Thoughts on Speakers and Topics for PASS Chapters

After wrapping up my part of SQLSaturday Orlando this year I’ve been thinking on what if anything we might do to increase attendance at oPASS & MagicPASS. Attendance at both is reasonable right now, this is just me looking and thinking about what we could add to what we have now. Is more better? I’ll argue to a point it is. I’ve always thought that meetings with 30 or more just had a different feel. Lots of people to network with, a sense of “stuff is going on here”. Thirty attendees is a tough get here in Orlando, and I suspect in most cities of the same size or smaller. My first thought was to work on the marketing angle. We saw for SQLSat Orlando that “more” marketing made a difference even though the event is well known locally, held on about the same date and at the same location each year. I think more marketing can help some (and we’ll come back to that in a later post), but I don’t think it’s the thing that moves the needle the most. What does? Speakers and topics.

The value of speakers you probably get. The bigger the name, the more likely attendance goes up with no extra effort, though I suspect big names get a little extra effort because the chapter volunteers are excited. Think about that. With basically no change in marketing approach the big(ger) name speakers equate to higher attendance. Clearly one strategy might be “just get all big name speakers”! Unrealistic of course, when few if any of them live locally. We get them if they happen to visit our city, otherwise we may get them for virtual presentations (rarely is that perceived to be as valuable as in-person delivery).

Experience with the topic matters, as does speaking experience. The more cred the speaker has, the more we can use that to sell the presentation. It’s also important to remember that our members don’t have the same knowledge, relationship, or interest in big names. We had what I consider a “big name” speak in Orlando this year, but I can tell you that the attendance was based on the topic. Now it’s fair to say that the topic was interesting and credible because of the speaker, but few of our attendees would have attended based on the speaker name alone.

Topics matter, maybe more than you think. A good title and abstract can drive attendance even if by a relatively unknown speaker. A niche topic, or one with a name that seems too cute or too simple, will not. The strategy here could be “only accept great topics and abstracts”, but in practice most chapters are close to desperate for speakers each month and they take what they can get. Where I think we sometimes fail our members and the speakers is by not engaging with the speaker early to ask for changes to the topic that will help us drive attendance. It might just be a change to the name of the presentation, it might go far deeper – asking for more demos, or making it more relevant to the members. Here’s an example. Let’s say that a local person offered to speak on the spatial features of SQL Server and submitted the title “Developing Apps Using SQL Server Geo-Spatial Features”. That’s a great topic, but is it the right one? You have to think about your members and decide. Could you leverage the speakers knowledge and tweak it for your members? How about?

  • Why You Need to Learn Write Spatial Queries
  • Master Spatial Features in 60 Minutes
  • Practical Uses of Spatial Features for DBA’s

Here in Orlando any one of those three might draw more attendees than the original title. Might. That’s also assuming the speaker is ok with the change and is willing to invest more time to tailor it to your request.

Let me pause here and talk about attendance again. While attendance isn’t everything, every speaker I know would prefer to talk to 20 attendees instead of 10. At the same time Chapters are the grass roots of PASS and are one of the places where new speakers and new presentations get tested and honed, which means that sometimes we may have to settle for lower attendance in order to get a new speaker started. We can’t make decisions solely based on driving attendance –it’s not a business. We can’t even always make decisions based on quality, we may simply have to hope that our new speaker does ok.

How do chapters find speakers? Sometimes the speaker finds them (hey, I’m town next month), but more often the chapter leader is working their network hoping someone will hear the request and accept. The bigger and better your network the easier it is, but it’s never easy.

Can we change the game? What if you looked at the list of all the session from the Summit? Or even all the sessions from every SQLSaturday in the past 12 months. What topics do you want to deliver to your members? Do you know? Have you asked? Which topics resonated in the past year? What sessions were popular at your local SQLSaturday? What big names haven’t been to your group? What speakers scored really well at your SQLSaturday? Now imagine taking that list and launching personal invitations. Dear Larry (or Moe), we’re writing to invite you to speak to our group next year on topic X. We’re back to marketing, because we’re decided to stop selling whatever comes along and start trying to get what we think our members want most and selling that. Same good or bad marketing process, just a deliberately selected product.

Just because we email someone doesn’t mean they’ll fly in to speak. Some will though, because people like to be asked. Even if they can only do the virtual presentation, you’ve got one that is better aligned with your local members and more likely (in theory!) to draw more attendees.

Let me add a couple more thoughts related to this. One is that we’ve standardized on 60 minute presentations and I think that’s been a mistake at chapter meetings. I think the reward for time equation is just a tough one for many people. Why not move to 90 minutes and invite deeper presentations? Or even a full 2 hours in part one/part two format? The other item that I haven’t thought enough about yet is finding and growing local speakers. Nationally/globally the speaker pool has grown a lot, but locally, here in Orlando, we haven’t been very successful. We’ve tried in various ways, but none that seem to work consistently (or at all!). If we could figure that out, that might really make a difference in how our groups work.

I know that’s not a formula, but I can see the beginnings of one. It makes me wish all the more for PASS to field the speaker bureau because then we could easily search by topic, read eval results, and easily contact people we won’t know. That wouldn’t make finding speakers easy, just easier.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Speakers and Topics for PASS Chapters

  1. Well sorry to disagree with you boss, but when it comes to growing local speakers, I think Orlando has done a great job with that. Granted some of the noobs are still needing work, but a lot of great talent has come from this area and because of the opportunities and feedback they’ve received at the user group level in their “youth” when first out the gate.

    Also, OPASS typically does provide up to two hours for speakers. I think MagicPASS does too. Just so any speakers reading this know that there is extended times available if they are coming this way and are interested in presenting for one of the two chapters. 😉


    1. Karla, lets find time to go through the list, maybe I’m not “claiming” as many as I should be for Orlando!

      On the two hour part, I think we have to ask. I don’t know that most speakers will even think about it.


Comments are closed.