I am probably the worst content submitter for an event…

I am probably the worst content submitter for an event…

Some blog readers will likely disagree with this, but if your purpose of writing a session title and abstract for a conference is “To get the conference attendees to participate and come to my session”, you are DEAD WRONG!

Very little time is spent in crafting good quality session titles, abstracts and specifying the everlasting and often required “Learning objectives” or “Session takeaways”

Recently in some community events I’ve seen titles submitted that don’t say ANYTHING about the actual session content, or what the presenter will likely will be talking about.

That might not be a problem if you are a prominent blogger, or great presenter, and you have a good name and reputation in the industry for delivering quality sessions.  Shouldn’t you rather be asking though, why people are in your session? Your popularity? The fact that you write stellar blog articles that create some controversy amongst fellow Microsoft Valued Professionals or Microsoft Program Managers (not to mention marketing?)

Very often the speaker’s proposals are not written very well, or they are written with a lot of flash or buzz and typically don’t match or correspond with the presentation. And even though the session titles might be fun and attractive it says very little about the actual content of the session.

Maybe I am just wrong, I am PROBABLY the worst content submitter for an event…

Session titles at Technical Events, what’s the use of it?

The primary purpose of a session title is to get the conference attendee read the title, read into the abstract and session objectives to make sure when he/she attends the session it actually matches the presentation and meets the   “expectations”.

If you put on a level 100 marketing show, with a lot of buzzwords, a lot of “bedazzle”, you will likely get a huge level of attendance based on that flashy session title, and I am pretty sure that a lot of event/conference owners love to have full session.
Question will be however on what the sustainability is or how did the audience truly feel about the session?

Think about it differently, do you seriously believe, that with a well written title, abstract and so on you would not be able to get a packed room? Do you think the title truly made the difference in the quality rating of your session, or the attendance did?
If you deliver good quality sessions at events, you are more than likely to be selected to other events and have a change to submit and get more sessions approved, but a flashy title has NOTHING to do with it.

Writing a session title and abstract in clear, understandable English

English is not my first language (It’s actually my primary language now, but quite frankly I struggle with it at times.
In my early years working and presenting in English it would at times reflect in session evaluations, or even title and abstract submissions.
I remember times when one of the attendees that has the audacity to write down on a session evaluation form that “The presenter had a strong understandable accent”…. 
And that attendee, ... might have been right at the time, no matter how much in denial I was myself, or how popular I was presenting at any potential SQL Server related even in that very same year.

Now for all of you that speak English as the primary language …consider yourself traveling to a country where English is not the primary language and you might get feedback that claims that “The presenter talked too fast” or the “the presenter referred to the Cougs, the Raiders, the Ravens, the Yankees, the Sounders ... I have no idea what that is..” (not to forget “Jerry Seinfelds”, or geographical references to areas in the US where I haven’t even heard about in Europe, unless you’ve seen the movie Fargo).

Nowadays I am probably a worse presenter in Dutch compared to my average presentations in English.
If you have a major problem writing in English, you might want to ask yourself if you should really present at the event, or continue to enhance your skills. You might also consider writing your draft abstract first, and ask one of your English speaking friends to review and read it.
Some of the great subject matter experts that I know would do extremely well at an event in Europe, but I wouldn't want to see them getting shredded presenting for a US based audience.

The importance of a session abstract and title that matches the actual delivery targeted to your primary audience is key to the success of session delivery (not to forget your “\ˌprē-ˌzen-ˈtā-shən” skills).

What industry experts say

American Writers and Artist trainers, teach “the Four U” approach when writing titles to sessions, blogs or email headers.

-          Be USEFUL to the reader

-          Provide the reader with a sense of URGENCY

-          Convey the idea that the session is somehow UNIQUE

-          Do all of the above in an ULTRA-SPECIFIC way

Do you think the following titles are compelling or live up to the content?

SQL Server 2014 – Sharks with Freakin’ Lasers
Doesn’t say much, although I was guilty of presenting a session with that title at PASS Summit 2013. As an attendee however I would expect to see sharks with freakin’lasers, which surprisingly they did thanks to Ari Schorr being dressed up like a shark (with lasers), and myself being professional transformed into Dr. Evil. (my first presentation while not wearing glasses or even contacts).

Moves like Jagger: SQL upgrade
The session abstract told me that at the end of the session I would have the moves like Jagger. How disappointed I was, that very same night I actually tried to have the moves like Jagger at the event party and I made a complete fool out of myself.

An easy step to disappoint your audience:
If you have attendees in your session that purely came to the session because of the great title, and the speaker under-delivers, the attendees will lose their trust in both the speaker and the content owners for the event. Your session title should be authentic and align to the abstract, align to the presentation. Your speaker (or you as a speaker) should live up to every single aspect of what was promised in the title and abstract. If you promise sharks with freakin' lasers ... you better have them or your session is central around the topic.

