January 16, 2008

Ballroom vs. Conference Room Style Presentations

Two years ago I blogged on the importance of presentation idiom, and on the two main presentation idioms, Ballroom style and Conference room style. I think the difference between the two styles is critically important and not well understood, so I am repeating that post here, with some minor edits.

Each presentation situation calls for a particular presentation idiom—a form of expression and a set of design principles. Contrary to the popular complaint, the problem with PowerPoint™ is not that it forces you to design a presentation in a particular way. On the contrary, it doesn’t. And that’s the problem: PowerPoint allows you to mix design elements from different idioms, which, I believe, accounts for much of the ugliness and ineffectiveness of most presentations.

There are two fundamental presentation idioms, which I call Ballroom style and Conference Room style. The Ballroom style presentation is what most typical PowerPoint presentations are trying to be: colorful, vibrant, attention-grabbing, and (sometimes) noisy. They typically take place in a large, dark room such as a hotel ballroom.

The Conference Room style presentation is much more understated: less use of color, more details on each page, printed rather than projected, and more suited to your average corporate meeting or conference room.

Ballroom style presentations should be used when the objective is to inform, impress and/or entertain the audience. The information flow in a Ballroom style presentation is primarily one-way, from presenter to audience. This style is appropriate for audience sizes from a few dozen people to several thousand.

The look that you are trying to achieve with Ballroom style is that of the evening news: visually rich and thoroughly professional. To do this, you will want to project your presentation rather than hand it out, so that you can make extensive (but always appropriate) use of color, animation, and sound. (Color, animation or sound is appropriate when it is used to convey or emphasize information; it is inappropriate and should be ruthlessly eliminated when it serves only to embellish or distract). The length of a Ballroom style presentation should be approximately 1 slide per minute of presentation.

Conference Room presentations are more suited to meetings where the objective is to engage and persuade your audience and change their behavior. Information flow in this idiom is expected to be two-way, and this style is therefore more suited to meetings with smaller numbers of people, say two to 25. They can be used with larger audiences, though: I have used this idiom to support an interactive conversation with as many as 80 people in an amphitheatre-style classroom, or 200 people on a teleconference.

A conference room presentation should look more like an architectural drawing than something you’d see on television, and it is best delivered on paper. Paper has the advantage of allowing much greater resolution and therefore more information on each page; you can use font sizes as small as 9 point without difficulty, whereas in Ballroom style 24-point is usually the minimum safe size. More information on each page also facilitates more productive conversations, because it helps avoid the “turn back 2 slides – no, 3, what was that point there?”-type of confusion since all the information for the discussion of the moment is right in front of everyone on a single page. Paper delivery also allows people to write on the presentation, so that they can engage with your content better and communicate back to you any suggested changes. Also—as Edward Tufte notes—it sends a message that you are confident in your content, because you are allowing your audience to walk away with it. Because Conference room style presentations contain so much more detail on each page, they tend to have significantly less pages – from about 12 to as few as 1 page per hour of meeting time.

Mixing idioms – like mixing metaphors – is a recipe for confusion and deficient communication. Understanding when to use Ballroom style and when to use Conference room style, recognizing which elements are proper to each idiom, and never confounding the two, will lead to clearer, more attractive, and more effective presentations.


12 Responses to Ballroom vs. Conference Room Style Presentations

  1. E. Pelayo says:

    This is a very timely article for me. Since I am not a stage actress, my main problem was speaking in front of my colleagues and superiors especially during a presentation. Everytime my boss would assign me to speak up I feel like I am going to be sick.
    Thanks for sharing this tips and I am even excited to apply them!

  2. Ross says:

    I concur with your thoughts. As someone who has prepared many corporate board level and investor presentations, particularly ‘conference room’ style, then I have no doubt that good presentation materials stimulate higher quality dialogue and better outcomes. Crisp messages, clear evidence, linked storyline all help progress the particular topic of decision.
    In my view, far too many presentations rely on lazy bullet point lists … effectively a to-do list for the speaker on ‘stuff’ to talk about. No No No.
    You’ve got all sorts of fabulous links on your posts. I’ll be checking them out.

