Walking out on bad presenters

Youizsoboring I walked out of a 2–hour workshop last week. I actually really wanted to know the information that was to be presented, but the workshop facilitator did such a terrible job that I left after 35 minutes. My graduate assistant said the next day, “I heard you walked out on that workshop.” I replied, “Did you hear anything else about it?” She said, “Yeah, I heard it was pretty bad.”

I find myself having less and less patience for people who waste my time in unproductive meetings, boring presentations, workshops that don’t meet my needs, and so on. Even when I’m extremely interested in the topic, a facilitator’s structure and/or delivery can ruin it for me. I don’t leave right away. I try to stay mentally engaged and I give the facilitator a chance to right the ship. But if it’s clearly a lost cause, I’m usually out of there (if I can’t leave, then I start quietly checking my e-mail / surfing the Web).

I have worked very hard over the past few years to ramp up my presentation skills, both in terms of content and delivery. I try to apply that learning to the various aspects of my life, whether it be teaching, consulting, or just holding meetings. I ask myself questions like “Do we really need this meeting or activity?” and “What is my audience doing at this stage?” and “How are my students or participants feeling right about now?” In other words, I try my utmost to think intentionally and purposefully about the impact of what I do on others’ valuable time. Is it too much to expect others to do the same?

But, Scott, it’s rude to walk out on someone (or check your e-mail). Not any more rude than it is to fail to deliver a learning experience that meets the group’s needs rather than your own. It’s one thing to waste your own time. It’s another to waste the time of five to twenty to hundreds of others. Shame on you.

But, Scott, aren’t you worried about your reputation? I’m willing to stand up for quality presentations, meetings, and learning experiences. I think that collectively we would be better off if more of us left more often. We’re captive to our own ‘politeness’ (if that’s what we want to call it) and we suffer countless wasted hours as a result. If folks walk out of one of my presentations, that lets me know that their needs aren’t being met. Rather than taking it personally, I’m glad that they’re going somewhere else that is a better fit for them. If walk-outs happen in large numbers or on a frequent basis, that lets me know that I need to something differently.

But, Scott, maybe the facilitator didn’t know how to do any better. So? How is that my problem? Why shouldn’t the responsibility be on presenters, facilitators, and instructors to do a better job? Why should they get to waste our time rather than improve their skills? What’s their impetus for change if we passively acquiesce to their ineptitude?

P-12 students usually don’t have the chance to walk out of poor learning experiences (wouldn’t it be interesting if we gave every student a red ‘I’m disengaged’ card that she could lay on her desk every time she was turned off or tuned out?). But we adults do if we’re brave enough to stand up for quality learning experiences. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not investing my walk-out last week with any huge societal significance. But larger battles start one principled stand at a time… Care to join me?

Photo credit: Not my cat, but cute enough.

P.S. On a related note, my proposal submission to address the issue of bad academic PowerPoint got rejected by the reviewers for the annual educational leadership professors conference. Ugh.

34 Responses to “Walking out on bad presenters”

  1. I agree that it’s frustrating to suffer through a badly-prepared presentation, but I do believe we have a professional and collegiate responsibility to give constructive advice, especially to new presenters who might be just breaking into the conference arena. We can’t offer that help by walking out with a dismissive tone. As an alternative, if you leave with a friendly wave and follow up later with reasons that you found the session less than helpful, you might affect more positive change to the professional network.

    In my opinion, everyone has something to offer. When I’m in a disappointing session, I make mental notes of what not to do in a presentation and at least use the session to affirm and reinforce my own knowledge of the topic if I’m not learning anything as novel as I had hoped.

    Best of all, I like your alternative method of quietly working on your own projects (i.e., checking email)without disrupting the session by walking out. It is a much more courteous and less arrogant way to react.

    By the way, if I ever present at a conference and you’re in the audience, please send me an email to critique my delivery and content. I want to improve. The best way to do that is by doing, and by hearing feedback from the experts.

    I posted earlier this month on this topic because I feel it is important to create a helpful, collaborative climate among educators and technology experts. http://edutwist.com/elin/intellectual_bullyingintellectual_bullying/

  2. I totally agree Scott. I usually have my laptop with so use that to get things done to try avoiding a scene but have physically walked out once or twice if no other option was viable. Maybe if more people walked out rather than surfed though the presenters might get the message because they often can’t read the signs that most of their audience has disengaged.

