36 comments on “What are presentations and plenaries etc FOR?

  1. Dear Jeremy,

    As a keen conference goer, I believe presentations are for giving inspiration and awakening motivation. I mean this is how I expect them to be. Because especially the parallel sessions- either talks or workshops are supposed to be more experience based and if a teacher or teacher trainer is there to share an experience, I suppose they aim to inspire people with their ideas and I believe that inspiration is the key to creativity and success.

    Apart from what they share, how they present their topic is very important. I remember a lot of plenaries and so called ‘workshops’ where I learned very good techniques on ‘how not to engage the audience’or ‘how to kill a very good topic with bad presentation skills or 1500(!) slides’:-) So I’m very happy that you started blogging with the idea of sharing your experiences regarding this issue. As a relatively inexperienced presenter, I believe there are lots of things I can learn from your blog posts:-)



    • Hi Burcu,
      thanks for your comments. Yes, I do believe that plenary talks should be designed to engage and motivate – and I think you are right that they are (and should be) different from parallel and workshop sessions.
      Thanks you for flagging up the ‘how’ of it – the fact that how we present actually affects the level of inspiration we may be able to engender.
      I’m still somewhat confused on what the relationship is between real content and manner of delivery. Can the latter make up for a lack of the former?
      More on this, especially when I’ve read everyone’s posts – which I will try and distill.
      I look forward to watching you present one day soon. I suspect it will be a great experience. Which brings me to wondering (just as we do with teaching in general) about whether good presenters are born or made!

      • I think ‘manner of delivery’ is what makes the ‘real content’ more memorable and inspiring. Most of the time people remember how you say more than what you say:-)



  2. What ho, Harmer-san!

    Excellent, thought-provoking etc etc.

    There are many ELT professionals who have serious misgivings about conference presentations for the ‘parachute’ reason you mention above. And it’s a strong argument, summed up by: ‘There is no way I’m going to know about the working circumstances of all the teachers I talk to, so I shouldn’t be flying half way round the world to tell them how to do their job.’

    I always counter this argument by imagining how I would feel if I was a non-native teacher of Spanish, a non-NSST as it were, and there was a conference coming up where one of my methodology heroes was about to speak. I would go there like a shot to listen to her. And the experience would be memorable, even if the talk was awful.

    As for remembering what was said, again – it makes not a jot of difference. I think the best plenary talk I’ve seen in the past two years was given by Andy Kirkpatrick, the Hong Kong-based expert on World Englishes. It was warm, engaging, inclusive and made me feel good about being an ELT professional. Content-wise, I can’t remember anything about it.

    People who DON’T go to conferences have all kinds of reasons for not going – from financial inability to ‘can’t be a***d’. But people who DO go to conferences, by and large, come away with SOME kind of strong emotional feeling – even if it’s just ‘what a waste of time!’. And a conference without a plenary is like a day without … um… well, fill in your own example of what you need in a typical day.

    Keep scratching your chin and agonising. It’s what you do best. 🙂

    • Thanks Ken – and I am not surprised that Andy Kirkpatrick was so good!
      Yes, I agree that there is something important about coming away with a ‘feeling’ after a conference, and like you, in my untroubled moments, I DO see the value of visiting speakers, especially when teachers actually want to see and hear what the people they have been reading are actually like.
      But I think that very desire to see the visitors makes it incumbent on us to really prepare and offer the best we can in such situations. It places great pressure on visitors – and I always feel (maybe you do too) very let down when it looks as if the visiting speaker hasn’t really done their very best…

  3. I think the question what are plenaries/presentations/workshops at conferences for, depends very much on the perspective.

    What are they for for the audience? What are they for for the presenter? What are they for for the conference organisers? (And in some cases what are they for for the publisher who paid for them?)

    I have to confess that the couple of plenaries I’ve done have been more workshop-y than lecture-y, partly because that’s what I’m familiar with and partly because I believe that people take more away from a more interactive experience. However, having said that, I have attended a lot of plenaries which were more traditional and taken a lot away from many of them, so your point about stimulating thinking is I think very very valid.

