Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, conferences have switched to a virtual format. During the pandemic that had only benefits, since the alternative would be no conference at all. Now that some areas of the world are slowly opening up again and the first few organizers tentatively prepare for live conferences, it will be interesting to see whether we’ll return to in-person delivery only, or whether we’ll see a mixture of in-person events, virtual events, and hybrid events going forward.
An interesting side effect of the rise of virtual events is that far more sessions than before are now recorded. Before Covid-19, when all conferences were in-person, only a few conference organizers went the extra mile to set up equipment and staff to record all or some of the sessions delivered at their events. Most events, especially the smaller and budget events, simply didn’t have the resources.
But with virtual delivery, we use platforms that have recording options built in. It takes only a single mouse-click to get the session recorded. Publishing the recording later is a bit more work, but still far easier than it used to be. Given the ease of this option, almost all event organizers now ask speakers for permission to record the event. These recordings are then typically made available through the event website. Usually for free, though some event organizers (typically for paid events) sell access to those recordings.
And I’ll be honest: I have struggled with this question, and sometimes still struggle with it. Should I as a speaker allow events organizers to record and host my content? There are arguments in favour, and arguments against, and even now, one and a half years into this new reality, I still don’t know the best answer.
Repeating sessions or new sessions
My largest doubt, and fear, was and still is that I might become less attractive as a speaker to future conferences when recordings of my sessions become widely and easily available. Will conferences still pick me as a speaker when the sessions I submit are already available on the internet? Will people still attend my sessions?
Writing a good conference session takes a lot of time. I never track how much exactly, but I think that I on average invest at least twenty hours of work, probably a lot more, for each new conference session. When I then deliver that same session multiple times around the world, that investment becomes less on a per-delivery basis, because repeat performances only take one or two hours to review the content and make small changes based on new insights. But what if I deliver it once, it goes to YouTube, and no other event ever picks it again?
I speak at ten to twenty events per year. I create maybe one or two new sessions per year. The rest is repeat performances. I simply do not have the time available to create a new session for each event I speak at. Plus, I would also run out of topic ideas pretty quick!
Reaching the audience
The flip side of the above consideration is: why do I even care for how many conferences I am selected? And that question goes all the way to my motivation for doing this. Why do I invest the time to create conference sessions, why do I want to present them to the audience?
Is it all one large ego trip, an attempt to gain importance by being a recognized and popular conference speaker? Are there commercial reasons, am I trying to raise my hourly rates by becoming and staying a recognized expert in my field? Am I spending hundreds of dollars on flights and hotel rooms just so I can enjoy free food during speaker dinner and perhaps get a free T-shirt to boot? Or is it all just an excuse to meat friends and drink beer in a different country each month? (And in the latter case, why the heck am I still doing it now that it’s all virtual?)
Being totally honest with myself, I had to admit that all of these considerations factor in to some extent. But none of them are my real, my primary motivation. The actual reason I invest and keep investing time and effort into conference sessions is because I want to teach. I know that I know things that you don’t. I know I can explain them to you, and I know that will benefit you. That is my main motivation. Teaching.
Teaching requires an audience. Recording sessions and making them widely available gives me more audience, without more effort from me. True, some of that extra audience might otherwise have attended a delivery of the same session later. But I will also reach people that are never able to get to that content in any other way.
Let’s be very clear: whenever I present a conference session, the content you see and hear is all mine. I created the slide deck. I wrote the demo code. I choose the words that I speak during the delivery. This holds true regardless of whether it’s an in-person event where I am on the stage in front of a room, or a virtual event where I am behind my computer at home, presenting over Zoom, Teams, GotoWebinar, or whatever other platform the organizer picks.
My voice and my on-camera presence are also, as lawyers would put it, my likelihood, to which I also own all rights.
The conference organizers provide a platform for me and other speakers where we can deliver our content to their audience. That does not imply granting them any rights. But allowing them to record and publish the recording does grant them rights: the right to redistribute the content “as is”.
For me personally, my willingness to grant that right depends for a large part on the financial side. Will the content be freely available, or will it be paywalled? If paywalled, then who gets to keep what percentage of the earnings? If an organizer wants to make the recordings available for free, or if they monetize the content but give a fair share of the earnings to the speakers, then I am far more inclined to agree to being recorded. If an organizer expects me to deliver my content for free and then wants to make money out of selling the recording of that content, I am much more inclined to refuse being recorded, or even refuse to speak for that event at all.
Closely related to ownership is control. Who controls what happens with the content? If I allow an organizer to record and publish my session, but during delivery I totally mess up and I end up being unhappy with the delivered content, can I still go back and withdraw my permission to publish the session? If I make a big mistake somewhere and say something that is incorrect, can I get that edited? If new versions of SQL Server, or even patches to existing versions, change the value of things I said, can I force the organizers to remove the content?
And how much work would it be for me to keep track of all recorded content scattered over the internet, so that I know when I should contact an organizer to do get outdated content withdrawn or corrected?