  3. I wonder if Scott walked out on beginning teachers in high school or professors in college. ;>)

    Don’t we want professionals to do their best at sharing their personal or professional learning? We’ll always have good to great in the spectrum.

  4. marycooksley@gmail.com Reply June 25, 2009 at 9:00 am

    While I agree with Scott and have wanted to walk out on more than one occasion, I have found that some people who attended the session found it to be interesting and well presented. It might be a matter of personal preference and learning style that makes us either engage or disengage? Isn’t that true of students in classrooms as well – some are tuned in because of the delivery method while others are disengaged at the same time.

    I also try to think about the audience when I am presenting – try to make the presentation engaging and meaningful so they can take at least one new piece of learning away. When I am in a presentation I wish I hadn’t attended, I try to get at least one thing out of it – like you said Sharon. I try to hone my own presentation skills or find something to validate what I am doing in my professional practice.

    Boredom in a presentation feels like enduring a root-canal (or maybe you would prefer that?), but being disrespectful is not the way to go. If a lot of people are checking their e-mail during my presentation that is a message to me I am not meeting their needs.

  5. Oddly, I’ve gotten some of my best ideas in really badly presented sessions. For some reason it frees my mind to dwell on the few points that strike me, and I go off to write sometimes pages of notes on my own thoughts, prompted by some point in the slides or mentioned by the presenter. I would much rather piece together the good content from a poor presenter than be entertained by a good presenter with no real information to give.

    With that said, I will leave a conference session that isn’t what I expected from the blurb (too low level, too tool-specific, etc). I have also walked out on many a stand-up comic masquerading as a “fantastic speaker.”

  6. CORRECTION: My apologies! Here is a corrected link to my blog post. (Good thing I wasn’t giving a presentation when that happened!)

    http://edutwist.com/elin/intellectual_bullying/

  7. I am glad you added the PS….

  8. I completely agree with you Scott! I have tuned out and walked out of presentations for the same reasons!

  9. So, I really would like to know what counts as a bad presentation. What did not work for you, Scott? This post was a lot about why it was okay for you to walk out vs. what did not work and why. I am thinking about marycooksley’s response about style preference.

  10. PS to earlier post
    Didn’t mean to flame Scott. I understand one’s investment to attend in both time and resources so one wants high quality.

    We could also consider reaching out sympathetically and suggest privately to the presenter ways they might improve.

  11. @Sharon Elin: I agree with you regarding the power of constructive feedback. If asked, I’ll always give it. The challenge comes when you’re not asked. Why? Because few people like unsolicited advice. Maybe you or I might respond positively but many won’t. So do I offer unsolicited constructive criticism? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the presenter, how I’m feeling, etc.

    Who said I walked out ‘with a dismissive tone?’ I just packed up quietly and slipped out. I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. I’m also a little uncertain why you’re calling me ‘arrogant,’ particularly given your blog post of June 13 calling for civility in blog comments. Is it ‘arrogant’ to stand up for the value of one’s precious time? Is it ‘arrogant’ when people doesn’t want to waste a chunk of their day sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, standing in line at the grocery store, hanging out at the DMV, looking at an advertisement about which they don’t care, ignoring unsolicited requests to fill out feedback surveys, hopping to another web site because this one doesn’t meet your needs, or suffering through a poorly-designed and/or -delivered presentation or meeting? You and I are going to have to disagree on this one, ’cause I don’t see it as ‘arrogant’ at all.

    @Gordon: I have two thoughts. First, we know that economically-disadvantaged students often are given new teachers (or non-certified teachers) who are not as skilled as more experienced teachers. That practice contributes to poor academic performance by students in poverty. We shouldn’t defend that; we should do everything we can to prevent that. Second, I would say that there is a continuum from TERRIBLE to great, not just good to great. If my workshop had been good, I wouldn’t have left. I don’t feel any obligation to suffer through anyone else’s learning curve, however. If a workshop facilitator isn’t ready for public presentation yet, she should practice with friendly peers or some other volunteer audience until she’s ready. That is, IF we’re respectful of others’ time.

