As in the past, I am sharing my PASS Summit 2011 evaluation results. As also in the past, I explain that I do this because I want to improve my serve. If this kind of post makes you uncomfortable for any reason, please stop now and go read Brent’s awesome post on improving your evaluation numbers. It has awesome advice (as usual).
I encourage feedback when I present – especially ways people believe I can improve. I know that this is begging for dings to my score. I’m ok with that; this is not a race. Presenting is about serving the community and I simply want to do the very best job I can.
Presentation Levels Do Not Help
I have a suggestion for any organization organizing events with presentations: Please discard numeric levels. Why? Because they are an engine of loss and I believe they set up the presenters for some magnitude of failure.
A Question For Presenters:
Have you ever delivered a presentation that contained only material from one level? Me neither. Why is this? For me, it’s because the attendees are never merely seeking one level of material. How can I tell? By the questions. I get questions above and below any level of material I deliver. In a multi-track, multi-session format event, this is because some people attend my session because they seek to learn everything about a certain topic while others attend because very little being presented in this particular timeslot interests them and my session abstract sounds slightly more interesting than the others. This is not to say my presentation won’t help these attendees in some way.
When events provide pre-attendance scheduling capabilities, it would be interesting to note those who intended to attend my presentation – in advance – by adding my presentation to a timeslot. I am not suggesting adjusting the score for these attendees. I simply think that would make an interesting metric to use as a filter when analyzing the evaluation scores and comments.
When delivering a Level 500 session, I set the stage with lower-level material. I may ramp up quickly, spending only 5-10 minutes on introductory topics. This generates feedback that the session wasn’t at the correct level.
When delivering a Level 100 session, I poll attendees and quickly realize some already know the main points I am going to deliver. For example, each time I deliver “I See A Control Flow. Now What?” I ask for a show of hands of how many attendees have built an SSIS package that is in Production. The abstract clearly states this is for beginners with SSIS building their very first package. I am convinced, however, that some of the more experienced attendees learn things from this presentation. Why? They tell me personally or provide feedback via evaluations or email.. Apparently, I am including material to which they have not been exposed. Or I am presenting my understanding of a beginner topic in a way they have not considered. I am not sure. I rarely get complaints about the level of the Level 100 presentations I deliver, but I often – nearly always – get complaints about the level of any Level 400 or higher presentation I deliver.
I have a theory: People attending Level 100 sessions are open to learn more. Since they are just beginning, their context is unbiased and they are open to learn as much as possible. They don’t care if I wander into a Level 200 or Level 300 topic for a few minutes. They are learning stuff they don’t know. I believe people who attend Level 400+ sessions expect me to share stuff they don’t already know. If someone attends and my presentation turns out to be a review of things they’ve already learned, they feel it wasn’t a Level 400+ session because they didn’t learn something new. In my opinion, this is a symptom of Engineer’s Disease: We undervalue what we know and overvalue what we don’t know. My response to this is different: I celebrate the fact that many people already know anything I can show them. This means that my peers and I have succeeded in getting the word out. Yay us.
A Question For Attendees:
Think about the absolute best presentations you have ever attended. Was consistency in the level of material presented the best metric for you to describe those sessions? Me neither. I love Dr. DeWitt’s PASS Summit keynote presentations because he takes complicated material and breaks it down so even I can understand it. He breaks presentation rules in his slides, and yet continues to Wow! those in attendance. How does he do that? The best word I can use to describe it: Connecting. Dr. DeWitt connects with us. To connect, you have to understand the context attendees bring to a session. He does. Second, I think you have to know what the attendees want. What do all geeks want? We want to learn. Learn about what? Anything that will help us do our jobs better. For a few, this is probably an ignoble motive. But for the rest of us, we are in it for the brain exercise. We want to be more efficient, we want to learn stuff so we can help our companies, our communities, and ourselves do more with less. We simply want to know.
Dr. DeWitt uses what we already know to teach us something we want to know. That is connecting.
The last reason I think events should abandon levels is: they’re painfully distracting. It’s painful for presenters to decide which levels to assign; painful for the organizers to fiddle with scheduling a balanced smattering of 100s, 200s, 300s, and 400s in each timeslot; painful for attendees who bring their own concepts of which material should be assigned which level. I believe all complaints about level are a mask for some other – more valid – complaint. Remove this metric, and I believe better feedback will result. As a presenter, I can tell you I always get complaints about the level assigned to my presentation. I have delivered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours of material over the past decades of training and education. For me, complaints about level and level alone are evaluation noise. I simply ignore it at this point.
If event organizers insist on including levels, I respectfully submit that the levels themselves be as fuzzy as possible. What do I mean by fuzzy? Non-numeric. Perhaps Beginner and Advanced. With maybe a dash of Intermediate thrown in. If that occurs, you will see a spike in Intermediate sessions submitted due to the effects of the bell curve. That’s normal.
And that is another fantastic argument for eliminating levels altogether.