Developing New Speakers

There’s a lot of discussion about the process of bringing new speakers to a level that allows them to be ready and able to present at major conferences like the PASS Summit.  Andy Warren (@sqlandy) wrote a blog post about a speaker challenge and Brent Ozar (@BrentO) wrote about Speaker 47.  Erin Stellato (@erinstellato) responded to An Open Letter To SQLSaturday & User Group Organizers by Nic Cain (@SirSQL) with a post about Helping First Time Presenters.

The most important thing to remember when helping develop and improve the breadth, depth and range of presentations is that we all started someplace.  At every user group meeting of my group, the Ohio North SQL Server Users Group,  I share what others call my “spiel”. I share it in every user group meeting of other groups I attend, and in every presentation I give, be it a SQL Saturday, the PASS Summit or any other event I’ve been invited to speak.  Here’s what I say:

There isn’t a person in this room who doesn’t have some knowledge that we can all learn from. In other words, every one of you has something that I can learn from, but the only way that can happen is if you get up here and share it with the rest of us. It does two things. One, we get to learn from you. Two, you get to learn more about something you’re already passionate about. You have to know more about something to present it, than to just do it every day. By sharing it with us we learn from you and you learn it better.

Now I don’t mean for someone to get up the very first time and expect to be at a level that’s ready for a major conference. That takes experience. That takes understanding that someone in the audience isn’t really interested in your topic, and it’s OK if they get up and leave. That also takes understanding that someone in the audience wants to prove that they know more than you know about your subject. I’ve seen this happen to both new speakers and to very experienced ones.  Those of us who have been on the speaking circuit for a while have dealt with those people, and I encourage this group to help the newbie by letting the offending audience member know that their comments can wait until after the presentation is over.  (There’s no “good” way to handle this kind of heckler, and it’s best to get them to shut up or leave.)

I like Erin’s idea about a “buddy” system, to help each other out. It allows us to provide new speakers the kind of feedback they won’t get on an evaluation form, and it provides moral support.  I feel extremely proud that five people from our user group in Cleveland will be presenting at this year’s PASS Summit, including both Erin and me. I think this stems from my “spiel” and the supportive approach we take during user group meetings where new speakers present.

Brent has some good points about the PASS Summit requiring the best speakers. The rating system in place doesn’t objectively allow for ratings to be used exclusively, though. Speakers often get bad ratings because of things out of the speaker’s control, things like the temperature of the room, the random disturbances outside the room, poor audio or video projection systems, etc.  There also doesn’t seem to be a way to let attendees know what to expect, and even when it does, attendees often pay little attention to prerequisites or session goals. Everyone has their own agenda, and that’s the criteria by which the speaker is rated.  I don’t know how to fix this, but it deserves some attention.

Most importantly, while we need to see the speakers we know will “deliver the goods”, we also need fresh faces and new ideas. My “spiel” is my way of encouraging new speakers, and I think we’re successful. SQL Saturdays offer a great avenue for new and experienced speakers to learn from each other.  I ask my experienced colleagues to lend a hand and help new people wherever possible, and attend their sessions, even if it’s a topic that you already know thoroughly. (I once attended a “Basic T-SQL Backup” session by my friend and SQL Server MVP/MCM Sean McCown and learned things about backup I hadn’t known, after using backup for 20 years.) By attending these sessions you provide support to the new speaker, you can intervene in the case of a negative attendee scenario, and you also just might learn something.

We’re all in this together, and we all grow with each other’s help.


(This blog was originally posted July 17, 2014.)