For remote presentations, I really enjoy the green screen style of presenting. (See screenshot to the right to get an idea what I mean). It comes as close as possible to the “in person” style of presenting where the speaker is on stage, in front of a projector screen showing the slides or demo code. It also makes it easy for the viewer to watch my face and expressions at the same time as reading the screen. Whereas alternative methods, with a separate webcam screen next to or above the slides or demo screen, force the viewer to move their eyes between the two areas. Plus the effective available screen size is reduced too.
I use this method whenever possible. But not all presentation platforms support it. Sometimes I have to accept using the more conventional method of sharing a screen and sending a separate webcam image. Sometimes the webcam fails to work at all. And then there are also other things that can go wrong. Video or audio quality might be impacted if there is insufficient bandwidth, on my end or on the end of the organizers. All of those factors can result in recordings going online that do not meet the technical quality standards that I would like my content to meet.
Yet another element of quality that I value is accessibility. Until a few years ago I did a very poor job of this across the board. But after being alerted to this, mostly by trusted friends who did not hesitate to knock me firmly over the head when I needed it, I try to do better.
Now I know that I still don’t cater to the visually impaired. I know I should do better here, but given the highly graphical nature of execution plans in SQL Server and its tools I still struggle in this area.
But I do cater to other groups whenever and wherever I can. Specifically for the hearing impaired, I add captions to each video I create for the SQLServerFast Execution Plan Video Training. And I do that for other videos I record as well. I know that there are tools that use AI to auto-generate captions. I have seen examples of the results. I believe my audience deserves better, so I always invest the time to manually create the captions, or correct the AI-generated version.
For recordings made and hosted by others, I cannot control this. I cannot ensure that there are captions. I cannot verify that the captions that are there are always all correct. I just have to hope for the best.
All of the above considerations made it very hard for me to decide what to do when asked by organizers to consent to being recorded. Should I just allow them to record and publish, to maximize my audience? Should I refuse, to ensure my content remains exclusive and to ensure that I retain full control? And is that even realistic anymore, in a world where most conferences record, and most speakers are fine with it?
Or should I allow the organizers to record my session, but not to publish it? Should I tell them to send me the raw recording, so I can review the quality, add captions, and then host it myself, under my control own control? Should I tell the organizers that instead of hosting my content on their website, the best they can do is to link to the content on my own site?
The latter sounds a bit like the best of both worlds. But it also is in a way the worst of both worlds, because neither the organizers nor my audience nor me get exactly what we like. The organizers would not get a recording on their own site, under their control; they would get a link from me, and recordings from others, for a weird mish mash; and it might be a link to an earlier or later delivery for another conference (with other sponsors mentioned!). My audience would get a recording at the quality level of whatever conference I choose to host, with perhaps interruptions and questions, and perhaps suboptimal quality. And I would get a random collection of recordings, all from different conferences; I would be able to do some quality control but still not completely remove a video that is no longer relevant because then conference organizers would end up with dead links.
And then reality happened. In May of this year, the delivery of one of my presentations was severely impacted by serious technical issues, and I felt that my audience deserved better. So without really thinking it through, I promised, live during the delivery, that I would do the session again in front of my camera and put that on YouTube. And I followed up on that promise.
And that planted the seed for my answer to the question of what to do with conference sessions and recordings. I decided that going forward, I would start to record more conference sessions. I would record them myself. Not during a real live delivery, but in a setting that resembles a live delivery as much as possible.
This means I always can use the green screen method. Because I record locally, there will never be bandwidth issues affecting the quality. If needed I can correct or otherwise edit the video before publishing it. Now I am very restrictive with that. I want these videos to have the same look and feel as live conference delivery. I don’t want them to feel over-produced or over-edited. So I always record them in a single take. I don’t replace sections unless I feel I really messed up (though I might edit in corrections on the screen during editing!). I don’t edit out coughs or uhms. It’s just a single take, as if you’re watching me present live.
But I do make sure that there are captions, and that they are as good as I can make them. That takes me a lot of extra time, but I do believe it’s worth the effort if this makes my content accessible to more people.
And because I host this on my own YouTube channel, I retain full control. I can remove or replace a video if the content is no longer relevant. I will see all comments that are added, and if any are in fact questions I can reply to them.
My YouTube channel
So as of today I am officially launching my YouTube channel: Conference sessions. There are at this time two videos there.
The oldest of the two, Debugging without debugger, is the recording I made in May. This was a rush job, because I wanted to deliver on my promise as fast as I could. I might one day in the future replace video with a new recording. Or make other changes, such as better captions. But for now I prefer to spend my time to create new content.
The newest video, added today, is Execution plans, where do I start. This is one of my most popular conference sessions and one that I think appeals to a large audience. I hope that it will be equally popular on YouTube, and help many people get started on the path to becoming an expert query tuner!
Do keep in mind that these videos are intended to be as close as possible to the conference experience. I do not use a carefully prepared script, I do not edit out mistakes or uhms or coughs, I do make mistakes. If you want perfect quality, then you should not watch these but instead check out the SQLServerFast Execution Plan Video Training resource.
Someone alerted me to a dead link in the last paragraph of this post. Thanks for the heads up, Nigel!
I have now corrected that link.
Great article! We are happy with the developments, this makes it easier to attend conferences abroad!