Some thoughts on data platform community events

In recent months, I ended up subtweeting quite a bit on things that stood out for me with conferences… Mainly pointing at organizers but in parts also attendees. Unsurprisingly however, it seems like those tweets for the most part triggered a couple of entertaining and facepalm moments for some but mostly not the right people, which led me to trying to find a more constructive way to share my feedback and ideas.

I will not name or shame any events or persons – this isn’t about creating a negative list but to hopefully share some of my experiences and ideas in a way that maybe leads to some improvements.

Please share your thoughts and inputs on this – happy to be corrected, where I’m wrong.

Also, my opinions are not in any particular order.

  • Have rules for your event – and enforce them
  • While it may be the most important point – I think it has been stressed out enough by others. Have a Code of Conduct/Guidelines/Rules or whatever you want to call it for your event, make it clearly visible and: enforce it.

    If people don’t play by the rules or don’t accept them, they shouldn’t be part of your event. No matter if they are an attendee, speaker, volunteer, sponsor or organizer.

    • Set (reasonable) expectations and be transparent

    First of all, as an organizer, keep in mind, that “you get what you pay for”. If you’re not paying your speakers – which is perfectly fine with me on free and community run events – don’t expect them to create exclusive content just for you or spend hours to make their presentation work with your template. I would still consider it fair to expect each speaker to deliver their content to the best of their abilities – a free session should still be a great session. But they signed up to deliver a session for you – not to spend hours or days with unpaid labor.

    If you do require a template to be used – make that clear at the call for speakers and publish it WELL in advance.

    Be clear on session lengths, expectations on levels and contents and also on timings.

    If your event will only run for one afternoon in your timezone, this will be in the middle of the night for some speakers. And they may or may not be fine with that. But if you tell them in advance, it’s their choice.

    If your event is virtual – let speakers know in advance if they deliver live or pre-recorded.

    Be aware that speakers may also be delivering content to promote themselves. Unless you pay them for their time – they should totally be allowed to do so by pointing out their books, courses or services (without turning their presentation into a marketing slide-show).

    Also, don’t run a Call for Speakers if you aren’t looking for speakers. Sounds silly? Let me explain. If you already know, who you want to speak at your event – that’s fine. It’s your event. You can hand-select and currate every single session. But don’t label it as a „community selected“ outcome.

    If you are only looking for speakers that fit a certain criteria („We only accept Women speakers“, „We only accept speakers that have not spoken at our event before“, „We only accept speakers that were born on February 29th“) – that is also your choice. But make it clear and transparent, so I don’t waste my time creating submissions for you if you knew from the beginning, you weren’t even going to look at them.

    And vice versa for those submitting: If an event says „we only accept submissions from new speakers“ and your bio starts with „I am a regular speaker at major international conferences“, maybe you should read the event’s description before submitting your sessions…

    • Embrace new speakers and diversity

    Over the past years, I’ve had (and will have in the future) the honor and joy to run tracks and events focusing on new speakers. My good friend William Durkin and I saw the need for this and started the DataGrillen Newcomer track which turned into New Stars of Data when the world became virtual.

    Not only is it very fulfilling to see how successful some of our first time speakers became with their speaking career – proving that all they needed was a stage.

    It also shows: There are so many smart and amazing people out there that are simply not heard.

    This also means, as a seasoned speaker, maybe try to step back a bit and make room for new speakers. Many events and user groups will play it safe and pick a lineup of well known people. Maybe, just let them know that you’re available to speak, but would prefer to see a new speaker instead? Maybe offer to co-present with a new speaker or mentor them?

    New speakers are also the best way to increase diversity amongst speakers.

    Why should we care? If the fact that we live in 2021 so you shoudn’t have to ask that question isn’t enough… Diversity isn’t just helping Women in Tech, the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, visually impaired people or any other underrepresented peer group that you may think of. It’s is helping all of us – because diversity brings new perspectives to the table. And new perspectives are a core part of learning. And isn’t that why we attend events?

    Some events do a great job on this so by simply looking at their past line ups, it may be obvious that diversity not only matters to them but that it is a vital part of their event.

    If it’s not that obvious… make it obvious. A single tweet „We are looking for women speakers“ doesn’t equal you’ve „tried everything“.

    As a speaker – ask your organizers what they are doing to solve this issue.

    As an organizer – ask fellow organizers how they can help you.

