Disclaimer: This post in not pointing towards any particular conference or any particular speaker. This is just based on my observations over the years.
If you are reading this, you probably know about me. I work for SQLMaestros. MVP, Data Platform. MCM, SQL Server. Microsoft Regional Director (Honorary) from India. And amongst all, very fortunate to be a past speaker at reputed global conferences like TechEd, Ignite, PASS Summit, SQLBits, DPS, etc. I also had the opportunity to organize Data Platform Summit for multiple years.
Over the years, I have observed that some of the best speakers I know in the industry, occasionally, get bad feedback about their sessions. This not because they are bad speakers, as I said, they are some of the best. But they certainly have not done something right which landed them with poor scores or feedback from majority of the audience. My feedback is based on my experience as a speaker as well as an organizer.
I have chosen the title of my blog post carefully. It says, “Why Best Speakers Sometimes Get Bad Feedback”. In general, why speakers get bad feedback, there could be some zillion things. I am trying to focus on where the best ones mess up. So, if they are the best speakers, there is no aspersion on their technical or presentation skills. So where did things go wrong? Amongst many, here are some things that I have noticed:
Problem 1: Catchy/Attractive Session Title. Really?
Industry speakers are mushrooming. Conferences are few. There is more supply than demand. Therefore, there is immense competition to get selected as a speaker. So, speakers, in order to get their session selected by the conference committee, sometimes overdo in adding spice to their session title. And this is where things go wrong. Making your session title attractive is not a bad idea, it does catch the attention. But over-doing it to an extent where the meaning gets lost is the problem. Let us take an example:
Option 1: SQL Server Index Internals
Option 2: Deep Dive with SQL Server Indexes
Option 3: Beneath the Surface of the Ocean of Indexes
Now, Option 1 is to-the-point. Option 2 is also nice and attractive. Option 3 is too much. Well this is just an example. But I hope you understand what I mean. Now what is the problem? The problem is; not every attendee will really understand what you mean, unless they read the abstract (and I will cover this later). So, some attendees may just try to fathom something to their convenience and come to your session only to see that this is not what they had expected. And they land up giving bad feedback. My advice is: Yes, make your session title attractive but do not overdo it. You want to attract the attention, not confuse the audience. So why does Option 3 get selected in the first place? Simply because the conference/Speaker committee are mostly knowledgeable/matured/expert folks who quickly understand what you want to communicate and are impressed with your title. That is not always the case with the audience.
Problem 2: Session Title & Abstract Mismatch
Another common problem is where your session title says something else but abstract means something else. Well, again, you are getting a confused audience in your session. Either they assume that some content according to their likeness will be delivered based on session title or based on session abstract. Either way, it may back fire. The point is: your session title and abstract has to convey the same message. And of course, the content you deliver also has to be in line with your session title and abstract (which is another point that I have covered later). Speakers know that writing an abstract is not easy. It has to be succinct yet conveys the message very well. Takeaways from the session should be well defined.
Problem 3: Inappropriate Session Level
Sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, speakers put a higher session level than what is really talked about. A session level could be Basic, Intermediate, Advanced or Expert. Different conferences treat this differently. Some put levels as 200, 300, 400 & 500. The point is: speakers know that conference organizers and audiences love advanced or expert level sessions so chances of your session getting selected is higher. As I said, knowingly or unknowingly, if you put advanced or expert level and your session content is not living up to the level, you are bound to get a bad feedback. Sometimes session levels are highly debatable. Advanced content for someone may be Beginner level for another. But in other cases, it is not so debatable really. For example, your session is about Index Internals and level is 300 or 400. But in your content, you spend 30 minutes (out of 60/75 mins) covering different types of indexes and how to create them. This doesn’t make sense.
Problem 4: Session Content, Title & Abstract Mismatch
Well, this is a classic case. Session Title and abstract coincide well. But the content covered during the session was different. Why does this happen? When speakers submit their sessions, they might not have their content ready. They think & visualize what they would like to deliver and based on that they will write the session title and abstract. As the conference comes closer to the date, they start preparing the content but what they had originally envisaged is out of sight, out of mind. Speakers have to take due care that their content ‘really’ covers what they have expressed in the abstract.
Problem 5: All Talk, No Demo
To simply put it, people love demos. Back your talk with some good demos, unless your talks are only conceptual.
Problem 6: Demo Failure
I am sure you know that this was coming :). Your demos failed. Maybe you did not practice well. May be infrastructure issues. Anything. It is your responsibility to ensure that your demos work. Maybe you could record the demo as a backup. This really helps in case there are internet or setup issues. People get very disappointed if demos fail and speakers are bound to get bad feedback. And on that very day, even the best of the best can mess up with demos. That’s why Demo Gods
Problem 7: Casual Attitude
Some speakers are regular conference speakers and thus they tend to take their sessions casual. This is dangerous. If this gets noticed by the conference organizers that you had a casual approach to the conference or your session, whoever you are, you are un-invited next time. And this could have a spiral effect on your reputation. Any speaking engagement should have your full commitment. If you cannot promise your full commitment, do not offer to speak. Casual attitude comes in many flavors. Example: You did not practice your demos well. You did not rehearse your session well because you made last minute changes to your slides on the flight. You fumble and shuffle between slides during your presentation. You look tired when you were speaking. Lack of energy. There could be many more reasons that proves that you had taken a casual approach to the session. I myself had my share of a very hectic schedule where in a particular session, I did not perform very well.
Problem 8: Out-Of-Control Things
Well, exceptions are always there. Despite your best efforts, someone from the audience has wrongly comprehended the session title or abstract and his expectation was not met. That is not speaker’s fault. May be the speaker can set the expectations at the beginning of the session. A lot of times, demos fail due to lack of good internet. Recording the demos is a good backup solution and during the session you could just play the video file. Even when you have a complex demo and you just lost the flow, the recorded video comes to rescue. Likewise, there are many things out of your control but your attitude should be in your control :).
Summary: There can be more reasons why a good speaker gets a bad feedback. Presentation & demo skills are a completely different topic altogether which I have not touched upon. Seasoned speakers will typically have good presentation skills. I have tried to cover where best speakers mess up sometime. I wanted to focus only on the above as these are less talked about. In short, you need to give justified time to your session title, abstract, content, demos, rehearsals, etc and take ownership of every little thing.