    • Hi Andy,
      I wonder whether plenary speakers should always do ‘what they are familiar with’ – or rather, to extend the argument a bit – whether they should not consciously play to their strengths (in your case, you say, more workshop-y).
      I believe that some people do indeed take away more from interactive experiences. But are all people the same, do you think? Are some people better suited to be lecture fodder? We talk about students being different (MI, NLP etc). What about teachers?
      Still thinking, you see. No real conclusions…

  4. Jeremy
    Presentations need to challenge people and get them to ‘think’. That’s the only way to help change minds. I often start with a quote from Senge – “New insights fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held internal images of how the world works ……. images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.” The question is, how do you shake people out of their long held internal pictures? By painting a new and irresistible one. Imagine you’re them. What would you like them to try that’s different and can deliver but feels relatively safe? Probably people change practice by doing and seeing it works rather than being persuaded by anyone about an idea. Teachers hate being told what to do. You can also get the audience to discuss your main points there and then – eg 1 minute discussions. I happily do that with audiences from 10 to nearly 1000.

    Hope the weather’s good with you. We’re handing out snorkels and wetsuits in Scotland. And the streets are littered with discarded inside-out umbrellas.


    • Hi Frank,
      thanks for your comments. I think (I think) I agree with you that people only change practice by seeing (perhaps experiencing) how things work. So what are plenary talks for? What can you show? I very much like your ‘1-minute’ conversations, though.

  5. Hello Jeremy,

    I saw you present in TESOL Spain, with “Ease up on the slap…” and found that there were a lot of conclusions that I didn’t necessarily agree on.(Specifically, because of certain learning contexts that need the inclusion of speaking “correct” English. Some variations in English, such as the teen English of the title, seem meant not just to play, but to exclude. If I were to teach the CEO of Sony Spain, who communicates all day with U.S. marketing execs that phrasl verbs weren’t necessary, or didn’t need the vowel I didn’t put in, my head would roll quickly. Use of English in non-inclusive environments, such as business or in an English speaking country which has limited acceptance, seem to demand other needs.)

    But I started thinking, maybe, there are other contexts… and for Alvaro, who needs to improve fluency, and Tamara, who is scared to speak… well… hmm.

    So… the presentation was excellent. It got me thinking about what and why I think the way I do, look at contexts and how and where to apply them, and seemed a good presentation to give to native English speakers in general to show that ESL is a language they need to understand. And so while I had a little while to be shocked and upset that someone was seemingly saying “whatever…” to structure and “pushing sub-standard English”, it is a presentation that will stay with me and ask me questions and demand that I answer them. (Kind of like “The glass bead game” by Hermann Hess… I got to the end of the story, and said, “huh?”… but it stuck in my head like a Tati film, and like a Tati film and your presentation, it took a couple days to decide that I liked it.)

    A keynote presentation can be interactive and experiential. An excellent example is his Swan-ness, (Michael Swan) on grammar… one hour which changed (formed?) a lot of my thinking of grammar and in/exclusiveness. He gave both answers and questions, gave a practical class that the audience could use for their students, and left the room filled with more energy than when he started. (When people dance out of a grammar lesson, things are going well.)

    I have both keynotes engraved in fiery words in my heads, and when I am bored, on public transport, I can take them out and make them fight. Thanks.

    • Hey Matt,
      thanks for your comments. Fabulous, and I’m glad I ‘got you going!’ Of course I didn’t quite get my message across clearly, it seems, because I don’t think ‘anything goes’, or that teen language, for example, is especially useful. On the contrary, the important thing is to teach a variety – doesn’t really matter which one – which has universal appeal and coverage. So much to talk about, though! And best of all, if you came to a session of mine and it made you buzz with interest, outrage or even approval, well that’s pretty good and makes me feel fine!

      • Hello Jeremy,

        1. Hope you didn’t think I was “going off on you…” I know that you don’t actually teach “whatever” to structure in language. BTW, “Anything goes…” would be an excellent course title.

        2. You kept my attention for over a year with a keynote address of an hour. You shouldn’t feel fine, or think you didn’t get a message across.

        You should feel great. You have challenged my deep rooted concepts of what acceptable English variants are, and who owns the language. (greatly disconcerting that it wasn’t ME.) You have opened up new questions, and perhaps made me more useful to other people.

        Sometimes maybe our job as a teacher is not to be “too clear…” In teaching,do we teach to let people know what we know, or so that people can understand on their own? In presentations, how much ground do we try to cover in explanations (or explications?)

        In covering such a vast topic, you deserve a lot of credit for not giving a half-vast speech.

