In defense of speaker shirts and speaker dinners.

Disclosures: I am an occasional SQL Saturday Speaker. I’ve spoken as far north as Nova Scotia, as far South as Georgia, and as far West as Pittsburgh. Fatherhood and budget have made me a strictly regional SQL Saturday speaker for now. Despite over decade of experience on the platform, I work for a PHP and Postgres shop at the moment. However, we embrace micro-services an SQL Server for Linux will be GA very shortly. So, I’ll fix that as soon as I can.

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend away from speaker shirts, often for budgetary reasons. Many regular speakers don’t like them. Some don’t even wear them to the event. I’m very proud of my collection. I wear them to poker night and have received the nickname SQuirreL for this behavior. I’ve also heard talk of cutting out the speaker dinner.

I understand sponsorship is hard. I don’t fault an organizer for skipping speaker shirts for budgetary reasons. I don’t fault them for skipping the speaker dinner if they lack sponsors. However, don’t let this become the norm. Please offer lanyards or name badges at a minimum, and please suggest a venue for the speakers to meet the night before for networking, even if its pay our own way.

SQL Saturday is all about networking. However, it attracts a very anti-social crowd. Many of us in IT, but not all, are introverts. Some of us are also socially awkward. It’s much easier for me to get in front of a crowd and talk about something than for me to approach a stranger out of fear of my interaction being unwanted. However, there are two exceptions. The first is a strong social or physical indication that interaction is acceptable I will engage. The second is if the other party initializes interaction.

If I go to a conference there are two types of strangers I will talk to, speakers and booth people. If you wear a speaker shirt I expect you want to talk to me. Conversely, when I wear a speaker shirt I feel not only comfortable but obligated to respond to social contact. I assume it’s initiated because I’m wearing a speaker shirt. It gives me a (small) degree of agency and that agency comes with responsibility. So, giving me a speaker shirts increases my level of networking at the event.

Also consider the speaker dinner. Humans eat socially. If you are at a cocktail party and don’t know anyone, introducing yourself to a stranger is less awkward than sitting alone. It’s the one time a socially passive introvert will go out of their way to meet new people. Some of us need our hands forced. A speaker dinner is the best way to goad introverts into socializing.

Now I do realize we as a community have done a terrible job with providing properly fitting shirts for female speakers. I also know some people of all genders just don’t have a body type that bulk ordered polo shirts flatter or even fit. I also know may speakers have strong feelings in the opposite direction. about speaker shirts. So, requiring speaker shirts is not practical, compassionate, or an argument I’m going to win. I also realize some sponsors whose employees are also speakers have their own shirts for events. That being said, I think a desire to wear a speaker shirt is the norm, and we can provide properly fitting female shirts.

So, as an introvert of questionable fashion taste, I implore SQL Saturday organizers to try to provide a shirt and speaker dinner. Let the speaker opt out if a shirt won’t fit them or they aren’t going to wear one.

I mentioned I was going to write this article on twitter, and it started a lengthy conversation. I know many in the community have strong opinion on this matter that differ significantly from mine. I invite you to share them in the comments below.

  • Eugene M

    Thank you for providing a countering opinion and expanding the conversation.

  • Andrew Notarian

    I was in Seattle for Steve Jones’ passionate speech to return SQL Saturday to the grassroots. I don’t disagree with him. For the speaker dinner he said to still have a dinner but let speakers pay their own way. That way you can be social without incurring the cost. Some SQL Saturdays have turned the speaker dinner into a fun event like go karts or laser tag. To me that’s more on the side of the one-upsmanship that led to speaker dinners becoming so costly. Some organizers think they can attract better speakers by having the “best” event. Bottom line for me: Invite everyone to dinner. Many people will be from out of town and it’s nice to be around familiar faces. Pick up the first drink if you can, let speakers pay if you can’t.

    As far as shirts, this discussion happens every time: The frequent speakers have a million shirts. The new speakers have just a few or none. OK let’s give them a choice between a gift card and a shirt. That seems like a fine idea, but the price points on the embroidery/printing are terrible for small orders. You also need a few weeks of time for that shirt order to happen. I haven’t seen it work so far. PASS suggested a while back to stop ordering event-specific swag. I think the shirts should be generic to the city and ordered well in advance so that the “let the speaker decide” idea doesn’t get lost in the last few hectic weeks before the SQL Sat.

  • Tamera

    Justin, nice job and I agree. We did shirts 2 years and didn’t 2 years, maybe we’ll go back to shirts who knows. Some of my issues are timing.

    But I think speakers need to take some responsibility. I know several (including my friends) who have their profile set to get a shirt and NEVER wear them (they may have updated since then). Now I could take this personally, I spend much time and effort trying to pick out the perfect shirt hoping to please the majority and now it is just tossed. One year I sent out a note asking everyone to double check the shirt sizing because I noticed that a few people were asking for smalls and that didn’t seem physically possible. And one time shirts were picked out, but when several shirts were needed in larger than 3XL (and some Talls), new shirts were going to need to be picked out and raised the cost $700-800. I’ve also dealt with no-show speakers who leave us with shirts, extra gifts aren’t an issue we just give them away. I’ve also had speakers just not bother to pick up their bag and shirt leaving them in the speaker room. We as speakers need to be more responsible, think about if we really need or want this shirt, and update our profiles to reflect choices. It doesn’t hurt to ask an organizer, hey what’s your shirt going to be.

    I also feel that organizers need to add to their long list of things to do for a SQLSat. Send speakers a note and tell them what you are planning on picking out, tell them if they run small or large, tell them sorry they are only unisex or any other detail. Then ask them to confirm getting a shirt and the size. Also letting speakers know helps them pack.

    I am just on the fence with shirts. I do try to give our speakers a nice lanyard with a custom name tag, maybe that is enough to make the stand out in a crowd.

  • way0utwest

    Thanks for the thoughts, Justin, and I do think that shirts are a nice item. I’ve had some great ones, and I keep a few, and certainly I’m an exception having spoken at many events.
    I like the option, though perhaps with the new logo PASS can consider providing or making shirts that are generically SQL Saturday speaker shirts. Then each event could do something like a pin, a patch, or other momento for that event.

    On the dinner, I agree, it’s networking. The first few events had a “happy hour” where speakers paid their way. I like this better since we can easily network. Once we get beyond 8 people, I find we can’t really network and we end up with just having conversations in groups of 4-6, and we’re stuck at a table.

  • Larry Ortega

    I don’t have so many shirts that I don’t treasure my SQL Saturday ones. A big part of the reason I started an event was so I could get a shirt without speaking.