Constructive feedback, not destruction and damnation
Wednesday, December 14, 2011 2:14:48 PM
I am not the sort of guy who usually gets involved with Twitter disagreements and suchlike. they are mostly petty and unimportant, and tend to blow over very quickly - storms in teacups, as it were.
But seeing Arran Ross-Paterson's No Show Twitter list, which basically publicly calls out people for being shit conference speakers, make me feel a bit angry and upset (minor problems - I'm a big boy and can look after myself), but more importantly, worried about our industry.
Arran, this upset me a bit because it really upset some of my friends, therefore I felt compelled to join in the discussion and try to guide things towards a more agreeable place.
I'm not about to wave my arms and call you names as it wouldn't be, well, constructive. And I applaud you for your efforts in trying to evolve our industry by organising events, doing good work and trying to raise the bar on (event) quality. Humanity is often guilty of tolerating or even applauding mediocrity (in all walks of life, not just the web industry), often making appraisals based on hearsay and marketing hype rather than first hand experience of real talent, quality or innovation.
BUT ... I feel that there are better, more constructive ways to tackle your event speaker "feedback" than just publicly ridiculing people:
- It doesn't really come across as feedback or a useful list, just abuse. And to be honest, it reflects badly on you.
- It is not a useful tool for conference organisers wishing to avoid bad speakers. They are probably not going to take your recommendations at face value without any kind of constructive criticism or evidence to back up your claims.
- We all have bad conference talks, for various reasons, but often someone can be having a bad day, with a particularly tough crowd. One bad talk doesn't make a bad speaker.
- Very few people are beyond help: everyone can get better, be they n00bs or veterans. But they are less likely to improve if they get bashed down like this, without constructive criticism.
- No one is going to be a great speaker from the word go. This requires a lot of practice and determination. Some of the folks on the list are very new to the scene, so to bash them down at this early stage in their career is particularly counter-productive.
But the most important point, which is what's causing me the aforementioned worry is this: for our industry to evolve, and especially our conference/teaching efforts, we need awesome new technologies, and we need veterans to inspire people. But we also need new blood to get up and start talking: the whole scene gets stale without new ideas and points of view. And we need better web education to spread best practices and drive out old bad habits (tables for layout, etc.) that still persist. This better web education will largely be the result of the new blood going out there and speaking at conferences/meet ups, and writing articles, to help others learn.
The new blood are not going to be great speakers to start with (as I already said above). They may not have a good presenting style, or be so nervous they forget stuff, or make a couple of mistakes. But they will still largely have value with their new opinions and ideas, they will get better in time, and most importantly they will have passion, a hunger to change and improve things, and the balls to get up and do this in the first place!
I know how nerve racking it can be to do public speaking, and I know you do too. For a young newcomer, this can take a huge amount of effort.
If you bash down newcomers at this early stage in the way you have done, they are less likely to improve, and more likely to just not bother talking again. They will contribute to the future direction of the Web we hold so dear, so we need to help them improve before we start throwing bombs in public. I hope the Web community of the future will continue to be built more on sharing and encouragement than negatives.
Some suggestions and advice/insights:
- Change the message of the list to something less damning and more positive, like "Speaker improvement suggestions".
- Add some constructive criticism to say how you think they need to improve.
- Better still, take the list down, and start by sending speakers constructive criticism to help them improve, privately.
- If they consistently ignore your advice, and keep appearing at conferences doing a terrible job, then perhaps consider naming and shaming. But most people who sink this low tend to get weeded out naturally anyhow. I've seen most of the speakers on your list speak more than once, and think most of them don't deserve to be on this list. I think some of them are great speakers, and even the inexperienced ones are definitely improving, and adding value to the community.
- There are some old guard speakers who have been around forever, and are a bit dated. But often their role is to provide a bit of overall context, or inspire the young 'uns, rather than to tech new ideas and tools. I think this still has its place, although conferences that just feature these speakers are a bit dull. Hence the need for new blood as well.
Hope this helps someone, in some way. I think we should all try to think about being more constructive going forwards. Myself included. I'm making it a new year's resolution ;-)
I was impressed with Matt Bee's rather constructive blog post - Stop complaining and make a list.