An inch deep and a mile wide

Last week I was at the SharePoint Conference in the US where me, Seb Matthews and a few others were having a conversation about the Speakers at the Conference and Speakers in general, there were quite a few negative comments going around about some of the speakers and this got me quite annoyed given that I know what it takes to prepare for sessions as well as the guts it takes to stand in front of 2000 people and tell your story or give your experience.

There are two sides to the story here and it is worth us laying that out, it would be great to know how you feel about this and I welcome comments from both the people that were at the conference and those that were not luckily enough to be there.

Seb introduced me to the saying of “An inch deep and a mile wide or a mile deep and an inch wide”he explained that the former is like an Architect/Solutions Consultants they know a reasonable amount across the platform piece where as the latter talks about a Consultants/Specialists/SME’s they know a significant amount about specific subjects.

Seb expected that the conference speakers would be of the Technical Specialist category and therefore shouldn’t have problems speaking or lending on their experiences where necessary, I didn’t necessarily agree at the time but in hind sight I tend to agree that at a Conference of this magnitude and at a very large financial cost, the guys and gals presenting should know their stuff.

My side of the story which I know maybe doesn’t apply to this conference, is that I came from presenting on topics that I wasn’t an expert in and in fact it was more of a “tales from the trenches” story, however, as time has passed I have become more and more competent in this area but even now I would not consider myself an expert by any means (maybe it’s because I don’t like the term expert that I get hung up on what that actually means).

I suggested that maybe some people were not experts but in fact they were telling a story or informing people of their experience which in some cases is just as valuable as those that are experts. This goes hand in hand with the fact that some of these guys are not used to presenting in front of 2,000 people, some of the more seasoned presenters did let me know that it was quite a daunting prospect but they managed to power through it.

Finally, I understand Sebs view and this has certainly been cemented by various other attendees and indeed speakers at the Conference, I appreciate that the User Group format and SharePoint Saturdays are a little more forgiving on both the presenters experience and content and of course I accept that at the Microsoft Worldwide SharePoint Conference speakers should have a certain level of expertise.

Comments on this are welcomed and I know this has been a hot topic following the conference.

What are your thoughts? Is there such a thing as an expert? What level of expertise should you have at User Group / SharePoint Saturday or Professional Conference level?


Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
I am owner of Flucidity Ltd an Office 365 & SharePoint Consultancy based in the UK.
We develop intranets, provide training, custom branding and develop SharePoint solutions for companies of varying sizes from 2 users to 20,000.
I setup SharePoint 365 as I saw that there was a need for introductory blog posts and knew there were some fantastic authors out there who might not have time to run their own blogs and keep them updated regularly.
8 replies
  1. Josh Sewell
    Josh Sewell says:

    While I agree with pretty much everything you said, there are two issues.

    Firstly, the way that the speaking slots are allocated. There is a wide spread view, that getting a speaking slot is a very political process, slanted far too greatly towards MVPs and Microsoft employees. Given this perception, people are always going to be harsh on the presenters.

    Secondly, it is very hard to take seriously business track presentations given by the majority of Microsoft employees, when the outcome is blatantly a thinly veiled attempt at pushing Microsoft’s view of the world and what they are trying to sell this year (Yammer, Apps, Cloud, etc). As an Information Management Consultant by trade, being lectured on IM/governance/strategy etc by a software expert is bordering on insulting.

    Thanks for the post mate, good reading.

  2. Rosemary Causbrook
    Rosemary Causbrook says:

    I was at the conference and found most of the speakers to be be very good. A few, Bill Baer, Spencer Harber, Scott Jamison are both very knowledgeable and excellent presenters. The only time I had a problem with a speaker was when some of them had heavy accents speaking English as their second language. I’m sure they tried hard to get their message across but if you cannot understand their “English”, then the value of the content, what they give beyond the PowerPoints, is lost.