    @Mary Cooksley: I concur with different learning styles. It certainly might be true that the workshop I left worked for some. But not the ones with whom I talked…

    Why is it ‘disrespectful’ to stand up for the value of my time? Why should I let someone else waste it? My time is one of the most precious resources I have (as, I’m guessing, is yours). Why am I the one who’s disrespectful instead of the facilitator who designed and delivered a poor workshop?

    @Melissa: I don’t want to say too much ’cause I’m trying to preserve some anonymity here. It was supposed to be a technology training session. We sat in front of computers but, after more than a fourth of the time had expired, we had yet to use them meaningfully. It was mostly ‘sit and get’ and also ‘Let me show you some stuff that you can’t access but don’t worry about it because later you might need to know about it.’ I didn’t see much that complied with good technology training and/or adult learning theory so, rather than sticking around for what looked to be more of the same, I left. The presenter was extremely nice and clearly was very knowledgeable about the topic. But the session needed a complete redesign.

  12. “I don’t feel any obligation to suffer through anyone else’s learning curve, however.”

    Love this. Periodically walking out might not be everyone’s ideal strategy for how to raise the collective bar, but I support you in your decision to do so, and you’ve got me thinking…

  13. nbadgley@esu10.org Reply June 25, 2009 at 11:30 am

    So I am working on my presentations that I will be giving later this summer. I am trying to find just the right mix of demonstrations, activities, discussions, work time, and resources. I know that I can’t plan to be funny, and I can’t plan for “just the right, fully engaged attendees” who are open and ready for my ideas. I broke my stride when I heard a sound from my email account, which turned out to be an RSS feed and read this message titled “Walking Out on Bad Presenters” I want to ask Scott what do you think are the best qualities of great presenters? What do the best presenters do, in your opinion, that makes people come early, stay after to ask questions, and they search the schedule to come to another session given by that same presenter?

  14. Thanks for the comment, Shelley. As much as possible, I think most of us would prefer to avoid suffering through the learning curves of surgeons, bus drivers, tax preparers, airline pilots, dentists, and so on. I’ll lump presenters in there too!

  15. Daring post, Scott especially in this day and age. It’s obvious you were aware that you might come off as uncivil and rude here so good for you for having the courage of your frustation.

    I noticed also that in your comment stream, the one man agreed with you and the women tended to disagree… Hmm, is there a lesson about gender here? Maybe not, but as another guy, named Scott no-less, I’m on your side, with the obvious caveat that you shouldn’t try to make the presenter feel bad. Claim you have the stomach flu or something. Isn’t it the responsibility of teachers to learn how to engage their audience? But then again I’m so impatient I fled academia for advertising.

    But just to show you I’m still on your side, here’s a recent post defending why I think being teacher should be great training for precisely what you are talking about:

    http://artificialsimplicity.blogspot.com/2009/06/ten-reasons-teaching-is-great-training.html

    Good luck.

  16. Great question, ndbadgely! Let’s crowdsource that query…

    I just created a page on the Moving Forward wiki titled ‘Effective Presentations.’ Anyone who would like to add their thoughts is welcome!

    http://movingforward.wikispaces.com/effectivepresentations
    OR
    http://snipurl.com/effectivepresentations

  17. Douglas Reeves in his book “The Learning Leader” says that we should excuse ourselves from pointless meetings. He suggests that we state to the other members of the meeting, “We have a standard for meetings, and it’s that they are used only to gain the collective wisdom of the group to make better decisions. We never use meetings for announcements or sharing information, and if that is what you have in mind, please give it to me in an e-mail or voice mail. If I can’t contribute anything more to a better decision right now, then I need to excuse myself.”

    To me, sitting through a bad presentation or even walking out on one implies that we are passive learners. What would an active learner do? An active learner asks questions – How does that relate to…? Why…? An active learner states what they want – I want to know more about… I want to try… I want some time to discuss that in small groups.

