by Daniel Burka

The unforgettable lessons I’ve learned from 100 boring conferences

Photo by Tyler Callahan on Unsplash

I’ve been to many conferences over the last twenty years. Mostly the speakers droned on about their topics, which were easily forgotten. Thinking back, only a few big ideas really stuck with me. These are three ideas I’ve come back to over and over again in my career.

There is a big difference between designed well and well-designed.

Graphic design legend David Carson gave a tedious presentation at one of the first conferences I ever attended. However, fifteen years later, I still clearly remember a pair of slides from his talk that looked something like this:

(photo credits STML and Bernard Hermant)

There is a chasm between a concept that looks professionally designed versus a design that truly communicates your message.

The sign on the left says, “Please don’t park here, thanks.” The sign on the right says, “Try parking here PUNK and I’ll rip your head off your shoulders.” The second sign says a lot in just a few strokes. It’s more effective. It’s better designed.

Q: Which No parking sign would you obey?
A: The one tagged by the axe-wielding psychopath.

Take PowerPoint design seriously.

Yeah, you read that right. Over a decade ago, I heard a design executive from Adobe talk about how she got her start. She explained how, during the first few years of her career, she was bored to death designing slides for her bosses. Regardless, she took to the task with an open heart and poured her energy into designing the best damn PowerPoint slides.

In the process, she developed communication skills that served her well later on…and more importantly, an attitude that every design challenge is worthy of her effort. Amen.

PS: I wish I could remember her name or at least where I saw her speak. If you know who she might be, please share. I’d love to credit her and personally say thank you.

Don’t take advice from speakers at conferences.

To put it politely, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington is loud. When he waltzed onto the stage five minutes late with a talk on “15 Important Lessons for Entrepreneurs”, I was ready to dismiss whatever he was about to say. But to my surprise, the first important lesson held a lot of truth.

Mike addressed the sea of heads: “If you’re going to start the next big thing, don’t listen to anything that I’m about to say.” Out of context, that sounds extreme. However, the way I interpreted Mike’s comment is:

Conference speakers confidently dole out lessons based on what worked well for them. What worked well for them is only ONE path, not the ONLY path. Your way may be fundamentally different, and that’s GREAT. Few people accomplished great things by copying what others have done.

In short, take every damn thing you hear at a conference with a huge shovel-full of salt. Then go find your own path.

Which lessons actually stuck with you from presentations over the years? I’d love to hear your story in the comments…