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Speaking at Community Events - More Thoughts

Last week I posted Speaking at Community Events - Time to Raise the Bar?, a first cut at talking about to what degree we should require experience for speakers at events like SQLSaturday as well as when it might be appropriate to add additional focus/limitations on the presentations that are accepted. I've got a few more thoughts on the topic this week, and I look forward to your comments.

One area that worries me slightly is that as individual brand building really starts to take hold (I've written about my take on that, as have Steve Jones & Brad McGeehee among others) we're going to hit the point where we have more speakers than sessions, and someone has to be told no. PASS has already run into this problem with their annual PASS Summit (disclosure: I currently serve on the Board of Directors for PASS) and though I haven't been involved in the selection process for the Summit, I hear it's grueling and stressful (or does grueling=stressful?). There's definitely the prospect of hurt feelings, why did that person get selected instead of me, what do I have to do next time, etc, kinds of pain.  That might sound trivial or worse, but only if you've never been a first time submittee and got rejected.

As a local event organizer I don't have the pressure to make sure that attendees "get their monies worth", but I still want a well rounded schedule. That means a good variety of topics, session levels, experience levels, etc. I actually work pretty hard at building a good schedule, but still there will be a few complaints about too much of x or not enough of y! Human nature, and we're all guilty of that at times. But I've been lucky in that so far I've just expanded the schedule, but that's not always going to be an option just from pure logistics. If I have to start saying NO to people, I 'd like to be able to have at least a broad set of guidelines in place about why I didn't select someone.

If you happen to be an ACM subscriber, there was a very relevant article in the January 2009 issue titled Scaling the Academic Publication Process to Internet Scale that talks about very similar challenges in academia, where publish or perish still seems to be the rule. To borrow very lightly, they quoted five major problem areas:

  • Steady increase in number of papers submitted
  • Skimpy/poor reviews with little justification
  • Declining paper quality
  • Favoritism (those with close ties to selection committee get selected)
  • Overly negative reviews (especially hard on first timers)

I think those match pretty closely with the challenges I see headed the way of local events. I don't have an answer yet either. The challenge with publishing any type of guidelines is that they will always be subjective, and in my view they should - especially for free locally run events I think the person leading the charge deserves wide latitude, and if they screw up - well, they'll hear about it! Still, that seems wimpy, so I want to work on better suggestions for managing the process. I'm hoping you will send me some ideas while I ponder on it more.

The other part that needs work is schooling speakers to be better at networking and volunteering. There's a tendency to treat speakers as superstars and regular volunteers as labor, you'll find relatively few speakers that also put in time helping run an event. A different part of that is that speakers tend to hang out with speakers, partly perhaps from a sense of being peers, partly being in the cool kids club, but I think more likely that they just aren't very good at networking and socializing. Most of us participate in these events to build our brands, do we do that by spending all day in the 'speaker ready room' or by mixing it up by helping serve lunch or check people in, or just have lunch with some people we don't know?

Maybe that sounds like tough love, but I like to think it's a fair trade. I want more from speakers, but I want them (and the attendees) to get more out of it than they do now. And I think it works. Both Brian Kelley and Robert Cain came down to spend time at SQLSaturday Orlando last October, and both of them were cheerfully handing out lunches. I think they learned more about the event, the mood of the attendees, and just felt better about their own contribution. And from my side, you can bet that those two (among others) are tops on my list if they want to attend/speak next year - do you agree with that, or should it be a purer process?


I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.


Posted by Steve Jones on 9 February 2009

The flip side is you might end up with more events, or more smaller events. That could be interesting to run.

I think a publishing of xx new speakers would be a good goal for PASS as well as other events.

Posted by Brad M. McGehee on 9 February 2009

The suggestion about speakers helping out with other activities at an event, such as SQL Saturday is interesting. You know, of all the events I have ever attended as a speaker, I have never been asked to help out in any other capacity. At the same time, I have never thought about volunteering to help out. Geneally, I am so caught up with my presentation that I tend to focus on it to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Now that I think about it a little, helping out probably would be a good thing, and it would help keep me from over focusing on the presentation.

Posted by Andy Warren on 9 February 2009

Steve, it's something I'll vote for, but we'll see what's involved - I think the lack of a clear growth path makes it hard to do without risk.