    I have a tendency to “derail” meetings and trainings at times with this sort of dialogue with less effective facilitators. I do not consider it derailing – the meeting or presentation was on the wrong track to begin with. If it is not meeting your needs, should you change the rules of engagement? Walking out or working on your laptop isn’t meeting your needs either. Many times when talking to these presenters afterword. They acknowledge that the presentation did not go as planned and that they too felt the disengagement of the audience. Many times they are thankful for the dialogue and guidance. I have also, expressed my questions and needs during breaks when I knew one was coming soon so that more constructive feedback could be done in private. I have seen many of these presenters adjust on the fly and finish strong.

    We need to empower our students to be active learners in this fashion as well. Learning is not something that happens to us. It is something we do. Learning is too important to let an ineffective teacher go though the motions and do to us. We must ask questions until we are satisfied with our understanding.

  18. It is interesting to me that most You Tube videos are between 2 and 9 minutes and I even get bored watching those sometimes. Yet when I am required to attend meetings at school I am almost always bored or disengaged within the first 5 minutes. How much more so do my students disengage when my presentation to them is more than 10 minutes long? Why do we assume that the presenter’s information is so much more authoritative than the presentees?

    I think it is vital that we consider our audience always when presenting information, whether in the classroom or professionally.

  19. When I am at a conference there are usually 2 (or more) sessions that I want to see happening at the same time!

    A weak presentation doesn’t get 35 minutes from me. It is closer to 10, then i jump to the other one. If that one isn’t so hot, I go back and hope for better in the next time block.

    I can usually get the slides in handout form for both presentations, so I can get an idea of what direction to go on my own study later. That adds value to a bad situation for me.

    I always figure that if I get caught leaving, I got a call, didn’t read my schedule right, left the headlights on or ate something that didn’t agree with me, etc. i have never been called on it though…

    I’m surprised this doesn’t happen more often. I think the only reason to stay put would be the Secret Service told me to.

  20. @Roger Whaley: Thanks for the comment. Hope all is well in Minnesota. Hey, why make excuses if you’re ‘caught’ leaving? Why not simply call it like it is (as Zack Allen notes that Douglas Reeves advocates in Zack’s comment above)? Why must we feel guilty for leaving?

  21. Scott, I’d like to join the revolution.
    And I think students do have the option to “walk out.” With the increase in online learning opportunities, I think schools will start wondering where their students have gone. Competition is increasing in the educational world. In schools, we should be asking: Do people want to buy our “product?” Or can they leave our 19th century style schools behind and get a better education elsewhere?
    Just in the Denver area, I have heard several ads on radio for new online high schools. Will brick and mortar become obsolete?
    Just stirring the pot…

  22. I think that quietly walking out on a non-interactive presentation is totally acceptable. The purpose is to have your own expectations/needs met. If they are not, then moving on is only logical. However, if the presentation is somewhat interactive and the presenter is somewhat flexible, that does give one the opportunity to perhaps suggest/redirect/question in a manner that brings a more meaningful focus or dialogue. Inasmuch as we expect that from our own students, we should be willing to provide the same (where appropriate) in presentation sessions. I don’t want my students to simply walk out on me. I want them to raise their hands and let me know they are not understanding, they are bored, they are not being challenged…. However, most good teachers can tell all of this without hands being raised. Body language and silence (or undesirable behavior) should be critical feedback. Too many teachers, and possibly presenters, consider these to be attributes of an undisciplined audience rather than an indictment on the learning activity (or in this case, inactivity) itself.

    @Zach,
    I don’t disagree with you for the most part, but I find too often the meme that passive learning is bad and active learning is good is far too simplistic. You state, “Learning is not something that happens to us. It is something that we do.” This is true, however, our brains are quite capable of “doing” even when we are outwardly physically passive receptors of information. Our brains are quite busy assimilating and accommodating information that we are taking in if we are actively listening/processing. Of course, this does require a certain level of engagement, but too often this idea is misconstrued that if we are simply sitting and listening that this is a bad thing. It takes a certain level of discipline sometimes to sit and actively listen, just as deep reading takes a certain level of sophistication and discipline. I fear sometimes in education that judgement is being passed if learners are not always overtly active (doing things that we can see). I’m not implying that there are not established levels of developmentally appropriateness here, though.