Some more questionable titles

Playing Russian roulette with your database ( although I wouldn't expect to actually play that with a live audience)

Stripping down performance like a professional dancer (let's be honest, a little controversial with a different range of expectations by the attendees)

Death by monkeys (how will you get the monkeys to the event?)

Or some very short ones:

MERGE (which is actually one of the first things i do when a session rooms get packed, I ask attendees to merge, or in database terms to defragment the session room and make space for others to join).

PERFORMANCE (performance of what?)

So you are telling us what’s wrong…but what’s right?

As mentioned above, some really good titles tell the potential attendee more about what’s being presented in the session, and don’t leave the content owner, or the attendee with disappointment when this session is actually approved for an event.

There’s many good session titles out there, and when I go through content selection as content owner, I typically first look at the session title, read the abstract and then look at the speaker, speaker history.

One of the sessions that came to mind that I though had a great title was the following:

Real World SQL Server Performance Tuning examples

No theory, no lecture, straight to the point. Come to this session if you really want to see some glaring examples of SQL Server Performance Tuning. In this eye-opener session you will learn tricks and techniques that you can immediately take back to your environment and achieve considerable performance improvement. Well, who doesn't like the 'JUST DO IT' attitude?

Now at the first look the session has a lot of potential and might make it to the final session cut, but the abstract certainly needs to be modified due to the “JUST DO IT” reference, which might be a potential trademark infringement.

Other session titles that will certainly attract and audience, but they won't be mislead by the title

SQL Server Index Internals Deep Dive

Have you ever wondered what an index actually looks like and how it performs under the covers? In this talk we’ll discuss Index Internals, and how SQL Server creates, maintains, and uses indexes internally for normal operations. We’ll be discussing topics such as index data structures, query optimization (briefly) and maintaining indexes and statistics.

And if you truly want to make the titles a bit more attractive, think about session title and abstract writing that are still relevant to the topic, and provide something unique, useful, ultra-specific, and have a certain level of urgency to the potential attendee.
But keep in mind, live up to your commitment.

From Zero to SQL Integration Services Super Hero

In this session you will start with the basics of SQL Server Integration Services and perform basic data transformations and SSIS package control flow. By the end of the session you will be a true superhero that understands what it takes to create master/child packages, as well as understand as package execution with variables. You will also learn how to monitor and troubleshoot SSIS components. This session is a should attend session for anyone starting with SSIS.

So what to write in my title / abstract?

  • Write a compelling, strong session title
  • Live up to the session abstract
  • Target your audience
  • Provide clear learning objectives

My session didn’t get selected and I am really ##I_@ @# about that

A couple of years ago I presented at the Microsoft Certified Trainer summit, with a session titled as above. And ….. my session DID get selected. Key goal of the session was to make people understand what content owners like myself are looking at an event.

There are a couple of things to understand:

         The targeted audience for the event

How technical is the event? Is the audience IT Pro/DEV? SQL Server Expert only, or is it a mixed event such as Microsoft TechED.

        Timeliness of the topic

Is it the right moment to talk about the topic, or would it be rather to have a program manager that actually owns the topic present on it)

         Are you the best presenter for the topic or do you know someone else?

There are many subject matter experts out there, are you the best presenter on the topic, or do you have that everlasting competitor that will also submit on the same topic and likely do a better job?  Make sure you apply the U that is called Uniqueness

         Topic relevancy

Please don’t tell me you still use the codename in the session title and abstract after the product or feature has been officially named or released for over 6 months?
Are you really going to submit a session that talks about a feature that is replaced in the current version or likely might be announced soon?

         The technical level of the event, and overall content level.

Understanding which content level would be most appropriate for your session, and submitting a session in the right content level category is critical to session evaluation as well.
Below is a list of the Microsoft content levels used at events and readiness solutions:

Level 100

Introductory and overview material. Assumes little or no expertise with topic and covers topic concepts, functions, features, and benefits.

Level 200

Intermediate material. Assumes 100-level knowledge and provides specific details about the topic.

Level 300

Advanced material. Assumes 200-level knowledge, in-depth understanding of features in a real-world environment, and strong coding skills. Provides a detailed technical overview of a subset of product/technology features, covering architecture, performance, migration, deployment, and development.

Level 400

Expert material. Assumes a deep level of technical knowledge and experience and a detailed, thorough understanding of topic. Provides expert-to-expert interaction and coverage of specialized topics.

 Other factors that count in selection process

At some of the events I run only allow me to have about 25% external presenters, a rule that I have to live with. In that case, I will definitely use the 25% external speakers and find tricks on where I can go above and beyond.

Factors that are considered for paid speakers certainly also relate to the cost of Travel to actually get to an event. International speakers likely have a lesser representation at an event, which might relate to expensive travel costs.

More details about selection criteria

In a future blog post I will spend a bit more time going through session selection process to make you understand on what those criteria are, but primary identifier for a session to be considered as a candidate for an event despite any of the other factors: Session Title and Abstract, with topic relevancy.
Another interesting blog on the subject I found was written by SQL Server MVP Adam Machanic, which actually shines through in session submissions I've seen from him.