Posted by Andy Warren on 9 February 2009

Brad, I agree that newer speakers will be sweating their presentation and best not to distract them with other tasks. But for those that are further along, I think deeper involvement makes sense. One of the biggest challenges we face with local events is that they tend to be driven by one person (even if many volunteers do the work) and if that person leaves, often the event fails to survive. Here in Orlando I'll be doing my 3rd SQLSaturday this year, ideally I'll be training a replacement this year that will own it in 2010. That will let someone else feel the pain and enjoy the success, and keep someone fresh running it.

Posted by Grant Fritchey on 10 February 2009

Being a new speaker, a couple of comments... 1) I got into speaking by way of volunteering and I can't seem to stop that first thing. Adam Machanic recently held the New England Data Camp, which my user group helped out with. While I spoke, I also ran the registration table, carried lunches in & out, cleaned the break room AND spent a few minutes chatting with guys like Andy Novick & Aaron Bertrand, which was really cool. It is possible to do both and the level of satisfaction just grows. 2) As a new speaker, it's VERY intimidating to be in the speaker ready room with these guys who've been doing it for ages. While the new speaker should network, I'd advise the experienced guys to not look at him like he just puked on the table when he starts talking.

Posted by Andy Warren on 10 February 2009

Grant, what can we do to make it easier for first time speakers? I offer a speaking class a couple times a year, but that's earlier in the cycle - what would help on the big day? Pairing with a mentor if available? Introducing them so they don't feel like th new guy to the old pros? Giving them a room to do a complete rehearsal (with an evaluator) or is it too late for that?

Posted by Jack Corbett on 10 February 2009

I'll agree with Grant that, as a new speaker, it can be pretty intimidating to be around the experienced speakers OR "big names".  I've only presented at 1 SQLSaturday and all the speakers there were pretty helpful and fun to be around, but still a bit intimidating (the do I really belong feeling).

As far as what would help, I'd say introductions would go a long way.  

The biggest concern I had (other than having someone who knew more than I do about the subject in the session) was that I would have problems with the projector, so I think giving new speakers a chance to get in the room before their time slot and testing the setup and practicing the setup would help.  A complete rehearsal would just make me more uncomfortable, but that's just me others may like that.

A mentor isn't a bad idea, but I'm not sure how that would work out on the big day.  Before hand that's not a bad idea but hard to work out.  

Maybe a speakers meeting (required for new speakers? optional for experienced) that you ask some of the more experienced speakers to attend and give some tips or share some stories so the new speakers can see that maybe they had the same concerns you have or maybe still have them.

Posted by Andy Warren on 10 February 2009

The "do I belong" challenge is a chicken and the egg problem. The standards of being selected aren't set high enough that just making the cut reassures you that you are a legimate speaker, but you have to get the experience to move on to a national event (which is the only place where any real vetting takes place).

Ultimately it's only experience that can fix this, but maybe we can do things to help a little. As an event organizer my goal is to have a really successful event, so I need speakers that are relaxed and confident - worth expending some effort.

I know it's easier to say than do, but even the big names are mostly regular people and will easily understand your stress (and may just be masking their own better than you do!).

Posted by Anonymous on 10 February 2009

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Posted by Steve Jones on 10 February 2009

I'll run a speaker class here in Denver as well if there's interest. I think that definitely helps.

I like Andy's idea of killing the ready room, but I'd also like to see a "speaker get-together" that is for experienced people to help newbies. Perhaps mentoring a few weeks before?

Posted by Paul Randal on 13 February 2009

From Andy's earlier comment - "even the big names are mostly regular people"... if newer speakers would bear that in mind and not get flustered around the experienced speakers I think that would help. Many times Kimberly and I have quietly gone into people's sessions at TechEd or Connections to watch the speaker and found they get flustered when they spot us at the back (and in several cases they've told us that afterwards) - that makes it hard to watch and give feedback.

I, for one, would be happy to help people out if they asked - I used to train new speakers on my dev group teams back at Microsoft, but out here in the real world it seems that people don't want to ask for help and advice.

Even at the conference level, people still get peeved when they're not accepted - especially if I pick a new guy over someone with a track record for Connections, but total honesty usually sorts things out.

Bottom line I guess - if you don't ask for help you won't get it - so don't be afraid to go up and ask a 'name' for help and advice - everyone had to start out with no speaking experience and work their way up.

