In just a few short weeks I am attending the PASS Summit 2018 in Seattle. Whenever I attend an event like the Summit or SQL Saturday I attempt to attend presentations of interest to me. I love learning new stuff!
Good and Less-Good
Most of the presentations I attend are good. Some are really good. They are delivered by talented technologists who are also gifted orators. This is an important distinction because:
Technology and communication are entirely different skills.
I’ve watched gifted presenters misrepresent the facts about technology.
I’ve watched gifted technologists fumble demos and stumble over words.
If I have to choose one over the other, I choose great technologists over great presenters. I do so without reservation or hesitation. Is it good to have both? Goodness yes! But – this is important – we don’t always get what we want.
Some Examples of Less-Good
There are categories of bad presentations and bad presenters. Three leap to mind:
- Someone who does not know the topic
- Someone who is not a good presenter
- Someone who is offensive
Presenters Who Do Not Know What They Are Talking About
I wrote recently about a complaint I see leveled at myself and others from time to time: “You do not know what you are doing.” I confess, sometimes that’s a valid complaint about me. While you might find the previous statement an example of humility (or false humility), I prefer to be in the state of not knowing what I am doing. Why? Because it’s an opportunity to learn and I love to learn.
That said, there’s a time and place for everything – including learning. When presenting a class or at a conference for which attendees or their employers paid good money, I strive to share what I have already learned, not what I am learning. Attendees of a free event, even, are paying with their time. So again, I strive for excellence in presentations at free events.
My lovely bride, Christy, attends on average one of my presentations per year. Early on she shared this advice, “Andy, no one likes to watch you troubleshoot.” As an engineer I didn’t even think about it. If something was broken, it needed to be fixed. Period. Pronto. If that meant dropping everything else – in front of a paying audience, even – so be it. Christy’s advice helped me become a better presenter.
I redesigned my talks to be demo-fault-tolerant. I changed my thinking about my presentations so that I am now more mentally prepared for demos to fail. I had something to say, always; I am aware not only that demos will fail. I am prepared for them to fail.
This preparation served me well when, in March 2018 at SQL Saturday Chicago, a drive on my laptop failed just before delivering a presentation that is 90% demos. What did I do? I talked through the demos. A friend approached me afterwards and said, “You looked ready for that!” I was ready for it. Nonetheless I responded (truthfully), “Thank you. I’m going to go sit down for an hour.” Even though I was prepared, it was exhausting.
I can hear you thinking, “Wait, Andy. Your second item above is ‘Someone who is not a good presenter.’ You titled this corresponding section ‘Good Engineers.’ What gives?” I’m glad you asked.
I am an engineer. If you’ve read my bio you see the word “engineer” there.
I consider this a warning.
Are all good engineers bad communicators? Nope. Many – perhaps most – are, though. Take that last sentence. If English is not your first language I owe you an apology. If English is your first language, I owe you two apologies. It makes perfect sense to me, but any editor who saw that sentence in a manuscript would be compelled to add a comment; correct the sentence; or print the document, take it out back, and physically burn that sentence off the page.
Technology – or engineering – is a skill.
Communication is a skill.
Technology and communication are different skills.
As I stated earlier, I don’t care if the presenter is a bad communicator. There is at least one exception to this rule that I will cover next. But for the most part, I can learn from good technologists who stink at communication. I can learn from good technologists who are brilliant communicators but are having a bad day. How do I know I can learn from these people? Because I have, and do, almost every week.
And so do you.
You may not like the presenter.
You may not enjoy the presentation.
But do you learn? Yep. You do.
An Aside: I Hate Abstract-Writing Contests
I’ve organized community events in the past. I don’t do very much work on community events these days, although I serve as a mascot on a couple leadership committees because of my past adventures in similar endeavors. Occasionally – rarely, I would say – I offer some tidbit that helps. My role these days is mostly to encourage leaders who are on the verge of burnout.
Selecting speakers is an engine of loss. It’s bad when there are more submissions than slots. The effects are amplified if the event is popular. Speaker selection is a fantastic mechanism to irritate and isolate people. For years, in some cases. Everyone who submits believes their submission should be accepted. Otherwise, why submit in the first place? No one likes to hear, “No.” Everyone likes to hear, “Yes.”
I am the same as every other speaker in this regard.
I may be worse than most, even.
Peeves make lousy pets. Knowing this doesn’t stop me from nurturing a handful of pet peeves. One of my pet peeves is speaker selection based solely on the marketing value of the written abstract. I label this practice an “abstract-writing contest” and I believe it is one bane of a successful technical conference.
