Good Parts

‘Nuff said.

This arbitrary constraint means you must carefully select a small subset of the actual topic when presenting at a conference. There’s no way you can cover it all in one hour. It’s unlikely you can do so in a four or eight hour session either. So why not focus on the why, when, and where instead?

Audience

Books, blogs, and online videos can optimize their message for a very specific niche. Consumers of these formats enjoy a broad range of options, so they can select the medium and focus that suits their skill set and learning style best. In contrast, conferences have anywhere from 100 to a few 1,000 people who are choosing between a handful of concurrent sessions.

This means presenters are incentivized to select broad, introductory topics that will appeal to a wide swath of attendees. Niche and advanced topics are rarely accepted since they’re destined to have thin attendance. Ultimately, the attendees in a given session have a far broader experience base than those who select a specific book, blog, or video. Thus, choosing the ideal breadth and depth is impossible with a diverse audience. So why not spend your time selling why, when, and where your topic is useful? Why not focus solely on getting your audience excited to learn more?

Software Development Training

Do you really think this entire group has the requisite skill set and attention span to keep up with an hour long live coding session?

Pacing

A room full of people with widely varying experience creates a nightmare for pacing. Due to this issue, nearly every session and pre-compiler I’ve attended that sought to teach the “how” has struggled. Teaching “how” is likely to bore one half of the audience, and move too fast for the other half.

In contrast, books, blogs, and online video allow people to consume at their own pace. They can skip sections that are familiar. They can watch the video at 2x. They can skim and search a blog post to get the big ideas. They can pause consumption at any point so they have time to think through and experiment with the examples. In short, books, blogs, and online videos are a far superior format for exploring complex technical topics.

Sure, the best conference speakers regularly adjust their pace based on audience feedback. But there’s no way to please everyone. This is why sessions that fixate on the how lose a large part of the audience’s attention before the session is over. Why not create a compelling pitch for the why, when, and where instead?

Interactivity

Thus far I’ve been shooting conferences down, but this is where they shine. Conferences offer a unique opportunity to interact with your audience. Great speakers tailor their delivery, gather alternative viewpoints, and maintain engagement. One could argue this interactivity makes conferences a great place to teach the how, but the aforementioned issues with pacing, timeframes, and audience continually fight against you. Yet the interactive nature of conferences makes it the perfect place to truly change people’s minds. This is your precious opportunity to call people to action.

Salespeople understand that in-person interactions are the most powerful way to change minds. They know that a blog post, brochure, or video are highly unlikely to incite action. That’s why salespeople spend their lives traveling to meet their customers face-to-face. Conferences offer a unique and precious opportunity to get your audience excited about your topic.

King became famous for "I Have a Dream", not "I Have a Plan".

King became famous for “I Have a Dream”, not “I Have a Plan”.

You don’t build interest or incite change by enumerating details. You build it by contrasting the current state with the potential of a brighter future.
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Pick A Better Goal

Conferences are awesome. They build community. They present new ideas. They open your mind. But when we seek to teach technical minutiae to a room of 100+ developers, we quietly fail. It’s not about the presenter. It’s about the medium. The tight timelines, pacing challenges, and diverse audiences at conferences make this format ill-suited to teaching technical implementations.

So I propose a simple rule for future conferences: Focus on the why. Your goal as a speaker shouldn’t be to teach someone the technical details of some new technology in one hour. You’ll almost certainly fail to engage a large portion of your audience. You don’t have time to deliver comprehensive coverage anyway. Thus, I propose a new better goal: Get your audience excited enough to dig deeper.

Words that are carefully framed and spoken are the most powerful means of communication there is.
– Nancy Duarte

Duarte, author of Resonate says great presentations strive to complete a transformation in the audience. Ask yourself, what is the transformation you want to foster in your audience?

Success is about getting the crowd excited enough to explore further. There’s no better medium for getting people excited than a short, engaging, in-person presentation. In-person interactions are powerful. So when you plan your next conference talk, avoid the temptation to merely enumerate technical details. Instead, sell the why.

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6 thoughts on “Conferences Are For Why, Not How

  1. I agree that the focus should be on the why. That is the most powerful way to express a big idea and get people excited.

    I can’t remember an hour long talk I’ve seen that has been able to pull off talking exclusively about the why. I would love to see a good example if there is one.
    In the example of MLK, he made it even more powerful by keeping the talk down to about 5 minutes.

    I don’t have your speaking experience so I don’t know entirely, but I imagine it is best to focus on the why first and then move on to the most important how aspects towards the end of the talk. I think of when and where as different components of the why. Why should we do this? When should we? Where should we?

    Giving the audience a very basic idea of the how can be useful. This could be as simple as one slide or a 30 second demo. Just enough for the audience to see a real example is achievable and it is not just all hypothetical theory, or vapour ware.

    So I think, focus on the why first, then the how, and try to leave out the what.

  2. An hour long session on why is easy. I just did one at KCDC: “React: Dissecting Innovation.”. I spent an hour explaining 5 core innovations in React and why they matter. It was basically a sales pitch for why to choose React over the competition. I’d love to see these types of talks. Tell me why I should choose tech x over the alternatives. Show me why it’s awesome. What unique problems it solves. Show me where it fits in the market. Show me where it’s a poor fit. Give me a clear vision of how to move forward and get me exited to learn more. That easily fills an hour if done well.

    All that said, I agree that the how is often a useful component too, and is often covered at a high level while explaining the why. How is useful, but why is both the starting point and the foundation.

  3. Absolutely! I’m often frustrated when I attend a talk and the speaker jumps into how cool this tool is, or how this technology/product/project/package works, without explaining _why_ it exists, or _why_ they’re using such-and-such.

    I’ve learned over the past year (especially from the 30×500 course from Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman) that “selling” isn’t a bad word, that it’s all about addressing the pain/need that people have. Start with that (which is the why) and all else flows from there.