Can We Save the Technical Conference?

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-12-02-2009, Volume 33, Issue 12

Dumbed-down presentations and poor speaker selections are destroying a valuable industry tool.

Have technical conferences become irrelevant? This question comes up every time I attend one. In the past, when a colleague said he or she was going to a conference to "give a paper," they did just that. They wrote a paper, had it peer-reviewed by someone within the company, presented a practice presentation to the department, attended the conference to present the paper, and then handed out the written article to conference attendees. After the conference, the attendees had a solid, well-written paper that they could reread at their leisure. If the paper was good enough, it might be considered for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Lynn D. Torbeck

In years past, conference organizers would select presenters based on his or her expertise in a particular subject and the ability to provide a clear and adequate talk to an audience. A group of recognized subject-matter experts who had some personal knowledge of the person being considered would be involved in the selection process for paper presenters as well. As a result, conference attendees were assured of a good talk, a stimulating discussion, and a paper worthy of their time and money.

Today, there are too many conferences to count and the process for selecting presenters has degraded. Presenters are not selected by a group of knowledgeable peers, but rather by a conference manager who may have little, if any, understanding of the subject to be presented. This person's job is simply to fill up the agenda with names. A call for papers goes out to the masses, and anyone with moxie enough to claim to be an expert—despite that person's true expertise or comfort level with public speaking—will be selected to speak.


Today's conference manager then asks the speaker to write an abstract with key points and then rewrites the material without further input from the speaker to produce a conference brochure. The rewritten promotional language is often inaccurate and awkward. As a result, other industry experts are led to avoid attending the talk because they believe the presenter is not an expert.

Furthermore, today's selected speakers are not required to write a cogent paper that transmits real information. The presenter only has to produce one Microsoft PowerPoint slide per minute of presentation with the typical six lines per page in the largest font possible. To relieve the tedium, the speaker often incorporates various irrelevant features into the slides such as cartoon figures, sounds, and other special effects.

I've also noticed that many current talks are just a rehash or restatement of othepoorly presented talks. For example, how many times has the definition of design space from the International Conference on Harmonization Q8 guideline appeared on a slide? How many presentations provide adequate concept definitions but then disappoint when it comes to clearly explaining how that concept can be implemented?

After reading each of the six bullet points on each slide, the speaker takes a couple of questions from the two people who are still awake and sits down. The presentation is published on a website or copied onto a flash drive for distribution. This "permanent record" of the PowerPoint file ends up being worthless because it is impossible to recreate or remember in detail the presenter's talk a couple of weeks later by simply looking at the bullet points.

Overall, PowerPoint slides have dumbed down the speakers and the presentations to the lowest possible level. At the same time, attendees are paying record registration fees to organizations that are leaving confusion and chaos in their wake.

It is time to have speakers selected by other experts. It is past time to require that speakers be recognized subject-matter experts and to require that presenters write and give a paper that contains new or useful information. It is time to ensure that speakers and an expert committee review conference brochures before they are printed and distributed. And it is time to prohibit the use of PowerPoint-only presentations.

Why not have the speakers talk for 30 minutes, followed by an hour of intelligent discussion with the audience, who can enlighten the proceedings? We need to implement changes now before technical conferences become completely irrelevant.

Lynn D. Torbeck is a statistician at Torbeck and Assoc., 2000 Dempster Plaza, Evanston, IL 60202, tel. 847.424.1314,,