        Again, thanks

  6. As an audience member, I can say that presentations have value in providing me with epiphanies about my own teaching. When a presenter shares an experience and has me participate in this experience, then I reflect on my own instructional styles and often incorporate what I’ve learned in my own teaching. Also, it is exciting to discover new ways people teach the same things. It adds flavor! I prefer presentations that spark things up, however, I have walked away from lectures that had me self reflect as well. I would say presentations continue to be one part of the way in which educators continue to edify themselves about their craft.

    • Hi Shelly,
      yes, I agree with what I think I hear you saying. It’s when people say things that make you think ‘wow – I hadn’t thought of it like that’ that it feels really good! The self-reflection moment (making me question my own practices) is pretty wonderful too!

  7. Sorry Jeremy, would like to change the last sentence to “in my head”, singular, rather than “in my heads” so you don’t start thinking that you need to look more at the audience.

  8. Although I haven’t attended your presentation in Casablanca, I still wish I had been there. I’m sure I would have remembered more than 5% of what was said eventhough that might not be feasible in my classroom. I would have done that because I am, simply, attending a presentation by one of my ‘methodology heroes’. The presenter-audience rapport, I think, plays a major role in how much we enjoy and ‘benefit’ from a presentation. How you feel about the speaker determines how much you get from them. How much you get from them depends on how much ease you feel when listening to them. This also applies to a classroom situation; student retention depends so much on student-teacher rapport. A speaker is also supposed to ‘teach’ an audience, and people attend a presentation to ‘learn’ something new.

    That ‘new’ thing differs from one person attending a presenattion to another. Personally when I attend a presentation what I am often interested in are the delivery skills of the presenter more than the content. As a beginner-presenter I am looking for better ways of engaging my audience. These things I think we improve by attending presentations. If I had been there at the Sheraton hotel in Casablanca, I would have been taking notes more of ‘how’ you said it and how much effect that had on me and the other members of the audience, and I would have picked up things to adapt and use in my future presentations.

    Brahim ID BEN DRISS,
    EFL teacher
    Safi, Morocco.

    • Hi Brahmin,
      thank you so much for your comments – and for reminding me that good presentations depend as much on the audience, almost, as on the speaker. The audience have to really ‘bring themselves’ to the even just as students have to ‘bring themselves’ to class. But your emphasis on rapport makes a lot of sense to me. Speakers probably need to think about how to do that as much as teachers do.
      I certainly agree with you that when I go to presentations (many many many presentations!) I am always watching to see how they do it!

  9. I really enjoyed reading this, Jeremy, and will look forward to your future posts. I’d definitely agree with you and the comments that there is value in non-participatory presentations.

    Also, I usually steer clear of numbers, but I’ve been thinking about your ‘Only 5%?’ Even if it’s true that people remember no more than 5% of a lecture, it’s unlikely that they’ll all remember the same 5%, but will each go away with those bits that are relevant to their own contexts and experience. So, a roomful of people, all taking away their own 5% from a presentation should really be seen as a valuable session!

    So, please don’t reach for the arsenic! I still haven’t had the chance to see you talk in person… but perhaps I’ll need to move to somewhere a bit more exotic before that happens. 😉

    • Hi Carol,
      thank you for the ‘different 5%’ comment because it reminds me of the strange truth that people hear and take away entirely different things from a talk – and it’s often not necessarily what the speaker intended anyway! Perhaps, then, a plenary-type talk is specifically to allow different-5% people to think, reflect and interact (in their heads) in a way that best suits them. That sounds to me (the way I’m putting it) suspiciously like teaching everyone the same –> individuals will get their individual message??
      I’ve put the cork back in the arsenic bottle!

  10. Terrific post. You articulated very clearly what it is that seems to be the result of plenary sessions and, quite frankly, it is not a bad thing at all. The epiphany you mention and Shell discusses (she always seems to be right on!) is exactly what I like to take home from the experience. If something is said that I can connect and directly apply to what I do in the classroom, it is a successful session for me. In my limited experience in attending plenaries, I rarely seem to find anything that I can directly take as is, but I do find ideas that become useful. As soon as that connection is made, something is learned and remembered. Given that each session always contains educators from very varied backgrounds, I don’t think much more can be expected.

