Sunday, September 10, 2006

Reputation, professionalism, talent, experience: how do you choose who to work with?

With all the time I spent recently making speaker recommendations I was planning to write a post on searching for speakers. And then I read this post by Tara, and its theme also fit into the thoughts swirling around in my head. Tara talks about reputation, and wonders if online reputation tools can ever really work...can we automate reputation?

The online world makes it so much easier to raise your profile, to become known, to demonstrate your opinions, your expertise, your skills...there's no doubt about that. But what you do in meatspace still matters. It matters more, eventually. And how you behave in any one professional or even personal interaction can trump your particular skills or experience in a heartbeat. You can have years' worth of intelligent blogging under your belt, but if you bail on someone or don't follow through or don't deliver during a real-world interaction or project...that will likely tip that scale for that person, and hopefully it stops there, but there's always the chance they use this little tool we call blogging to widely distribute their displeasure.

Because one bad off-blog interaction will answer Tara's question "Are you for real?" in the negative for most people, no matter how much traffic you have or links you get.

When searching for speakers using online tools, such as the Speaker's Wiki you are taking a bit of a leap of faith. No different, I suppose, then believing someone's traditional CV, taking it at face value.

So what is the equivalent of a job interview or of what you do when you check the references of an impending hire?

A blog can actually go far in validating a person's claims to expertise in given subjects. If someone claims they're qualified to speak on a subject it behooves them, I suppose, to blog on that subject, at least sometimes. The online version of job interviews and reference checking can also include simply Googling a person's name and try to find people talking about that person, preferably about them as a speaker on the subject at hand.

That's my usual process. I try to search to find speakers who seem relevant to the subject matter at hand. I check out their profiles, their 'About' pages, their blogs, their CVs, whatever they provide, all of their self-identified and categorized data. I may ask some of my colleagues if they know them or have seen them. But I also go searching for what other people say about them...just unfiltered web noise.

Which begs this question: how do you measure the credibility of the folks you find talking? After all, who says they're "for real"?

And this is why conference organizers tend to invite speakers you've seen a hundred times before to speak. That's why success breeds success. That's why we tend to look in our personal network and then our network's network for speakers...because emailing someone you don't know, and/or have never seen speak, and/or has no record of many speaking engagements is a risk. And most of us will take the person with whom we have had actual real-world interaction over a pure virtual connection if we have the choice. Why? Because we've all discovered at some point in life that people can surprise you.

Like the very prominent and popular blogger who speaks all the time, and is by all accounts good at it, but who was very flaky in my one actual interaction with them? Yup, my personal experience will trump all. Probably forever. Fair or not.

Or how about a person who seems to garner raves, and with whom I've never interacted, but someone I know and trust has and warns me away? Yup, I will probably give my trusted connection and their real-life experience a lot more weight than the adoring masses.

Here's an example from long ago and another life that I always use.

When I graduated from college I spent two summers doing summer stock theatre in Michigan to earn my stage actors union card. My "day job" at the theatre was to musical direct and play piano for the entertainment that the theatre apprentices put on every night for patrons in the bar after the show. I, along with a couple of others, changed the show up every 4 weeks or so, and we would hold regular auditions. Apprentices would come and audition songs they wanted to be included in the nightly revue for the next 4 weeks. Solos, duets, group numbers, they could put anything together. As the summer wore on it became clear that some apprentices were just less enjoyable to work with. They were prima donnas. Or they were always late to rehearsal. Or they would phone it in some nights and go all out other nights. Or sometimes they were just arrogant, unpleasant jerks. And it was rarely correlated directly to talent level. I would be lying if I didn't admit that sometimes we picked songs that involved more of the people we "liked" for lack of a better word, and less of the people who were hard to work with. And that sometimes that meant, out of an overall talented bunch of people, we weren't always favoring the most talented.

And I would do it the exact same way if I did it again. Life is too short to work with jerks.

So, I'm with Tara...learn what you can about a person from self-selected tools like blogs, CVs, LinkedIn profiles and the like...but let's face it: it'll always take more to know if they're for real.

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