Bonus Rant: Conference Speakers and the Golden Rule

Fair warning: This isn’t a technical post. This is my opinion, and not Microsoft’s.

I’ve been a public speaker at events since 1980. Interestingly, even though I’ve done this, it’s never been my paid job. I’ve spoken on technical topics at groups as small as 5 people to over 10,000, in
local and global events. I’ve been on TV, radio, on stage and on webcasts. I teach at college as well.  

In all of that time, I’ve come to realize that speaking is the easy part. To be sure, I put an extraordinary amount of work into my presentations. I learn the topic, research speaking styles and communication
methods, fret over my demos and practice relentlessly. But I reiterate that this is the easy part.

 The hard part is putting the events together.

 Most folks have no idea how hard it is to create, advertise, pay for, staff, run and tear down a technical event. Even small ones. And the folks that do it get none of the glory, none of the praise, and usually all of
the criticism. These folks deserve way more respect than they get.

And the worst offenders in not offering this respect are the speakers.

Let me say that again – some speakers are rude, arrogant and disrespectful of the event planning groups that run their sessions. They have unrealistic expectations, and I’ve seen some actively fight the requirements these teams impose. From not delivering slides on time, to not following the rules the event planners lay out, to not even calling when they don’t show up. Showing up and saying "I'm still working on my slides" with a smirk doesn't impress me as a listener at all - it just makes me think you're dismissing my time as unimportant as a listener. Your content should be nailed way before the event, not the day of. Practicing on the day of presentation is expected - changing it indicates unprofessionalism. Sorry, but there it is.  

I don’t bring up problems without suggesting some solutions – that’s my military training coming through. :) Here’s what can fix this issue:

  • All speakers should have to demonstrate they have assisted in the logistics of an event somewhere. Or you don’t speak.
  • All speakers should follow the rules. Don’t get your slides in, don’t follow the rules? You don’t present. There are LOTS of people wanting
    to speak.
  • All speakers should follow the golden rule. Sure, you’re special, just like everyone else. Understand that the event planners are there – with you – to make the event a success. Treat them like you want to be treated.


No, I’m not pointing anyone out. No, no one asked me to write this post. I’ve just been on both sides of the fence, and you really have no idea how difficult the logistics of an event are until you put one on. Want to find out if I’m right? Volunteer at a local even like SQL Saturday, ask to help out at PASS, TechEd, whatever. The point is, walk a mile in the shoes of the event planner. It will make you a better presenter.

Comments (20)
  1. Brent Ozar says:

    Agreed.  I also heard something horrific at PASS – some speakers were actually present, onsite, and yet cancelled their sessions.  They got in free for speaking, but didn't actually speak.  Hung over?  Sick?  Demo failure?  Who knows, but that's just not acceptable when the event is planned around you.

  2. Doug Lane says:

    Good post, Buck. Having been to enough SQL Saturdays and now the Summit, I understand how much work goes into planning and staging these events. I'll definitely be volunteering for a PASS committee (speaker or abstract) next year. Also, I was shocked to hear how quickly the pool of alternates dried up at the Summit. I can't say why others would willingly decline to speak if they're at the event and were selected as an alternate; I gladly presented a session that was outright rejected.

  3. Bobby Dimmick says:

    I have always focused on the logistics-side of my events.  The majority of the speakers I have had at my events were fantastic — especially the new speakers.  A lot of people forget about the volunteers that make it happen, though.  Every -single- volunteer is easily worth their own weight in gold.

    It takes a lot of guts to stand in front of a group and present on a new (and possibly unstable) technology for about an hour.  I compare that, though, with the guts it takes to trust in 40+ speakers, 20+ volunteers, a stable facility, caterers, and a variety of vendors for a period of over two weeks (I start planning 6 months in advance – and my events are relatively small).

    Any good event requires a lot of teamwork on everyone's part — that includes speakers and attendees.  As long as everyone has a set of common goals (to have fun, to learn, to network) things will work out.

  4. Roy Ernest says:

    Perfect post Buck. I was part of the abstract review team. I am sure Lorie was still working while the summit was happening.

  5. Paul Randal says:

    Great post Buck. I always try to get my slides and demos done by the deadline or close after.

    Although I don't help with PASS (apart from coming to speak), I'm the Conference Chair of SQL Connections (which is for profit). A couple of years ago we had a confirmed speaker no even fly to the conference and not tell anyone. I phoned her and she gave some BS story about trying to contact us. And who stepped in to help out? You did :-)

    Imagine her discomfort when at the 2009 PASS Summit WIT Lunch she sat down at our lunch table and then looked across at my name badge.