  23. All is well in Minnesota, unless you are thinking about the Governor declaring himself totally in charge of the budget. He is making budget adjustments this week after doing the same thing last week. Glad I’m not working at the U.

    But I digress. Back to the thread!

    I think I would tell the presenter (if asked) what I thought about his poor presentation (privately.) But the rest of the time, Mom’s maxim “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” has worked for me.

    The guilt? That’s exactly what it is and a good question. I think some of it is because I go to these on someone else’s dime! I like to think that if one of my bosses is sending me, I am going to get good value out of the conference. That’s a breakthrough worthy of an episode of Dr. Phil show.

    If anyone reading this is going to be presenting anytime soon, please keep me and my guilt in mind. Bring the “A” game, please! And make the presentation live up to its description.

  24. Scott – Nick Hornby hits this on the head in dealing with going to see bands play:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=eZ8q0jS2oskC&lpg=PP1&dq=Nick%20Hornby%20Led%20Zeppelin%20essay&pg=PA54

    Just keep this in mind and go.

  25. Agreed in general on walking out being OK, especially if the presenter is poorly prepared. I’m probably a little more tolerant in terms of presenters’ styles even when they don’t fit my own. No need for presenters to take it personally since there can be many reasons someone needs to leave any room. I do wish conferences would allow a few more characters in workshop descriptions–too many are like writing haiku. Final thought for presenters is that if you need to read off slide notes, you haven’t rehearsed enough. You have to own the content deep down so you can focus on what’s happening in the room without the content getting in your way.

  26. Scott, bravo for having the guts to walk out. A presenter has no less responsibility to his audience than a writer or a musician, and those who show contempt for their audience deserve no better in return.

    I agree that not everyone will take it well, but I do like the idea of abiding by the Jimi Hendrix rule of training, and offering feedback to the presenter in the form of an evaluation (or even better, a note or email) after the event.

    It’s true that presenters shouldn’t be thin-skinned because people can walk out for any number of reasons. At the same, there are plenty who are thick-skinned and won’t attribute people’s walking out to anything they did wrong, especially since due to our absence, they know of nothing specific to improve.

  27. After the fact, felt like I should clarify…

    We don’t owe bad presenters our feedback and if we want to give it to them out of a humanitarian sense that’s fine, but the reason I think it’s smart to do so is that bad presenters simply make all presenters look bad. Same goes with irresponsible bloggers and lazy e-learning designers.

  28. “I have worked very hard over the past few years to ramp up my presentation skills, both in terms of content and delivery.” I wish President Obama would do this; I find him one of the most boring, stilted speakers I’ve ever listened to, or not listened to. And it’s worse if you have to watch his head swivel following the teleprompter.

  29. How is the presenter supposed to create a presentation which ‘meets the needs’ of a whole audience? Perhaps the audience members who are demanding that their ‘needs be met’ need to simply take what they can from the presentation and politely endure the rest? There are, of course, some badly prepared presenters who should not expect audience attention; but generally, I’d guess that when people are leaving presentations, it’s their problem, not the presenter’s.

  30. Sometimes as an educator it is good to sit through a really bad presentation. It can be a good reminder of how our students feel during poorly designed non-engaging lessons. If you are like me, you start to feel angry and it is easier to imagine why some of our students act out.

  31. My team works with faculty to help them maximize our 1-1 laptop initiative in the classroom. One of the topics we’ve been pushing lately is avoiding “powerpointlessness” by telling good stories and putting the principles of “Presentation Zen” (http://www.presentationzen.com/) into play in the classroom. We’ve had positive feedback from both faculty and students-it’s nice to see instructors’ eyes get big when they realize they’ve been killing students with bullet points.

  32. Scott, over years of professional development sessions and many agonizing experiences like this, I came up with my own formula for PD success with my colleagues. I call it “The Seven Things That Make Learning Meaningful”(http://theseven.edublogs.org).It’s very much focused on the idea that, well, the Golden Rule follows in PD, too. If you want good sessions, go out there and give them to others and be their model. Have a look and tell me what you think…

    Death by PD…a horrible way to go. :)

  33. Scott, it seems to me that the people that walk out on my presentation are the ones whose feedback I want (and need!) the most. Any ideas or strategies for getting useful feedback from the people who got up and left?

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