Straight Talk in User Groups

It’s that time of year again and everyone is deciding which conferences to attend. I enjoy speaking at user groups propably more than any other venue. I always make a point afterward to read the feedback to see if there is anything to improve upon. About a year ago I was priviledged to speak at all of the fall EMC Content Management and Archiving groups on the East coast (NE Boston and NYC, Mid-Atlantic in Philly and SE in Atlanta). I had a blast. From that particular series there was one review out of the stack was particularly negative.

I have come to terms with the fact that as lovable as I am  not everyone will like me. Sometimes there is a personality or history issue that is impossible to overcome no matter how hard you try. Despite the positive responses I always dig into the negative becasue when receiving criticism I have learned to be objective first and ask the question “are they right?”The statement that got my attention was one that said I was “too negative on the product line.” The topic in this case was planning for migration. Anybody that has lived through large scale upgrades has emotional scars. It comes with the territory.  First. I will freely admit to the frequent use of hyperbole to keep the crowd interested and awake after lunch. The problem is – I wasn’t nearly as negative as I could have been. Cynicism is a core competency for me and Sarcasm is my muse – Believe me when I say I used restraint.

The question now as I am preparing new material is what do people really want to hear. More important is what do they need to hear? Vendor presentations tend to be  free of anything that could be considered criticism excpet about their competition. I’ve done such presentations before and followed this rule with no problems. The meeting with the negative comment though was a user group and I was invited as a consultant not a vendor. As a professional I understand the difference between marketing and consulting content.  I firmly believe user group meetings should not be pure sales pitches. Frankly, a little blunt discussion is good for everybody.

I have seen many projects fail because people refuse to acknowledge, confront and accommodate the short comings of one product or another.  Bringing things out in the open doesn’t necessarily damage the product’s reputation. I think it is far more dangerous to pretend issues don’t exist and fail.  The alternative to this failure is to accept the challenges, opportunities or whatever euphemisms you would like to put on it and plan for and around them. This means being honest and mature. We are talking about software here – not your children.

User groups – regardless of the package being discussed – should be a forum for the the exchange of experiences to improve everyone’s performance.  Those of us who plan these things do the community a disservice when we only push product and avoid discussing pitfalls. I am not advocating vendor bashing. It is an easy thing to engender yourself to a crowd through criticism. Some presenters succumb to this temptation and criticize while never offering substantive information to help make the product successful in spite of the challenges.  This hurts everybody.

At user groups meetings this year follow Clint Eastwood’s lead. Talk openly about the good, the bad and the ugly. But be disciplined and balance the message with practical solutions that don’t include the phrase “in the next release.”  We all will have better results if we take the short comings that all products have head on.

2 thoughts on “Straight Talk in User Groups

  1. I can see how anti-negativity comments might come from business users who are tasked with championing the product. Trying to get other people in the business to effectively use these products is a chore, and the out of the box interfaces that are used in this “no customization, minimal configuration” world doesn’t do anyone any favors. If you’re looking for help from experts and you’re being confronted with negativity then that can be quite frustrating.

  2. Thanks Matt,
    Agreed and that’s a good point. It comes down to how it is presented. Unfortunately some people can’t take a joke and even the most obvious attempt to lighten the mood can be used as ammunition later.

    It has been my experience though that most of the time those folks had their mind up before walking in the door and you aren’t changing them with rose colored lenses. What you hope to do is convey the idea that even with the frustration there is a way to solve it and a positive outcome was the result.

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