    Overall, I thought the quality of the speakers at this conference was very high. Then again, I am not an “expert” in any one phase of SharePoint so maybe those who are felt some of the speakers were lacking. But speaking as one who is “much more than an inch but not near a mile deep”, I was satisfied with my session presenters and got a lot out of them.

  3. Alistair Pugin
    Alistair Pugin says:

    If you are presenting on the technical aspects of a feature in a product, you better know what you are talking about. At the same time, if you are presenting on the functional components of said technology being applied to a solution, it should be viewed as interpretive.

    Here’s an example, Document/Image capture solutions – Products performing this would pretty much do the same thing, i.e. OCR, ICR, Form type recognition, etc but the subtle nuances of preparing documents to be scanned is learnt by actually doing it. So, lets say i did a presentation on Kofax Express vs Kofax Server features, would i be required to know that the daily duty cycle of a scanner is usually halved as pre and post prep of the documents affect the amount of pages that can be scanned in a day?

    The same rule applies to trainers, “bootcamping” an MCT so that the person could present the course doesn’t work.

    Things i am critical about (might seem silly) is the abstract of the session. This is key to the audience you will attract. Then you get just the topic and some blurb which doesn’t accurately describe the problem, solution and take-ways of the session. Its a slippery slope, you know what its like when it comes to conferences and speaker submissions.

    If a speaker was presenting on Document Management, i would expect them to have context as to how it is used in the real world and also how it fits into the greater ECM strategy, not just tell me how RMS is configured.

    Anyhow, my 2c.

  4. Thomas Duff
    Thomas Duff says:

    That’s an interesting topic, for sure. I’ve presented at both user group and conference level sessions, and there are different skills for both. User groups (like SharePointSaturday events) give you a chance to get used to being in front of groups and relating your material. If you’re an experienced speaker already, you can try some new material in a “safer” setting. Top level conferences (like Lotusphere in my case) require a more formal approach and (I tend to think) a more “expert” level of knowledge. But even those who know their topic better than anyone else can still struggle to relay that knowledge in a presentation due to the stress and fear of public speaking.

    Like you, I don’t like the word “expert”. To me, that’s always the person who knows more than me (and there are *always* people who know more than me). I prefer to approach a session with “here’s my story, here’s what I know, I’m sharing it with you, and I hope it helps you avoid some of the struggles I had.” If I can meet that standard and people found the material useful, then I feel I did as well as I could.

    Of course, given my style, I would hope they enjoy themselves and laugh a bit over the course of the hour, too. :)

  5. Tamara
    Tamara says:

    I appreciate anyone who is prepared to present a well thought out and organized topic.

    I think the key word here is “prepared”. By prepared I mean, you are comfortable with your topic, you have organized the presentation of your topic into consumable chunks, you have rehearsed your presentation in front of an audience (friends and family count, not sure about pets) and you know you can deliver the material within the allotted time frame without rushing through your presentation.

    This is a LOT to ask from people. It’s easier to know your stuff OR be a good speaker. It is rare to find the combination of both attributes in one person. It’s like those job postings asking for a SharePoint Administrator who can do custom development while gathering requirements for the SharePoint business project they will be heading up.

    I’ve said it often, but it needs repeating. You can only get so far in your field without being able to clearly communicate to groups what you know.

    If you don’t know your stuff, learn it.

    If you are not comfortable speaking in front of an audience, try Toastmasters International, http://www.toastmasters.org/

    If you can’t organize your topic, try looking at the following books; Presenting to Win, Moving Mountains, or Presentation Zen. Try not to kill your audience with slides filled with words in 10pt font.

    Remember, everyone in the audience is hoping you will do well. We are on your side.

    And…Thanks for sharing what you know.

  6. Matthew Hughes
    Matthew Hughes says:

    Hey Everyone, thanks very much for the comments, apologies that it took me so long to realise people had replied.

    Alistair I agree on the abstract details and am absolutely guilty of not giving enough info in my abstracts. I also like Tamara’s comment that you are hoping they do well as I am very much on the speakers side and hope they do well.


    Matthew Hughes


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