Friday, April 03, 2009

HOWTO: make a vendor presentation that does not suck

Yesterday I was at a conference in Waterloo, Ontario. Not a library conference, weirdly enough, but one about software licensing, development methodology, stuff like that. I don't want to talk about everyone who was presenting at the conference, but I do want to talk about the opening keynote guy and another guy who spoke later, just to compare and contrast and rant a little bit. It'll be fun! For me, anyway.

OK then:

1) Opening keynote guy, from a commercial Linux vendor. We'll call him Guy A.
2) A panel with three people from companies that incorporate open source into their products to some extent, the main person we're concerned with here works for a censorware company whose products run on Linux. He's Guy B.

Now, all the guys speaking are vendors. They make a product. They have an interest in presenting their products in a favourable light, right? This conference though wasn't about hawking products; it was about licensing and open source.

Guy A: has a *badass* presentation style. Doesn't use slides. Uses a whiteboard -- like a real whiteboard -- is very energetic. I am totally going to steal some of his presentation style for my upcoming things. But, but, but, but but -- here's the important thing: he talks about big concepts, talks about various ways of doing things, and only as an aside says things like "Oh, and that's sort of how we did things at my company and it worked out pretty well for us". None of the readings he cited or the people he quoted were people from his shop. The shop is the afterthought, not the purpose, of this guy's speech.

Sorry to italicize the hell out of the above paragraph but I think this is key, if you're a vendor, and especially if you're a library vendor. Nothing pisses me off more than going to a conference and having a vendor get up and make what is essentially a 60 minute sales speech with a couple of nods towards whatever-the-theme-of-the-moment is in an effort to engender the speech with legitimacy. And it double-super-pisses me off when it's a keynote or something high-profile. 60 minute vendor pony shows are not for conferences, unless somehow the conference is supposed to be a big vendor parade float, and if it is please let me know so I can avoid it and tell everyone I know to avoid it too.

Guy B: First off, he's from a censorware company, so he automatically sucks. I don't care if he volunteers weekends at the soup kitchen or rescues feral cats in his spare time, he works for a censorware company. And to make matters worse, when someone in the audience tried to bring up a point, he made the following analogies in a lame attempt to justify his company's existence:

1) If we don't have censorware millions of children around the world will get online and then start making bombs.
2) Censorware isn't evil -- look at libraries. They keep Playboy around but not everyone can see it.

I wish, wish, wish, wish I was making these up. Honestly, I almost went up to him after the presentation to tell him to please stop using libraries in his analogies because it makes us look bad, but sadly I did not. I don't know how many of you were around in the profession in the mid-90s but there was a long running flame war about censorware on Web4Lib, in which one librarian basically showed up and went "Censorware is awesome!" and nearly everyone else said "No it isn't!" and then had a months-long on-again off-again flamewar. This guy's speech brought that back in an unpleasant way. But the really egregious sin here is not the fact that he's in an industry which is basically made of pure evil with a chocolate frosting, but:

1) He talked up his company *relentlessly*, in stark contrast to Guy A who barely mentioned it at all.
2) None of his software was open source, it just happened to run on Linux and oh yeah maybe they used GCC to compile it. No talk about patents or licensing either.

It felt honestly for all the world that he had a generic promo sheet that he used to sell his rancid pile of uselessness and didn't know what the conference was about until he showed up, and maybe not even then.

Still reading? OK, to recap, if you're a vendor and you're speaking at a non-vendor-parade-float-conference -- make sure you know what the conference is ahead of time, don't try to sell us on your product or company, only bring up your product or company if the example is relevant and the situation really, really warrants it and even then keep it brief, please.

Oh, and don't work for censorware companies.
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