Being a More-Aware Free Technical Event Attendee

I want you to be a more-aware free technical event attendee.

When I was a boy my Mom told me , “Son, if you don’t have something good to say, say nothing at all.” Who am I kidding? My Mom still tells me that! I’m not going to take that advice in this post. (I’m sorry, Mom!)

I’m a firm believer that people need reminding more often than instructing, so please consider this a reminder.

Free Events Are Not Free

I need to pause here and state that I don’t know a single person who volunteers at free events who’s in it for the money or the fame. For one, there is no money (unless you count losses). For another, there’s very little and very limited fame. The volunteers I know are giving of their time, talent, and – yes – even their cash on hand to help their community. I think they need to hear two words and two words only: “Thank” and “you,” in that order, in a complete sentence.

Anyone who has ever organized – or helped organize – a free event will tell you that they are not free. Leading the organization of an event is a tiring and mostly-thankless job. 99% of the people who attend the event say nothing in response. The other 1% are split between those who provide positive feedback about how awesome the event was and how much it helped them in their career and how thankful they were to attend such an event for free; those who share suggestions to improve future events; those who deliver constructive feedback about their negative experiences; and jackholes.

The best advice I ever heard about providing touchy feedback was: “Write as if you’re communicating with your spouse or minister or Mom.”

It’s true events seek feedback from attendees. You should avail yourself of this opportunity – especially if you had an awesome or unfavorable experience at the free event or if you thought of a really cool thing the organizers could do next time. That kind of feedback is helpful.

All I ask is that you think about what – and, more importantly, why – you’re going to write before you write it. A little test I give myself before saying or writing something – even blog posts like this – is a two-question quiz.

Question one is: “What does a win look like?” What does it look like if I get everything I want?

Question two is: “Over what parts of the win do I have control?”

I shared this with Stevie Ray, my 14 year-old son, as we talked through a situation recently. In response to question two Steve Ray said, “Dad? I can’t really change what others decide to think and feel, can I?” It was a proud-papa moment, to be sure.

On Touchy Feedback…

The best advice I ever heard about providing touchy feedback was: “Write as if you’re communicating with your spouse or minister or Mom.” Why? You’re less likely to be a jackhole to those people. Why not? Because you have solid motivation to preserve those relationships. Or not. In which case those relationships will likely not survive your jackholiness.

Free For You != At-No-Cost To Everyone

Sponsors and speakers help make free events possible. Let’s face it, it would be a pretty boring technical event if no one showed up to share their technical knowledge. And the event would be less comfortable without a venue that included walls and a ceiling.

Walls, ceilings, and shared expertise all cost someone somewhere something.

Free For You == Some Cost To Someone

Sponsors and speakers support free technical events as part of an exchange. It may bother you to learn this, but it’s true. First-time presenters are eager to give back. Why? Because others have given to them. This is one example of an exchange, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Equally beautiful, in my opinion, is the exchange of an email address for corporate sponsorship capital to sponsor the event.

It’s not only possible, it’s likely that someone just threw up in their mouth a little reading that. We live in the age of the Participation Trophy, after all; we all win for just showing up. Financial gain is evil. I understand.

The Cost to Presenters

Several friends present regularly at free conferences. A private non-scientific poll indicates they spend on average $1,000 out of pocket each time. I know, I know – they’re all rich speakers and independent consultants with money running out of their… ears – but even then, consider that’s $1k less to run out of their ears. And they lose a day – usually 2-3 days – and some of that time could be spent billing a bajillion bucks per hour. So the total costs to these evil-rich independent consultants is probably more like $2-3k per event.

Do they get something in exchange? You bet! Provided they deliver a good presentation, their personal brand grows. Perhaps they’ve written a book – they get to advertise their book on their About Me slide. Maybe they blog and score advertising bucks as a result. They get to advertise their independent consulting practice on the same slide. Perhaps someone in the audience is in need of exactly the services offered by the individual or another person at their independent consulting company, in which case some networking may occur that leads, eventually, to the independent consultant-speaker being hired to help. Equally likely: networking occurs because an attendee is interested in the topic. This later leads to employment of the attendee!

This is a virtuous cycle and, again, I find it beautiful.

Grumpy McGrump Face

Perhaps you don’t find it beautiful at all. You showed up with an issue, believed from what you read in an email or the abstract that the presenter was going to solve your issue (for free), and are disappointed and angry that they didn’t. Or maybe you expected everything at the event to be free – including the software demonstrated by sponsors and solutions mentioned by independent consultants.

Vendors Crossing the Line

Is it possible for vendors to cross the line and show up just to sell? Yep. It happens. When it happens, the event organizers should be made aware – unless, of course, a sponsor paid for the privilege of expounding the benefits of their product or service.

Please be aware, though, it’s a fuzzy line. What one considers crossing said line, others may welcome. So when communicating your displeasure, please keep in mind that any organizer worth their salt is going to follow up with others who attended the same session. If those people speak highly of the presentation, or merely speak without spitting froth when they do so, you may look like a jackhole.

My advice is share your opinion. Please. But don’t overplay your hand. And for goodness’ sake keep your spittle in your own mouth.

“Why’d You Write This, Andy?”

That’s a fair question. I’ve read other posts like this throughout the years, written by other presenters, sponsors, volunteers, and event organizers. I have to admit – I found them harsh.

Perhaps you find this harsh. I understand. I felt the same way.

It could be that you’re just a convenient target for them to launch a venting…

I was recently at an event where a speaker (and friend) received some negative feedback. No comments, just 1’s and 2’s on a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being “great”). He was disappointed. “How can I act on this?” he asked. “What do I do to improve?” Without comments, he was at a loss. All the other feedback he received was positive – 4’s and 5’s – and comments about what attendees liked and loved.

To help my friend feel better, I shared a game I play after receiving feedback forms from attendees. The name of the game is “There’s Always One.” I pulled out 30 or 40 evaluation forms that – I promise – I had not yet looked at and said, “You watch, there will be a bunch of happy evals here, but at least one unhappy person.” Sure enough, we found one in less than a minute.

Since I’m older and a more-experienced presenter than my friend, seeing “the one” made him feel better. It helped him realize that it’s not always something about him or his presentation; sometimes the attendee is having a bad day or their expectations were not met (they may been unrealistic) or they may have had a fight with their significant other or their pet may have died or… you get the picture. Like Steve Ray said: We can’t really change what others decide to think and feel, and they may have good and valid reasons for thinking and feeling the way they do. It could be that you’re just a convenient target for them to launch a venting…

Wrapping Up

If I hit you in the heart with this post, good. Tough love is tough, after all.

I meant what I wrote first: I want you to be a more-aware free technical event attendee. That’s my goal. If I can’t achieve that, perhaps I can nudge you to be less of a jackhole – at least in your communication.

If this post offends you, I apologize. My intent was to remind you of all the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that go into that technical event that costs you some time but no money.

If that doesn’t suffice I’ll see if I can scare up a Blog Reader Participation Trophy for you…

Peace.