    So put away the arsenic! You can choose to cut the session down to 5% of what was planned, in which case we should remember 100%, or present the ideas with enthusiasm and insight that allows us to freely make our own unique connections. I am not a math guy, but if we get even just one idea that becomes important to our teaching from a session, that’s 100% (1000%, infinite% ?) more than we had when the session started.

    P.S. The following very relevant post came to me through Twitter as I was typing in this response. http://bit.ly/4pB9cb

    • Hi Tom.

      I really like the idea of ‘something I can connect with’ – but in other posts it seems that different people connect differently. What can a speaker do about that, I wonder.
      Thanks for the link to the pyramid approach to speaking!

  11. Hi Jeremy,
    I have only been asked to be a plenary speaker once and I suspect it was an error on the part of the convention organisers. They obviously thought I was far more important than I am. I was nervous when I arrived. I didn’t know anybody there and nobody there knew me …. I went up to the group of Spanish organisers and said “Hola, soy potente”. I meant of course “ponente” .. I was the speaker. But on reflection I think that my Freudian slip might actually say it all.

  12. I have benefited from plenary sessions for a couple of reasons.

    Firstly, on occasions, the professionalism and integrity of a plenary speaker has been an inspiration and has helped to restore my faith in the dignity of the job I do.

    On other occasions, I have benefited from the ability of a speaker to make sense of what I do and to provide me with a methodological or philosophical pole star by which to navigate at times when it would have been easy for me to lose all sense of direction.

    I’ve been grateful to those speakers

  13. Jeremy, you do indeed use a lot of images, music and sometimes even humourous video clips, but they do always have a point, and I find they often help me to recall the substance of the talk. They also act as the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down, keeping people concentrating even for the longer sessions you do. So I wouldn’t worry about them too much.
    It would be interesting to study somehow how much an audience takes away from a talk, both long term and short term. I would suggest that you look at some presentations (or maybe you do this already) on subjects that are nothing to do with teaching English and think about how much you learn from them. I’ve seen a couple of presentations on bioethics that I found very memorable and learnt a lot from despite knowing nothing about science – speakers such as Tom Shakespeare, Suzi Leather and Ben Goldacre (on bad science, of course) come to mind. Possibly available on youtube.
    One other thing that for me is a big part of your presentations are the stories you often build into them. I can remember a lot of information and ideas from your ‘Motivating the unmotivated’ talk but the thing that really stuck in my mind (and brought a lump to my throat) was the story about those leather straps and how the teacher had the class hide them and only bring them out when they agreed one of their number deserved to be punished. That story gave me something more than just information, it really changed the way I think about school, group behaviour and learners. That for me is the indefinable something you get from a good speech, and it doesn’t matter at all if that has anything to do with your day-to-day life.

    • Thanks Present perfect (!)
      I wish I could claim that story as my own (the leather strap), but it was from Scott Thornbury and, because he has used it many times in his presentations, it seemed worth repeating because it makes an amazing point. I am glad it had an effect – and so would he be!

  14. I’m fairly fresh from the JALT conference here in Japan where I saw two very good plenaries. Personally, I want a plenary to give me a fair overview of a complex subject with a bit of a twist and a few chuckles. Ron Carter and Michael McCarthy do a great double act – funny and smart. The difficulty, I would imagine, is reaching a wide audience – the expert and the novice, the university teacher and the elementary school teacher…

    If I really want to learn something brand new, I don’t expect to get it wrapped up in a box and delivered in a plenary. But as you point out, it’s something to talk about, it’s a shared experience. It’s a kick-off point, and a refresher. So don’t be too hard on yourself Jeremy. Just don’t be boring, that’s the worst crime of all!

  15. Hi Darren,
    the best advice ever – don’t be boring! I’ll try and remember that – and the serious point that if the audience has to sit there for, say, 60 minutes, boring them is akin to a criminal activity!

  16. Hi Jeremy

    An extremely interesting, inspiring, informative and entertaining discussion.

    Indeed, it shows many of the qualities ascribed to presentations. So maybe blogging is a valid alternative? Or even an improvement? It’s cheaper, has the potential to reach a far greater audience, has less impact on the environment, allows for greater reflection, and has a far longer shelf-life.

    Matt Ledding also mentions films: maybe YouTube could prove a better place to provide inspiration? I’d disagree with Brahim Id Ben Driss: lecturing is not teaching. It’s entertainment, so what better platform?

    It’s not that lectures don’t work at all. They just don’t work very well.

