Read this if you’re a #SQLPASS attendee – you’re the one I’m trying to help.
Last week I wrote about how conference organizers pick sessions, and I closed by talking about how there’s no clear right or wrong way. However, some ways are wronger than others, and today let’s talk in general terms about what happens when things go wrong.
I can’t possibly discuss this subject with actual speaker names lest I hurt people. (Disclaimer: that’s a dark music video about drugs and violence, but the song is insanely danceable and catchy, and it’s been stuck in my head for weeks. You’re welcome.)
Enter Speaker 47.
Presenters, if you’re reading this, I want you to really understand that I am making this guy up. You’re so vain, you probably think this post is about you, but trust me, it’s not. However, if you see elements of yourself in Speaker 47 – and hey, I do – that just means your journey to improve your public speaking isn’t over yet, and mine certainly isn’t either.
Speaker 47 is the really friendly, magnetically charismatic person that you like right away. He has a great name that’s easy to pronounce, he doesn’t look intimidating, and he’s always got a wide smile for any stranger who comes bearing a question. He loves technology, and he loves sharing what he knows. He loves helping people, so he knows exactly what kind of title and abstract to write.
You love Speaker 47.
But his presentations and his delivery are horrible.
I don’t mean like kinda bad. Attendees complain that he mumbles through his delivery in a monotone. His demos have a 50% chance of working on a good day, and they don’t convey the material anyway. His material doesn’t match the title or the abstract, and the attendees have a hunch that he’s never actually done any of this stuff in production – he’s just playing with it on his laptop to learn, and they need real help for real world environments.
This isn’t his first time at the rodeo, either. He does this same routine over and over at local user groups and SQLSaturdays. The leaders and volunteers simply hand him his feedback forms. They don’t compile the numbers, and they’d feel too guilty to do it anyway. Sure, they all kinda know he’s bad, but he’s such a nice guy, and he’s working to get better, isn’t he?
And then Speaker 47 gets into the Summit.
Years ago, I wrote about why national speakers should get good feedback locally and regionally first, but that’s not how PASS works. The Summit selection committee has no idea how bad the speaker’s feedback is, so he gets in.
PASS compiles the data, sends out the rankings, and other speakers notice him at the bottom, but nobody wants to say anything – because he’s just so darned nice, and it would be unprofessional to say something. It’s his first year, so you gotta cut the guy a break, right?
So Speaker 47 gets in again.
Even though he bombs, the selection committee doesn’t lock him out of the Summit based on one bad session. After all, people grow and learn, right? Maybe he’ll do better next time.
In an ideal world, they’d look at his session feedback from local user groups and SQLSaturdays after his bad Summit session to see if he learned from his mistakes. In reality, they can’t, because local user groups and SQLSaturdays don’t compile feedback and send it up to the national level. Even if they wanted to, the infrastructure isn’t in place today, but I applaud Stuart Ainsworth’s move to make it happen.
Speaker 47 keeps getting a fresh batch of attendees because for the most part, people choose sessions by topic and title, not by presenter name. Even if you as an attendee wanted to make decisions based on data, you can’t, because PASS doesn’t publish speaker ratings. You’re helplessly stuck in bad sessions, and when you want to leave and get into a better one, the room’s already full – because other people left bad sessions too.
Meanwhile, amazing speakers don’t get in.
They submit, but because the selection committee doesn’t know what great sessions they’ve put on at the local and regional level, they get rejected over again and again. They get burned out because they see Speaker 47 get great sessions – sometimes even paid pre-cons! – and they just give up.
Unless you spend a lot of time watching presentations online and at local user groups, you’ll never get the chance to see these incredible speakers. I’m going to name a name here because it’s such a standout example – I sat in Paul White’s pre-conference last year, and it ranks among the very best sessions I’ve ever seen. This year? Rejected. Part of that is probably his own fault – he only submitted a pre-conference session, and I bet there’s rules about pre-con presenters also having to present regular sessions too. But all of this is locked in the secrecy of the PASS selection process that isn’t explained to volunteer speakers.
And it’s your loss.
This process wastes your time and money as an attendee.
You spent over five million dollars to attend Summit. You deserve not just good, but great sessions, one after the other. You should walk out of there saying, “Holy cow, every session was amazing! This wasn’t like three SQLSaturdays back-to-back – this was like a world-wide, the-very-best-of-the-SQL-community Greatest Hits event!”
But you don’t.
It’s not Speaker 47’s fault. There will always be many Speaker 47s, and we should be encouraging people to speak, not discouraging them. I know some speakers will read this as a warning, and I can’t do anything about that.
It’s not my fault either, although I know a few bloggers who are more than happy to paint me as a whiny celebrity who’s only interested in myself. As I write this, I know full well I’m going to piss off people by demanding a higher level of quality for our five million dollars. For too long, PASS has been about the speakers when it should really be about the attendees.
It’s not the selection committee’s fault. They’re made up exclusively of volunteers who pour their hearts into picking the best sessions they can given the limited amount of resources they have available. We have to get them more resources, and with the sheer amount of profit involved, PASS can afford to do it.
It’s your fault. It’s time for you to stand up for the sessions you want, and to demand quality.
I need you to do three things.
Ask firstname.lastname@example.org for attendee feedback be considered in the PASS selection process. It’s your registration money – why should you be forced to repeatedly get burned by sitting through Speaker 47’s sessions?
Ask that attendee feedback be made public. You need help making session decisions. It doesn’t have to be the raw numbers – for example, in the agenda, maybe put gold stars next to speakers that got great feedback last year. I’m not saying this to get the gold star either – if this idea goes through, I will personally request that I never get a gold star just so there’s never even an appearance that I’m being greedy here. This is about you, not about me.
Lastly, share this blog post. I’m not in this for the hits – I just want to get this message out to people whose opinions matter most: attendees.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
* – Not a real doctor