Thursday, October 13, 2011

Switching Topics at Conference Presentations

My problem-solving letters seem to be very popular, so I'll continue this series whenever I have an interesting situation to discuss. Today, it starts with a letter from a writer colleague, let's call him Edgar.

Edgar's Letter
This weekend I'm presenting at a conference.

This morning I got a revamped schedule and suddenly I'm doing a break out session on "Coping with Foreign Withholding Taxes."

I'm in a bit of a panic because I've spent the last three months putting together a totally different presentation about "Working with Translators." Nothing like giving a presenter last minute notice. :}

Problem is, I have zero experience with foreign withholding taxes. I keep thinking I need to look into it, but have never had the time. If anyone has experience or thoughts that I could share at the conference I could really use some help.

Jerry's First Thoughts
This is an excellent example of a person offering a solution idea, rather than a problem statement. Edgar is asking for information on foreign taxes, presumably to help him cobble together a last-minute talk on the subject. In other words, he's already decided that he has to solve this problem by giving in to the organizers' totally unreasonable demands.

If he does that, his presentation will merely reveal him to be a fake, a pretender, not the real expert people at the conference would have a right to expect. In the long run, that's only going to tarnish Edgar's reputation as a professional, so I recommended a different approach altogether.

Jerry's Reply
Edgar, I sympathize with your predicament. In half a century of presenting at conferences, something similar has happened to me twice.

The first time, I didn't know how to handle it. I bungled around trying to wing it on the new topic. (I knew a bit about it, but probably not as much as some people in the audience, and in any case, I wasn't prepared.) I looked fake, and/or stupid, and news in our profession travels fast. Especially bad news.

Some years later, the same thing happened to me. This time, I knew what do do. I came to the session room a few minutes before the start time. As people arrived, I warned them that the announced topic had changed. But most people came just at the last minute, so they didn't hear my warning.

I gave them a few minutes to settle. Then I said, "The topic you see in your program is 'Coping with Foreign Withholding Taxes.' However, four months ago, when I agreed to do this session, I was told the topic was 'Working with Translators.' So, I have prepared on that topic for four months, but I haven't prepared at all for the Foreign Taxes topic. In fact, I know virtually nothing about that topic. So, if that's what you want to hear about, this isn't the place to hear it."

I went on to say, "If, however, some of you are interested in Working with Translators, stick around and I'll make my presentation."

Most of the people actually stuck around, and liked the presentation. If my topics had been like the two you mention, I might have said, "I assume you came here today because you're interested in doing business overseas. One way to help that happen is to handle the taxes wisely, but another way is to obtain good translations of your writing. After all, if you have no overseas business, you won't have any foreign taxes. So, this presentation could serve your purposes after all, especially since there are no other presentations on translations."

I may also have said (I don't remember, but I was younger and more impetuous then), "If you're unhappy about this last-minute switch, you might want to tell the conference organizers about your feelings. It won't help to tell me, as I had nothing to do with it."

I hope this story helps you a little. It's the best I have to offer.

If you'd like to learn more about my approach to solving problems such as this last-minute switch, you might want read one or more of my books, such as The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully; More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant's Tool Kit; and Are Your Lights On: How to know what the problem really is.

Links to each of my books can be found on my website:

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Tom Breur said...

Dear Jerry,
What I LOVE about these stories is that they trigger a kind of vicarious learning: they inspire me to "invent", or try out new ways of responding to situations that offer some double bind. Those tricky traps require the best of my problem solving skills and on top of that I need to quick on my feet as well. Because otherwise, I might find myself in some pothole, even before I can figure out what happened...

I've had my (un)fair share of conference mishap, and convoluted dealings with conference producers who themselves are usually not empowered to change much about a crappy situation. If you can then figure out with, or for them, where the culprit of an undesirable situation lies, and help everybody focus their agony and discontent there, you can (help) resolve incongruent situations. And everybody is better of (well, ALMOST everybody...). Your suggestion for Edgar to let attendees voice their disappointment to the organizers who decided to change the program is a brilliant case in point!

Don said...


I enjoyed your answer, especially because it's off-beat. Your recommendation is not unlike your reply: re-frame the request/question/etc.

But what I really liked was the "new" covers for Secrets of Consulting. Too cute! I have the older ones.

Now, I'm off to check availability on the Are the Lights On for my Kindle. (I've been wanting a "new" book to read. And I like the author. ;-) )


Todd said...

This answer was unexpected but certainly effective. I always feel I have to cave in when a topic is changed at the last moment. The result is a lackluster presentation that falls flat. It is much more innovative to be honest, let the audience know what happened and continue with the presentation you planned (and were asked to do) originally. I know what to do the next time - and confidence and bravery is sure to be key to pulling it off.

Consultoria RH said...

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Gerald M. Weinberg said...

Here's a rough (Google) translation of the previous comment:
This blog is an exact representation of skills. I like your recommendation. A great concept that reflects the thoughts of the writer.
If someone can provide a better translation, I'd appreciate it. Portuguese is not my best language.