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?