NTEN needs good tech sessions at the 2014 conference. Submissions are open. Here’s a pitch for any tech-savvy NTENdees to dive in and present, followed by my lessons learned (from 20+ sessions at eight NTCs) for successfully presenting technical topics to the diverse audience that shows up at NTC. Simply put, there are ways to do great sessions for both the four person and 400 person nonprofit techies that attend. I’ll outline the ones that have worked for me below.
The IT Staff track is the place to submit the infrastructure-related sessions. The other tracks receive a lot more submissions than the IT Staff track (as much as five times the number!), while 53% of the 13NTC attendees surveyed say they want more technical content. So my take is that the problem is that techies aren’t generally all that interested in standing up in front of crowds and presenting. That’s less of a problem for the Communications and Leadership tracks. All I can say to those of you who have the subject expertise but lack the desire and or confidence to present is that we all stand to gain if you will step outside of that comfort zone. NTEN will have the range of sessions that NPOs struggling with cloud, wireless, business intelligence and unified communications projects need to move forward. You’ll add public speaking to your resume, which is a great thing to have there. And I’ll help.
Over the last few years, I’ve presented on topics like server virtualization, VOIP, and project management. These sessions have averaged 50-60 attendees, and every audience has ranged from complete novices to old hands at the subject matter. To my mind, the biggest (and most common) mistake that presenters make is to choose a target audience (e.g. they’re all newbies, or they’re all intermediate) and stick with that assumption. Simply put, the attendees will be forgiving if you spend some time addressing the needs of the others in the room, as long as you also address theirs. They’ll be pissed if they spend the whole session either out of their depth or bored out of their minds.
There are two key ways that you can address a range of audiences: structure the session in beginner, intermediate and advanced topics, or break the attendees into groups by org size. The latter will require co-presenters; the former keeps that as an option.
In 2010, Matt Eshleman and I did a session on Server Virtualization, an incredibly geeky topic, and it was the third highest rated session that year. We didn’t break up the audience into groups. Instead, I gave about a 15 minute powerpoint that introduced the concepts, doing my best to bring anyone who didn’t know what it was up to speed. Matt then outlined three virtualization scenarios: one for a small org; one for medium; and one for a large. We left about 30 minutes for questions, and some of those hit on the really advanced questions that the experts had. By that point, the novices were grounded enough to not be thrown by the advanced conversation.
In 2012, I designed a session on VOIP and Videoconferencing. Knowing that small orgs and large orgs have dramatically different needs in this area, I drafted Matt again, as well as Judi Sohn. This time, we split the room into two groups, and had two very different conversations, both of which were quite valuable for the attendees. I never heard how this session was rated, but I think it’s the best of the 20 or so I’ve done. My measure is: did the attendees walk out of the session with substantial, practical knowledge that they didn’t have when they walked in, that they can use to support their NPO(s)?
Two big tips:
- Don’t get to wonky with the slides. IDC and Microsoft have a ton of diagrams outlining server setups that you can download, but they are not what an NTEN crowd wants to see. Nobody wants to stare at a Visio diagram with 16 objects and 10 arrows and tiny tiny labels saying what they all mean.
- Mine the wisdom of the crowd. Most people attend sessions to learn, but some attend because they love the topic and have a lot of expertise in it. The best Q&A (which should never be less than 30 minutes) is one that the presenter facilitates, encouraging dialogue among the attendees. As the presenter, you can reply (or weigh in), as you’ll have relevant expertise that the audience might lack, but it’s often the case that someone else in the room knows what you know, and more.
I hope this is helpful, but, even more, I hope that you’ll submit a session and make 14NTC the most rewarding yet for the IT staff that attend. It’s in my neighborhood nest year (DC), so come early and have a beer with me beforehand.