  3. I certainly agree that different situations call for different styles of communication, but I would argue that the “conference room” style that you mention, is no longer a “presentation” but simply a discussion. A discussion that relies on handouts to facilitate that discussion. Handouts that highlight key points, and provide additional details that would not be on a “presentation” of the same material are a critical to effective discussions. I often recommend to my clients to create a set of slides for presentation, a different set of handouts (documents that includes details) to use for discussion and/or takeaway (leave behind) for participants. I usually have two (sometimes three) different vehicles to meet the different communication goals.

  4. Andrew says:

    Lisa – I think you are correct in that Conference Style tends to be very supportive of discussions. This is in part why it is so effective for persuasion – most audiences are more likely to be persuaded if they get to speak up, rather than if they are just talked at.
    Nevertheless, Conference Room style presentations are most definitely presentations. They are indeed different from Ballroom style presentations (the purpose of this post was to show the differences between the two) but they are presentations nonetheless. You can deliver a Conference Room style presentation whether you are sitting around a table with your audience, or standing at a podium.
    If the nature and role of Conference Room style presentations is still unclear to you, please let me know and I will try to post more about them.

  5. A good distinction between 2 types of presentations. The ballroom-style presentation gets lots of attention (books, gurus, etc.), and a consensus emerges how it should like (i.e., no detailed bullet points). The conference room-style is actually harder to get right.

  6. sneha says:

    can u plz tell me how 2 present a product in a company?
    just tell me the method & how 2 communicate with the people in the company?

  7. Andrew says:

    That’s a large question, Sneha, but I think you will find everything you need in my book Advanced Presentations by Design.

  8. I posted a slight elaboration on the subject of different presentation situations here:http://stickyslides.blogspot.com/2008/11/different-presentations-for-different.html

  9. Jeff Hurt says:

    I’m coming to this conversation late. I’m an educator by trade, a trainer and now plan education and events for a nonprofit. I’ve hired more than 2,500 professional speakers in the past 10+ years. Marquee names to infamous to unknown people for audiences ranging in size of 20 to 12,000 to 20,000.
    While I concur that ballroom presentations are usually to entertain, inform, impress, inspire or motivate an audience, I’ve seen some very skilled presenters take those ballroom presentations and turn them on their head. I’ve watched them use the same concepts they would use in a conference room session of 50 people and engage an audience in small group conversations, exercises and activities. Their goal is still to educate, engage and persuade an audience from awareness to action. With the advancement of mobile tools and Web 2.0 interface, I’ve also watched experienced and talented presenters with very large ballroom crowds engage with the audience through SMS, Twitter and other features.
    I’ve moved away from the belief that the size of the crowd and presentation room constrains or limits the type of presentation that must occur. I believe the main constraint to whether the presentation is one way or audience-driven and engaged is the experience and skill of the presenter.

  10. I love your blog. I have been reading your posts for the last week and have found many of them very useful keep up the good work and thank you for your contribution.

  11. David says:

    I know this comment is about a million years too late, but here goes…whatever the communication setting, if passive slides are used with written material that is more than a word or two, you are building in communication failure: are people meant to read the text on the screen, or listen to the speaker. They can’t and won’t do both: they probably won’t do either effectively due to ‘cognitive overload’.
    The only reason for slides are for visual communication, or to remind people, with words, on the outline of your talk. Perhaps for showing quotes from other writers could be useful too; but only if you leave the audience to read them.

  12. Great blog. Some people still get confused of ballroom and conference. Your explanation, however, clearly differentiates the two. Sometimes we call them as formal or informal meetings. Sometimes we refer to them as caucuses. It depends, if the meeting is held in a quiet meeting place with everyone paying attention to the speaker, then we can clearly say that it’s a conference.

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