Local professional organization chapters suffer from uninspiring speakers . . .

Is Falling Attendance the Result
of Lower-Quality Presentations?

Conrad Weisert, 1 July 2011
©2011, Information Disciplines, Inc.

NOTE: This article may be reproduced and circulated freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.


Computing professionals who live and work in major cities or in university communities value the availability of interesting and informative presentations by local professional organizations. Many of those organizations are local chapters of major professional socities of user groups, including:

Others are, at least initially, independent local groups with common interest in a programming language or some other specific technology.

Enlightened I.T.managers urge their staffs to participate in those organizations and to attend their meetings (usually monthly) in order to expand their knowledge and become aware of recent developments beyond the walls of their own employer. Usually, we assume, a presentation or a panel discussion will be interesting and enlightening, but once in a while a poorly-prepared speaker or a boring topic may make an attendee wish he or she had stayed at home.

"That's all right," we used to advise them. "If you go to ten meetings a year and one or two of them are duds, you're still ahead." Besides, it's a good opportunity to meet fellow professionals and "network" about topics of interest.

That was then but this is now

That advice, regretably, no longer holds. Regular participants report that the ratio is reversed: We're lucky these days to hear one or two good programs during a typical year.

Is that true? And if it is, why? And does it explain shrinking attendance?

Other explanations have been put forth for shrinking attendance:

But after the past few years of sitting through dozens of programs from a half-dozen local organizations and after talking with colleagues in several U.S. cities, I have to believe that the quality of the presentations is a major factor, if not the leading one.

Three categories

When I leave a professional meeting after a disappointing presentation, I can usually describe the presenter in one of these ways:

  1. The Droner:   The speaker knows his or her topic, but has little grasp of how to interest an audience in it. We are led through a tedious sequential exploration of how some tool or technique works, without ever understanding why we'd want to use it and without differentiating the important features from minutiae. (This kind of presentation is, unfortunately, common by students taking university courses; they get an A for their mastery of the topic.)

  2. The Faddist:   The speaker has discovered a dandy "new" approach that renders traditional methodology, which the speaker may never have fully understood, utterly useless. Anyone who isn't with it is a dinosaur.

  3. The Winger:   The speaker must have forgotten the commitment to speak tonight until a few minutes before the meeting, or at least it seems that way. His or her thoughts are disorganized and visual aids don't fit the discussion.

Surprisingly, many audience members will give such presentations a good rating on feedback forms. "He seemed like such a nice chap."

Screening the speakers

The fault lies not only with the speakers but even more with the organization's program chair or program committee. Too many program chairs think their job is over once they've secured a potential speaker's agreement for a specific date. There may be a few superstars in our field whose mere appearance guarantees a great program, but a local organization won't snag one of them more than every couple of years.

A program chair's first duty is to vet the speaker and the speaker's topic. This is quite different from a more formal major international conference, where a spreaker is simply going to read a paper that has been submitted.

For a local meeting we need to engage the prospective speaker. When I was program chair for the ACM Chicago Chapter I would have a face-to-face meeting with any prospective future speaker who lived and worked in the area. We'd have lunch or a drink after work and get to know each other. Although there was never a sense that the prospective speaker was being auditioned I'd get a good feeling for his or her command of the topic and ability to organize ideas in a discussion.

If we were bringing in an out-of-town speaker I'd do as well as possible, in that pre-Internet era, with one or two extended phone conversations.

Preparing the speakers

With a friendly relationship established, the prospective speaker was always willing to share presentation material or at least a detailed outline. For the announcement material we would develop a suitably provocative abstract together.

If the prospective speaker was unacquainted with our organization—these days many of them are—I would:

Finally, in the couple of days just before the scheduled date I would check in with the speaker to confirm the detailed arrangements and to offer help in checking equipment, reproducing handouts, or whatever else might be needed to assure a smooth and interesting program.

Personal note

I can't claim that this approach, which is time consuming, will produce a stimulating program one hundred percent of the time, but I can claim that it will avoid the month-after-month dismal mediocrity to which so many of today's local professional programs have sunk. It may even mean the long-term survival2 of the organization.

When you volunteer to be program chair or a member of the program committee, you're taking on a serious responsibllity. Fortunately, the time you invest is worthwhile, and the relationships you establish with speakers are often valuable.

1—Not to mention avoiding the embarrassment when one month's speaker directly contradicts the previous month's, without comment. This has happened to one Chicago-area organization several times.
2—Sadly, many once-thriving local chapters of ACM and other organizations have simply fizzled out, as a result of falling attendance, shrinking membership, and lack of volunteer officers.

Last modified 1 July 2011

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