    Again – great post Buck.

  6. I totally agree, being on both sides of events as speaker and organizer, I would like to see more speakers participate in event organization, not only sitting in the speaker room of a SQL Saturday. What's worst too, I see speakers that attend, sit around at speaker rooms, speak, then leave. I have always tried to support fellow speakers by sitting in their sessions rather than sitting around doing last minute changes on slides or talking about the weather. Help out the organizers! Sit in at sessions!

  7. Grant Fritchey says:

    I'm in 100% agreement. As in all things, we fall short of the goals, but those goals sound reasonable to me. BTW, confession time, I did slip a joke slide into my session when I knew that a certain person was coming, but the session itself was the one that I'd rehearsed and planned for and the slides (with the single exception) were the ones I turned in on time.

  8. Amit Bansal says:

    Every speaker shud read this – this post can be put in speaker contracts :)

  9. Craig Berntson says:

    I help organize and run Utah Code Camp. We get about 200 attendees and it's LOTS of work. A couple of weeks ago I spoke at Silicon Valley Code Camp. It had over 3000 attendees! All organized and run by volunteers. I can't imagine the logistics and time it took to put the event together. Being on both sides of the event, and others where I'm simply and attendee, I know what it takes. I always thank the organizers for their time, and when I speak, I also thank them for letting me bore and confuse attendees in my sessions.

  10. Karla Landrum says:

    I'm curious what your (and others who commented here) thoughts are on repeat offenders. SQLSats especially are showing some regular, consistent speaker cancellations.

  11. Nigel Sammy says:

    Great post! I totally agree with your last two lines.

  12. jonmcrawford says:

    Karla, three strikes rule…maybe three is even too many, but either way, the sqlsaturday organizers should have access to a blacklist, or at least a warning list. IMHO, that should include volunteers too because of how much depends on them, and I say that because of personal infraction, not because I've noticed it as a problem from others. I volunteered for the first Columbus SQLSaturday, but had to bail a couple days before the event. I specifically avoided volunteering for last year so that wouldn't happen again, and would fully expect to be blacklisted if I failed again.

  13. Dean says:

    Buck, how are speakers compensated for large events like PASS or the recent BUILD conference?

  14. BuckWoody says:

    Dean, for PASS and TechEd, they aren't, unless it's a pre-conference all day session. Not sure what they pay for those – when I do them I'm a Microsoft speaker and don't get paid. Nor does the PASS board for arranging everything, to my knowledge. At the SQL Saturdays, nobody's getting paid either – in fact even the building is covered by a vendor or some other means.

  15. Dexter Jones says:

    At a session at the 2011 PASS Summit, a speaker (I won't mention his name here) was getting ready for the session and seemed to delight in announcing he received a bowl of M & Ms with certain colors removed – as he had requested.

    How do you think I looked at him after that?

  16. Adam Machanic says:

    Buck: Third-party TechEd speakers receive T&E plus a small honorarium. I believe that if PASS paid T&E these kinds of issues would be much less frequent.

    Dexter: I once requested Sevruga caviar ($200/oz) — totally as a joke — and was scared to death when someone contacted me to ask whether I preferred it chilled or closer to room temperature. Turns out, the person was turning the joke back on me. Very effectively. I assume it's the same with the M&Ms, but that's actually an affordable prank to pull.

  17. Scott Schommer says:

    I recently attended my first SQL Saturday and my first PASS Summit (and was a first time speaker at both). These were truly awesome events but I was very surprised at the Summit that ANY speaker would cancel their session! In a "Professional Organization for SQL Server" this seemed very UNprofessional. I discussed it with the PASS board and they were perplexed too (I even tweeted with a guy named Allen and volunteered to pick up extra sessions if they needed me to). I can't tell you how many people I spoke to who paid for either all of the Summit (and/or hotel, airfare, etc) and were counting on specific sessions to be presented. I just feel that the attendees deserve the best and that there has to be some way to keep the speakers from canceling their sessions! Maybe we could track it on the PASS site – bad feedback and no shows = no invites to speak (we could even create a database!)

  18. Scott Schommer says:

    And… I woke up at 3 AM coughing this morning (I am pretty sick) but I still went in to work because I am teaching my third series of SQL classes to our Quicken Loans IT folks.

  19. Ramesh says:

    his is my first time i visit here. I found so many entertaining stuff in your blog, especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the leisure here! Keep up the excellent work

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