Random thoughts from an unusual company

Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

Gabriella Davis  21 October 2009 11:32:59
.... stick with it the question is at the end....or just scroll down

Like most of us who do this for a living I love to learn new stuff but it's not often in my everyday job I get to do that.  As a consultant I continually set myself hurdles for technologies to learn  as I need to know the technology inside out by the time a customer asks me for advice and that's partly why I several years ago two friends (Andrew and Rocky) encouraged me to try my hand at speaking.  The idea was that if I was going to spend weeks of time learning something why not share that with other people who may not have the time to start from scratch themselves.  Since I got over my original nerves I've discovered I love speaking, not the standing up on stage part but the part where I HAVE to know something if I'm going to stand up in a room and talk about it and the part where I can share ideas about technology with people that sit through my sessions.

Each conference is very different and I enjoy them for different reasons, user groups tend to be small enough that I get the chance to talk to people outside of the session and hear why some very odd sounding implementations make sense for specific countries or companies :-)

This year I got to speak for the first time at the Danish User Group which was had a great turnout who were very patient with the English speaker in the room and the organisers arranged to have the sessions videoed for those who couldn't attend.  In August I spoke at the IAMLUG the new US user group in St Louis, where several attendees I met were transitioning jobs or newly unemployed and really appreciated the opportunity to attend a free conference, stay engaged with the wider community and keep improving their skills.  Two weeks ago I spoke at UKLUG in Edinburgh which sets the gold standard for user conferences with nearly 400 people turning up , 4 concurrent sessions in each time slot and an opening keynote by Bob Picciano.  It was educational (i got to actually attend a few sessions myself and talk to customers), fun and ultimately exhausting - you can't ask for anything more than that.  Next week is my final user group of the year when I go to Amsterdam for the NL LUG2009 conference - giving sessions on ID Vault and Websphere.  

Amongst all the user groups I also spoke at AdminCamp in Germany (who are again very tolerant of the woman trying to slow down her English speaking, and who serve great beer) and Collaboration University which is very much like a user group of technical experts in the Sametime , Quickr or Connections fields.  We repeat the CU conference in Chicago and London a week apart and it's always fascinating to me to note the different interests for attendees in each region.  In London for instance we had a lot of interest in Sametime 8.5 and all the new components whereas the Chicago audience was more development focussed.  Of course once the user groups are finished for me at the end of October, the Lotusphere preparation begins.  I am currently waiting like 9999 others for news of my abstract submissions for Lotusphere but, if your session is approved, you only have 3 weeks to write and submit it.  Since I spend weeks learning the technologies I speak about and deploying them in various test scenarios, I've already started my learning on sessions that may not happen but worst case scenario is I get to learn anyway.

OK so here's the question. Whenever I finish a session at any conference I ask for questions.  Occasionally people put up their hands but mostly they form an orderly queue around me and next to me as I'm packing up and exiting the room to make space for the next speaker.  The problem is that my topics tend to be about infrastructure or system architecture so if you walk up to me with a napkin with a hand drawn sketch of your planned cluster infrastructure for Sametime and thrust it into my hands saying "does this look right to you" I'm going to ask you to email me.  The same goes if you try verbally describing a very specific problem your environment has with SSO or mail routing.  The reason I ask for the email is not because I'm trying to brush you off or because I've no idea it's because
  • I don't know enough about your environment to offer advice and whilst you're telling me what you think is pertinent it's not the whole picture
  • I've just spoken for 60 - 90 minutes and my brain is fried plus I'm trying to get out of the room to make way for someone else or to go to another session or appointment and I can't think of ALL the questions I need to ask you to give me a fuller picture
  • I'm violently opposed to pulling ideas off the top of my head based on minimal information and sending you off to try them, it's dangerous, it almost certainly won't work, it doesn't fix your problem and it makes both of us look bad

So I hand out my email address (which is also always on the last page of my presentation) and I ask you to email me your question so I can help or to email me your plan so I can give it the once over to see if it makes sense.  I tell you I have no intention of charging you to answer your question or take a quick look at your plan.  So why do so few people ever follow up with the email questions?  I actually look forward to looking at some of the problems that are brought to me but then the person disappears and the email never arrives and I never get to follow through.  I've considered if my spam filter via Postini is too aggressive but one or two people usually manage to email me, just not many and never the ones with the plans on napkins they want me to review.

My question to you then is what am I doing wrong?  What could I do differently to help answer those questions or to make sure I get to follow up with people?  It's difficult finding time during a conference to sit down with people but I'm happy to do so remotely afterwards - problem solving is the part of my job I enjoy the most after all.

All suggestions gratefully received although I do risk in posting this getting a response telling me that my personality prevents people from following up (my presentation style is very schoolmarm) , I'm prepared to hear that.


1Warren Elsmore  21/10/2009 13:18:07  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

I was going to say 'it's better than having no questions asked' - though maybe that's worse? I'm certainly in the same boat though - I'm pretty sure when I present that I can't have answered 100% of the questions, but I get very little feedback sometimes!

I can only think (going back to when I attended Lotusphere as an attendee) that there is a need to get an answer 'that week'. So if there's no time for a full answer in your session, then people will go off to the developer labs and go through the minutiae there.