Ok... I feel a blog post on this coming on...

Posted by Andy Warren on 13 February 2009

Paul, I suspect the reality is that most of us are too proud or too shy to ask for that kind of help. On the other hand, offering a class/seminar/something eases the barrier some. I also think we have two kinds of people; the ones that want to get better and willing to admit that they have room to improve, and those that think they are good enough.

Good enough is subjective and covers two areas; presentation skills and technical knowledge. I'd guess you & Kimberly fluster people some because they believe that they know less than you do about the subject (which might be true!) more than they worry about your eval of their presentation skills (but I could be wrong!).

This is where good self awareness pays off; if you've correctly set the level of the session and you are explaining the concepts correctly at that level, your job is to execute on that - doesn't matter if Bill G is in the room:-) And in truth if Bill G was there, he's hoping you give a smooth presentation and say that "one thing" that opens a door for him, even though he's heard it a hundred times before.

I'll look for your blog post too:-)

Posted by Grant Fritchey on 22 February 2009

As those who know me will attest, I'm not exactly shy. It's just a real fear of walking up to these guys who you "know" and yet have never met and don't really know in any way and start to gush like a school girl about some cool technique you learned from their book, last article, the session they finished... So instead I'm fairly quiet, which, to a degree, represents a missed opportunity. I don't worry too much about whether or not I belong, if I don't I won't get in next year. I just hate sounding like an idiot in front of people whose skills I respect, so I tend to keep my mouth shut. You know, "better to be silent and thought an idiot than speak and remove all doubt." or something like that.

Posted by Grant Fritchey on 22 February 2009

Andy, to answer your question, the one thing that helped me was having a couple of friends in the front row. I was a bit nervous since one of them is on the committee that chose speakers for PASS, but knowing there's at least one person in the crowd who'll buy you a beer when it's all over, no matter how poorly it went, makes it all easier.

Also, I'd recommend getting involved with your kids scout program. Getting up in front 60 kids, their parents & grand parents and singing Tarzan of the Apes or the Banana song makes presenting a technical subject in front of adults VERY easy.

Posted by Andy Warren on 23 February 2009

Grant, I'll make a donation to your scouts if you'll post the video of you doing the Banana song!

Posted by Andy Warren on 23 February 2009

Grant, I get that. But stand on the other side. You're working on your second book effort, and you've started to build a reputation around performance related material. If someone came up to you and said something not quite accurate, would you call them an idiot? Gently correct them? Let it go? To go with that though, would you rather they didn't talk to you and you miss out on the chance to hear that someone does appreciate your work, and maybe also the chance to have someone show you a different way of looking at something, or a new problem you hadn't seen before?

And just to tip back the other way, the downside to being well known is that everyone expects you to know all the answers, and what happens when you don't? It's not a fair expectation, and at least for me the answer has been to get very comfortable with saying "I don't know!".

I'll have to work on a follow up to this, it's a great topic, it's common, and there are a lot of angles to it.

Posted by Grant Fritchey on 23 February 2009

I'll have to see if anyone has a video of the last Blue & Gold performance.

The important stuff...

Would I call someone names or deride them? Hell no! I'd treat them the way I'd want to be treated. I've always been very aware that an "expert" is the guy one page ahead of you in the manual. So, yeah, if I'm a page or two ahead of someone, I'll pitch in and help out and I always hope that the guy ahead of me does the same.

Yeah, hearing that people appreciate your work is almost as valuable as the extra money you get from doing things like books (note the word ALMOST, and, for those interested, on an hourly rate, books pay less than McDonalds). I see where the big guys would feel the same way. I still hate the feeling of acting like a groupie or something.

BTW, different topic, any way to get an alert when comments are left on the blog posts that I commented on?

Posted by Andy Warren on 23 February 2009

Hard to picture Grant the Groupie! It takes getting to the point - and it can seem adult or arrogant - where you don't worship heroes much anymore, and you see most people as equals with different life experiences. It's really just a change of perspective, not so much a real change.

No, SSC has these low budget blogs, so none of the richer things you independent bloggers get! I'll email Steve again.

Posted by Jack Corbett on 23 February 2009


I subscribe to the Comments RSS feed.  The only issue with that is I get the comments for posts that I haven't commented on.  Not a big deal as I can choose to ignore those comments although sometimes they cause me to comment.

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