Your Urban Planning Presentation is Boring. Here’s Why and How to Fix It.

Presentations at planning conferences, networking events and public involvement meetings are boring. There. I said it. And yes, I’m talking about your presentations. And mine for that matter. I’ve decided to stop giving boring urban planning presentations. Here’s why and how. Ignore this blog post at the peril of your career.

The Urban Planning Presentation Formula

Urban planning presentations today focus on the speaker as the hero. Does this formula sound familiar?

My Planning Presentation
= Talk about MY community problem or MY cool planning project
+ List of obstacles I overcome/reasons why change was necessary
+ How much progress I’ve made to date
+ A slide with take aways so you can replicate MY success (if you’re lucky)
+ Slides with so much text that Superman can’t read them


Image From Nancy Duarte's Resonate: Hero's Journey

The presenter is NOT the hero; the presenter is little, ugly green guy. Image from Nancy Duarte's Resonate.

Your Audience Is Daydreaming Today. Tomorrow They Will Ignore Your Presentations While Working on their Mobile Devices. Right in front of your face.

Planners have got to give better presentations for 3 reasons.

  1. The material that urban planners present is important. It makes for amazing places. If our presentations don’t convey the material, we’ll have fewer amazing places.
  2. At the last APA National conference, 4% of attendees sent out a tweet & more than double the number of tweets were sent this year versus last year. That means more mobile devices at planning conferences. That means if your presentation is boring, planners are going to do other work rather than listen to your presentation. [Aside: this scenario of ignoring speakers for laptops already happens at technology conferences. You can tell when you lose the audience, because they all dive into their laptops. And no, they’re not re-tweeting you. It’s painful, public humiliation that your presentation is boring. Yup, it’s happened to me, and I’m not going to let it happen again. Scary thought–this could happen to you in the near future.]
  3. If computer nerds can give engaging presentations, then planners can, too. Take 7 minutes and 25 seconds and watch the presentation below. It’s amazing.

Objection 1: But I’m Not a Charismatic Person/Speaker

Neither is Patrick McKenzie in the video above. Neither am I. Yesterday, I tried to convince someone on my soccer team to play in a tournament with another team using my infallible logic and well thought out words. She gave me the finger. Keep reading this post for a new formula that helps un-charistmatic people like you, me and Patrick give engaging presentations.

Objection 2: But I don’t like speaking in front of audiences.

Me either. But it’s probably important to your career, or you wouldn’t have read this far. If it’s important, you might as well get better at it. Next objection.

Objection 3: But I don’t have time to prepare an engaging presentation.


  • your material isn’t important;
  • you’re not passionate about your topic;
  • you’re too busy with other priorities; or
  • you don’t respect your audience’s time.

If your material isn’t important, don’t give the presentation. If you’re not passionate about the material, pick another topic. If you’re too busy with other priorities, don’t give the presentation. If you don’t respect your audience, don’t give the presentation. Do the math. If there are 40 people in a room listening to your presentation that you don’t have time to do a good job on, you’ve just wasted a week of everyone’s time.

Objection 4: But I don’t know how to prepare or participate in an engaging urban planning presentation

Excellent objection. Here are the problems that result in boring urban planning presentations and how to address those problems.

  1. 10% of the Problem: The Audience is Responsible, Too
  2. So you’ve never given a planning presentation? You’re not off the hook! Stop giving positive feedback to bad presentations. Even if you really, really like the person personally. If you don’t know the presenter of a boring presentation well, say nothing. If you do know the presenter well, channel Simon Cowell from American Idol. Can’t do a Simon Cowell in the moment? You should forward this blog post to all of your planning colleagues to raise awareness right now. As audience members, it’s partially our fault for sitting through non-engaging presentations and not doing anything about them.

  3. 50% of the Problem: the Attitude of the Speaker
  4. My mom is an amazing public speaker. And she has to be, because she speaks to public school teachers (a notoriously tough audience to teach). She told me once that “a good public speaker is a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.” If planners made the attitude adjustment from “I’m the hero of my presentation” to “the audience is the hero of my presentation”, we’d address 50% of the problem.

  5. 20% of the Problem: Be Passionate
  6. Speak about a topic that you are passionate about. You’ll make time to do a good job. If you’re not passionate about the topic, say no. [update: How to Convince People to Let You Speak about Your Passion When It Doesn’t Directly Align with Their Agenda]

  7. 20% of the Problem: A New Presentation Formula
  8. Luckily for us, Nancy Duarte already discovered the formula for amazing presentations. And she wrote it down in her book Resonate. Order Resonate right now on Amazon. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait here.) Good. You’re back. Prepare your next presentation using principles from Resonate.

That’s it! Done. Amazing presentations from now on, right?

Well, since I’ve been beating up you and rest of the urban planning community for boring presentations, I’d better show you my cattle lest you think I’m all hat. Next week, I’ll be blogging about how I changed my attitude as a speaker, was passionate about my topic and applied the Resonate principles to a recent urban planning presentation [update: read Fixing Your Boring Presentations Part 2]. One member of the audience who I had never meet before described my presentation as “better than an episode of Family Guy.” And this month, 6 million people tuned into a Family Guy episode. So I’ll take that as pretty high praise for my first non-boring urban planning presentation using the Resonate principles.

Am I being too harsh on urban planning presentations? Can you point me towards examples of urban planning presentations that aren’t boring? If so, what do these presentations get right that makes them engaging?

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9 Responses to Your Urban Planning Presentation is Boring. Here’s Why and How to Fix It.

  1. Tim Bonnemann April 26, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    Love the attitude. Great meeting you in Austin, btw. ;-)

  2. Kristen Carney April 26, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Hey Tim,
    It was great meeting you, too! Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  3. Jill_the_Pill April 28, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    This reads a bit like an advertisement for Nancy Duarte’s book, rather like one of those ads: “Lose weight now with ten Superfoods!” Perhaps you could have included a summary of her recommendations?

  4. Shannon Acevedo April 28, 2011 at 10:26 am #

    Bravo, Kristen! I love it! And, yes, I was just at one of those conferences and you read my mind. I think one thing planners forget when they are presenting, is that it is not always about the data – its about demonstrating a creative perspective – something memorable and motivating that someone can walk away with.

    And, we have to stop thinking so process-oriented and so linearly – one online presentation tool that I like is, because it allows movement and non-linear structure.

  5. Kristen Carney May 2, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    Good point. A summary of recommendations are coming in this week’s follow up on how to take a presentation from boring to engaging. This post of was pretty long as is!


  6. Kristen Carney May 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

    I checked out, and it looks like an awesome tool. I loved the demo video with the sleeping audience. Excellent powerful storytelling on their part.


  7. SAM HOQUE January 17, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Nice –this is useful.



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