  17. I checked if you had a blog a while back and couldn’t find one, but thanks to Burcu’s plug I made my way here.

    I think you’ve picked a good focus for your blog. It’s something I’m definitely interested in these days and I’m excited to be able to get a glimpse into the mind of someone with so much experience.

    The question you brought up in this post is one I’ve contemplated from time to time, but I feel that plenary speakers are very helpful. As Ken pointed out, they are a big draw and actually get people to come to the conference.

    Like you said as well, there is a lot of engagement on the issue. Even if attendees don’t always discuss it over coffee on the breaks, they take something back with them to their respective schools or to their blogs and discuss the ideas there. Worst case scenario, it affects only their teaching which in turn affects all the students they teach.

    I’m not so sure about the 5% thing either. I tend to remember quite a bit from talks if I’m interested in them and most of our learning throughout our school days and especially in university was lecture style and most of us learned a lot. Like anything, if you don’t use it, you’ll forget it.

    Darren’s advise is probably the best though. A boring plenary or lesson for that matter is one I won’t remember.

    Look forward to following your future posts 🙂

  18. Sorry I missed this posting when it first came up, and it’s great you’ve just started this blog.
    A very personal view: over too many years, having regularly gone through the process of analyzing what presentations are for, I more or less gave up doing them, a bit like when you think too hard about riding a bike, you fall off. Apart from anything, I was constantly raising my own expectations – anything less than a perfect ten for content, delivery, reception etc each time constantly challenged my self-confidence to the point where it was completely worn away.
    But recently I’ve started going to conferences again only to listen, not to speak, and I’ve begun to rediscover the pleasure of attending presentations by colleagues and friends as well as people I’ve never heard before, at the top of the profession and demonstrating the highest standards of professionalism. I had this experience at TESOL France a few weeks ago, which I attended for my own professional development, and where every talk I attended made me proud of being part of the ELT business. (you know who you are!)
    Doing presentations and attending them are very different experiences, and different stages in one’s career can also affect your perceptions. Right now,I’m very happy to take my chances and listen, and who knows, maybe one day, I’ll want to start giving presentations again, because I think I’ve got something to say.

    • Hi Simon,
      I completely agree about how much we judge ourselves, and about how, if it isn’t just as good – no, even better – than the last one we become hideously despondent.
      I am sure that you DO have something to say, and greatly look forward to hearing that you have ‘re-found’ your voice! In the meantime, I hope you hear some great presentations.

  19. The best plenary I have ever seen was in Exeter when Zoltan Dornyei stood up and kept us all entranced with a really substantial session that seemed to really have the room buzzing.

    A plenary for me should be the sharing of new information; it needs to be something meaty that will provoke debate; it needs to be well-researched; it needs to inspire people to go out and find out more.

    I am not sure that most EFL plenaries would meet my criteria. I would advise (in as minimally a presumptuous manner as I can manage) to leave off the focus on performance and nice images. They might make you feel loved, but people may also leave the room feeling cheated.

  20. Jeremy, You appear to have given me a pseudononym! I do think there is a place for plenaries and good presentations. What I thought my point was in that presentation, is that lectures cannot be ALL we do to help teachers develop and that our conference presentations might have more impact if we changed the form to more resemble training sessions rather than university lectures. Lectures are useful to give an overview of a topic for future research or kick start thinking, but where do they go after that? How often do they actually accomplish the aim of planting a seed? Not very in my experience. Having now been on the circuit for a number of years and having to do in-yer-face infomercials I have become tired of the sound of my own voice. I wish some others were, so that they would shut up and consider whether they actually have something useful or important to say!

    • Hello Alan, Alistair, Andrew, Algernon, Archie…..!
      so sorry about the name. How/why did I do that? The fast-moving world of blog-writing makes stuff like that happen.

      I do kind of agree with you about the paucity of lecturing. But the events do have their place. But actually I agree with you that they are not ‘all’ by any means.

      Is ‘the sound of peoples’ voices’ a matter of taste? I enjoy most presentations more or less, but one or two people get right up my nose!

      But – for the record (but you know this because I have told you before), that Thai TESOL experience was a really good one for me. Everything a talk/workshop should give you – e.g. bags of “thinking” – a kind of forced reassessment of what I had been dping – and still do. Endlessly. Maybe I’ll shut up soon!


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