If you read that last paragraph and began composing a comment that includes a paraphrase of, “Then what would you have us do, Andy? Pick lousy abstracts?!” I feel for you. But I cannot quite reach you. </RedneckSnark>
My response is, “No. I would have you consider more than merely the abstract. And specifically more than its perceived ‘Marketing value.'” Mix things up a bit. Add some variety. Consider the popularity of the speaker’s blog or previous presentations, maybe. Again, there are exceptions (one of which I will address shortly). But here’s my point in a nutshell:
All good presenters deliver good presentations.
Not all good presenters write good abstracts.
Something must take precedence, some attribute must win. If you are organizing an event and / or selecting speakers, you probably don’t have the option of selecting great presenters who will deliver great sessions and who are awesome at writing persuasive marketing abstracts.
Should all presenters strive to write better abstracts? Goodness yes. But unless you’re planning MSIgnite or Build or ReInvent or a TedX, you’re probably not going to be in the position to choose among the great presenters with great abstract-writing skills. Even if this is so, you’re not always going to get it right. They don’t! I’ve been to enough global conferences and seen enough bad presentations to know.
So presenters, strive to write better abstracts.
And selectors, select some presenters who submit poorly-written abstracts. For goodness’ sake: If spelling errors bug you, correct the spelling before you publish anything. That’s not even hard.
I am of two minds as I begin this section. Here’s why:
- There are things I find offensive that, for me, go beyond the pale, crossing the border between acceptable and unacceptable in a public forum meant to convey knowledge to attendees.
- There are things I find offensive that I will tolerate in order to gain the knowledge I seek.
Stepping into a conference session, I sometimes do not know what to expect. I may be unfamiliar with the speaker. Perhaps their speaking style is abrasive, or abrasive in my opinion.
Perhaps the speaker uses excessive profanity. I can hear you thinking, “Who gets to define excessive, Andy?” The attendees get to define excessive. As an attendee, I get to define excessive.
I read about a presentation a few years ago where the speaker created a pornographic demonstration. Many in attendance found the presentation offensive, most found it unprofessional. I hope the speaker – obviously a talented technologist – learned from this mistake.
These are examples of the first type of offense, those I believe are unacceptable.
Perhaps the speaker mentions politics in jest and I disagree with their politics, so I feel belittled when those surrounding me in the room laugh at the joke. I may feel they’re laughing at me. They are certainly laughing at people like me.
Perhaps the speaker jokes about the less-sophisticated in our culture. I’ve heard the term “hick” and “redneck” bandied about, for example – terms with which I personally identify. I have people in Appalachia, from whence my family comes. “Trailer trash” was a term I heard years ago in a presentation. My teenage years were spent living in a mobile home. In a trailer.
Do these references offend me?
Do I tolerate these offenses?
You may read that last section and think something along the lines of, “Well, they must not offend you that much if you tolerate them, Andy.” To which I respond, “That’s not your call.” You do not get to make such an assertion. You lack the ability to see inside my mind and inside my heart, so you cannot accurately render judgment as to what goes on there. Further, you do not dictate how I think or choose to respond, publicly or privately. You do not have that right of imposition; not over me.
These are examples of the second type of offense; those I choose to tolerate.
“How should we then live?” is a question posed by theologian, philosopher, and pastor Francis A. Schaeffer – it’s the title of one of his books. It’s a fair question – especially in an age that considers outrage a virtue. here are, I believe, some truths:
Offense can be intended.
Offense can be unintended.
Regardless of the motive of the offender, offense must be taken in order for the offended to be, well, offended.
I believe motive counts.
Does motive excuse the offender then? Not completely, in my opinion. That said, unintended offense deserves a more mitigated response than intended offense – again, in my humble opinion.
i write this as someone who has offended others unintentionally.
I write this as someone who has been offended intentionally and unintentionally.
When I have offended others, I most often apologized. I’ve learned the earlier the apology is offered, the better. I’ve failed – sometimes for years – to apologize for some offenses I’ve caused. This is partially due to ignorance on my part – me not realizing until later that I owed someone an apology. Sometimes I’ve just been stubborn (a virtue for an engineer… which is one reason I warn people that I am an engineer…).
I will likely offend people in the future. Offending people is not my goal and certainly not my intention.
I will most likely offend when trying to make a joke – as others have offended me while trying to make a joke. This has happened to me in the past. It’s cost me relationships, both professionally and personally.
In these cases, I bear the loss and I am profoundly sorry.
Please read and understand this: There are principles – and a Person – in which (and in Whom) I believe. I value my faith more than I eschew offense. My weak, flawed, and hypocritical following of Christ will offend a handful of people, some of whom also follow Christ. Knowing this does not deter, defer, or lessen my beliefs or my commitment thereto. If this offends you, you will have to decide how you respond. If my faith offends you, I believe you will have to also respond at least once more in the future. So if my faith offends you, I pray (and I never say or write the words “I pray” without actually praying) that you take care in your current response.