    We have an amazingly helpful community. Help will come – if you sincerely ask for it.

    • Be responsive and communicate with people

    When speakers reach out to you as an organizer – or an organizer reaches out to you as an attendee: Try to be responsive. We all have day jobs. So it simply helps if we don’t have to chase you for weeks only to ask if you’re still interested in speaking for example.

    When an email starts with „please read the whole email“, this is probably what you should do 😊.

    Inform your speakers of the call for speakers outcome in a proper way. Don’t let them find out through the schedule if they are in or not.

    This definitely includes: Sending rejection emails. People took the time to write and submit an abstract. This doesn’t entitle them to be part of your event. But you should at least show them the respect to inform them.

    And: Any changes you make or require after things have been agreed on: Talk to people. Sounds stupid? Then how is it, that I still see events changing their schedule after it has been published without informing affected speakers? Up to the point that a recent event removed a few confirmed speakers to make room for „more important people“ (which is a no-no as it is) and didn’t even tell them?

    • Be transparent about your budget

    If you are really running a community event, you’re the first volunteer.

    Especially with virtual events, if you have sponsors – it should be clear where that money is going.

    If your entire cost base is a little website and a web conference software (GTM, Zoom, Teams, you name it), and many of us have those licenses anyway, you should not need a sponsor.

    If you do have additional cost – like you’re sending out speaker shirts or gifts – cool.

    If not – make sure that money goes back to the community.

    Or don’t pretend to be a community event.

    • Deliver what you’ve signed up for

    This last point goes out to the speakers – and doesn’t refer to emergencies obviously. But in this virtual world, I see more and more events where speakers either cancel on very short notice or simply don’t show up at all.

    Nobody forces you to submit to an event. But if you do, you’re accepted and agree to a schedule – it should go without saying that it’s a fair expectation that you show up at the agreed time and deliver your session.  

    Again, I do appreciate that you may agree or disagree to some or all of these thoughts – let me know what you think and maybe, we can drive some change for good together 😊

    7 comments

    1. I like the direct approach. A few things I’ve been mulling around. Not criticism, but thinking about your post.

      1.CFS – there is almost never a community selected outcome without disclosure of the input from the communuity. I don’t know any events that are community selected

      I agree that places can do, or not do a CFS. Unlike previously, for a #SQLSat @sqlsatofficial, we don’t require a CFS. If you want to pick speakers, do that.

      2. Verbiage – struggling with how to say an event takes place with people in the same location. “Live” doesn’t work. Even “in-person” has confused attendees. I have no idea what we label an event like other than virtual or hybrid. non-virtual?

      3. Rules – I agree that we should be adults here. Set the rules you want and then stick to them. COC/AHP matters to me. For COVID, I think that following local guidance makes sense, as anything else could shift underneath the event. If you don’t like local guidance, be an adult. Don’t come.

      4. Diversity – This matters to me. I’m diverse, but not diverse. I would suggest you ask speakers to help you find others, or offer to co-present. Their network(s) are inherently larger than yours.

      I’d also note that choosing some first time speakers that make mistakes will not ruin your event or upset sponsors.

      5. Communication – I’ve learned I am the only one seeing all the messages I send about an event. That goes for any event or marketing. Overcommunicate. Build a schedule in Excel and stick to it, sending out lots of messages.

      Make these short. Attention span is low, so beyond 2-3 short paras, people miss things. Focus

      6. Budget – I’d love to see people publish this, along with a few stats. Attendence, speakers, first time speakers, topics, even hours spent organizing. Share and help other events.

    2. Some really good points. I’ve written on a couple of these topics recently.
      https://www.sqlgene.com/2021/08/22/why-a-code-of-conduct-is-valuable/
      https://www.sqlgene.com/2021/06/14/my-thoughts-on-diversity-in-tech-conferences/

    3. I really love the idea of experienced presenters co-presenting with someone new. Not as a mandatory thing, but to team people up that may want it and may encourage them to speak.

      Communications are super important – from both sides. Where possible, keep them concise.

      Lastly, DEI also includes topics on on said DEI. If you shun topics that may be of interest to a group – say a woman speaking on women in tech issues – then you are missing a big point. (Something I recently noticed with an event).

    4. Good one and nice guide for anyone planning an event.
      I can relate to the rejection emails point, where I learnt about the selected speakers through the schedule and felt that was not a good approach.
      LOL on the “speakers born on 29th February”!

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