PASS Summit 2014 Speaker Idol

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For the first time ever at the PASS Summit, a competition was held to select a speaker for the 2015 Summit. This competition was organized and run by Denny Cherry. You can read all about what he thought of the event right here. I was asked to take part as a judge. I was on the panel for all the preliminaries and then sat in the room for the final. Here’s what I thought of the event.

First off, thank you to the PASS organization for taking a chance. This is a deviation from the way things have been done. Trying new things can be difficult, but the organization stepped right up and supported this addition to the rich pageant that is the Summit. Second, I want to thank Denny for putting it all together. He put a lot of personal time into this event and pulled it off largely without a hitch (there is a minor bit of controversy, I’ll talk to that in a minute).

The speakers…

Wow!

Clearly people brought their “A” game. Every presentation was good. Period. But, some were better than others. The one clear differentiator, the thing that just made the top sessions stand out from the rest was how the presentations were put together. The winners from every day and the final clearly had focused on presenting a five minute session. They had a simple, single, clear idea that they wanted to communicate within the five minute time frame. The people who didn’t win (note, I didn’t say, didn’t do well), took one hour sessions and then tried to boil them down to five minutes. It just didn’t work. It very likely couldn’t have worked (although, I took a five minute session once and turned it into a one hour session). That’s because adding stuff in is easy. Taking stuff away is hard.

I personally learned a few bits of information from the sessions. They were great. But, someone has to win. As of this moment, there is exactly one known presenter at PASS Summit 2015 and that is Pieter Vanhove (b|t) . Flat out, he was amazing. He did things in his first five minutes that I, personally, would never do in a five minute session, and he got away with it. Then, to top it off, instead of coming to the final with his original presentation polished for the judges, he brought in an all new presentation and proceeded to blow everyone away. It was great. All the other presenters, especially in the final four, were fantastic, but Pieter just clearly won.

The weaknesses displayed were somewhat common to what we all do. People didn’t always make good eye contact with the audience. There was some bad time management (see that bit about the 5 minutes vs. hour presentation). A few people were dealing with presentation mice for the first time and just hadn’t practiced enough. Nervousness took over. People wondered aimless around the stage. Actually, I do a lot of these myself, but, when you’re watching good presentations and you need to differentiate between people, you identify the things that need to be improved on, whether you do them or not.

Let’s talk about the judging. What did I learn? I don’t do mean well, at all. Let me rephrase that. I do mean EXTREMELY well. I don’t do mean/funny/I’m not really mean well. I tried to be humorously mean to Reeves Smith, who did a good presentation, and oh, man, I just came off as nasty. It was horrible and I could tell when I was doing it. In fact, I couldn’t sustain it. The next person came up and I utterly broke persona and said I couldn’t do it any more. Luckily, Reeves is a great guy and took it as it was intended (although not as it came across, I really sounded like an ass). I’ve apologized to him personally and let this stand as my public apology for that. I won’t attempt mean/funny again. I’ll still be mean as required, but lesson learned. Sorry Reeves.

The rest of the judging, well, it’s all from people who do a lot of this. Except for my momentary dive into a cesspool, the comments were all constructive and helpful (including mine after Reeves, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa). If you were there, you were in an advanced presentations class. I hope people took notes and will adjust their presenting and presentations based on it. Heck, I changed some of what I did on Friday after hearing all the other judges speak.

Finally, the controversy. OK, it’s pretty small potatoes, but we were supposed to pick a wild card for the final. We didn’t have any specific instructions on how to pick the wild card. So, after the judges talked a little, we picked someone who had not scored as a runner up in the initial rounds. Why? Because many of us had seen him present before and we knew he could do better (he did, there was ALMOST a second controversy). Was that against the rules? Since there were no rules, I’m going out on a limb and saying no. It’s like when a fighter doesn’t get a KO or TKO and leaves the decision to the judges, you can’t whine about the outcome. We made a decision based on the knowledge we had (and don’t think I was playing favorites, my very first Speaker of the Month was in the competition and he didn’t make the finals). I stand by that decision.

I thought the format worked well. I hope it’s part of the program next year. I’m not sure I’ll get to judge again since I’ll be on the PASS Board by then. However, assuming the schedule allows, I’ll sure go and watch some great presentations.

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OK, fine, but what do you think?