Or perhaps it takes a while to sink in and having thought about their question for a while they come up with their own answer.

If it is presentation style though - I need some coaching too!

2Theo Heselmans  21/10/2009 13:29:04  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

I'm not an admin, so haven't been to any of your sessions I'm afraid. But I did go to many sessions over the past 15 years or so.

What I think happens is that, by listening to a presentation, a (at that time) relevant question pops up in your head, and, while it's still 'fresh' you want to ask it, while the speaker is there !

When returning from e.g. LS or UKLUG, my brain is usually fried too, of data overload, and because the question is 'gone' you don't feel like picking it up afterwards (allthough I did occasionally).

We do care and are interested, but at that time you (the speaker) are more accessible than ever !

So don't be alarmed, it's not you (nor you Warren)!

3Maria Helm  21/10/2009 16:26:42  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

If you really do want to follow up with those people - and I believe you are sincere in that - then here is a sugestion: Tell them you are very interested, but want to check a few things before you answer them. Ask them to write THEIR email address on the napkin and hand it to you. (Or have some paper and pencil and jot down the question and email address.) Keep a folder/envelope/whatever of these requests, and answer them when the conference is over. This should fit your time crunch, make them feel you will answer them, and give you time to research or think of the questions you need to ask. A few may get their questions answered elsewhere before you reply - that's fine, and maybe they will tell you who answered, and you will learn who to direct those types of questions to for the future.

4Matt White  21/10/2009 16:31:46  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

It's strange how admin and dev sessions differ. Generally the questions I get asked are very specific and are maybe easier to answer in that hand over phase between sessions. However, I have taken to putting a few business cards on the table so people can grab them as we're talking to follow up in more detail after the conference. That seems to work well.


5Gab Davis  21/10/2009 16:44:31  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

@Maria thanks for the advice. I do often offer to take people's business cards and I try and write a summary of their question on the back of it. The problem is that I am often reluctant to do ask people for business cards or to email them out of the blue in case they thought I was being 'pushy' or trying to sell them something which I'm not. It may well that I'm being overly concerned about that so I may give it a try.

6Kathy Brown  21/10/2009 17:04:22  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

For me personally, I've tended to think that speakers are probably inundated with questions and actually have real jobs, so I hate to bother them after the conference is over. The few times I've actually emailed someone a question after seeing them speak, I felt terrible and it was only because I found no other way to get my answer.

I've spoken to others and they feel the same way. We don't want to be pests! :-)

7Marie Scott  21/10/2009 18:59:48  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

I don't hesitate to ask the speaker a question if I've got one, so for me it has nothing to do with style but content. The object of the session is providing information and I see the chance to ask a question or two as a bonus, but not a requirement. Since you've provided your contact information, I think the responsibility for follow-up is on the attendee, not the speaker. I've attended many of your sessions at Lotusphere - and no way no how would I call your style "school-marmish"!

8francie  22/10/2009 04:45:02  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

You're the most approachable and notoriously nice person I know. If someone isn't emailing you, it's cause they forgot what they were going to ask or don't feel right asking.

But if you want to, I can email you after your next session :)

9Ben Poole  23/10/2009 13:32:39  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

Well, I've only presented at LUGs twice. All I know is everyone runs out of the room at high speed once I'm done.


10Rupert  26/10/2009 17:42:03  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

11Rupert Clayton  26/10/2009 18:15:14  Conferences, Speaking And A Question For Those In The Audience

I spent about seven years training Domino admins in the UK, and the last couple were for LearningTree, where all the instructors were self-employed consultants and we were encouraged to offer advice both in and out of the session.

I'm certain that the reason people don't follow up is not because they have a problem with the presenter. As other people have suggested, the reasons are much more to do with the questioner's own circumstances.

When people are at an off-site training class or a conference, they get a break from the perennial support requests and task backlog. By the end of an hour-long conference session, they're starting to think "Yes, I too can deploy Sametime Gateway/cross-product SSO/DAOS/a mission to Mars. I just need to understand XMPP translation protocol/LTPA tokens/compression algorithms/solid-fuel thrusters"

As you say, there's no time during a conference session or right after it to answer those questions. And a lot of them need more than 5 minutes of careful thought. You ask them to e-mail you details, they go into the next session and they never follow up. I'm guessing the biggest reason is that people get swamped by the return of their real-world jobs and it drops off their radar. A few people may mistakenly think "I'm sure she doesn't really want to spend time answering my questions." And some people may figure out the answers for themselves.

I'd agree with briefly telling attendees at the start and end of the session: "I'm very happy to try to answer your questions, but there probably won't be time to get into much detail during the session, and they need to set up for Bob Picciano right after I'm done. So give me a business card, or take one of mine and I can get your questions answered afterwards."

Maria's suggestion is great: If you're not going to be able to answer the question right now, get their e-mail and you can follow up once the conference is over. If you can get some basic details of their issue up front, then you both have a starting point for the follow-up conversation.

And I agree 100% that presenting and training on new Lotus technologies refreshes the parts that plain consulting fails to reach. There's no better way to find out about each new feature of a product than to have to talk sensibly about it for 60 minutes.