I recently presented on T-SQL window functions at the PASS Summit in Charlotte. Just getting accepted to speak at Summit is a big deal. There are a limited number of slots for community sessions, and potential speakers submit many more abstracts than are possible to accommodate. Selecting the speakers and sessions is a tough job. How do I know that? I was on the Program Committee for five years, two of those as manager.
Once I was selected back in May, I made sure I had as many opportunities to practice my talk as I could get. I presented the material at SQL Saturdays and user group meetings and for Pragmatic Works Training on the Ts. Along the way, I tweaked the material as I received feedback from my audiences.
Not only is it difficult to be chosen for Summit, there is the whole evaluation aspect. First, people must be interested enough to attend your session. Then, they must be kind enough to fill out the evaluation form. This year, the evaluation process was completely paperless. iPhone and Android users could use an app. Windows Phone users and those without a smartphone could use a web page.
Once all of the session evaluations are compiled, the results are sent to the speakers who then can see where they rank. So, to me, this whole process is brutal. We speakers are at the mercy of those who actually fill out the forms, which is, sadly, a minority of the audience. For the most part, Summit speakers are very experienced and great at what they do, but someone has to be at the top of the list and someone has to fall to the bottom of the list.
Once I knew I was selected and was getting great reviews at the SQL Saturday events, I had a vision. I imagined that my session ranked in the top 25% overall at PASS Summit. I didn’t have any magic formula, except to continue working on my presentation until about a week before the Summit. Once Summit started, I was not going to change anything unless I found some egregious error.
How did it turn out, you may be asking? Well, I did end up in the top 25%, actually a bit better. My presentation room held 140 people and was packed. From a couple of the comments in the evals, some people were tuned away. That tells me that I could have actually used a bigger room!
At least in my opinion, I did pretty well at Summit and thought I could pass along a dozen things I have learned about presenting.
1) Have compelling material. Make sure the topic is relevant and that you know the material extremely well. For example, you probably don’t want to give a session on SQL Server 2000 unless that session covers how to go about upgrading to the latest version of SQL Server.
2) Provide real world examples. Why is the material important and how will it help the audience members do their jobs better next week? Help the audience envision themselves using what they have learned from you.
3) Slides should be minimal. They should have more pictures than words. You will see this suggestion in just about any list of good speaker tips. Bullet points are OK, but DO NOT have paragraphs on the slides. If you really must write paragraphs, add them to the comments, not the slides themselves. You want the slides to help illustrate a point, not something that the audience spends time reading.
4) SQL Geeks love demos. Enough said.
5) Use questions from the audience to help improve the presentation the next time around. You will get questions about the material that you may not have thought about before the session. Be honest and say that you haven’t tried it before and give your best guess. If it something extremely simple, you may want to try it live, but you are headed down a dangerous path. After the session, you can find out for sure and then incorporate that into your presentation or at least be ready the next time.
6) Be yourself when presenting. Let your enthusiasm and personality shine. Don’t get drunk the night before your presentation. Get a good night’s sleep. You want to be at your best when you get your shot to speak at Summit.
7) Relate the material to something in the physical world. I never remember the difference between a metaphor and an analogy, but I am sure to use them both in my talks. Use these techniques to help the audience understand these complex, dry database topics. My favorite is when I give a presentation on indexes; there are so many examples in the real world that can relate to indexes.
8) Be amusing and tell a joke or funny story. Just don’t spend too much time on jokes. One of the worst sessions I ever attended at PASS Summit was at least 60% jokes and very little actual technical information. It is great if the audience laughs a bit, but make sure that you also provide good technical information. IMPORTANT: make sure that your stories are politically correct. I usually tell stories about my own life such as how I love the people-mover walkways at the airport because they make me feel like a super hero or Steve Austin.
9) Get to know the audience before the session starts. Ask questions. This lets them know that you are approachable and human. This will warm up the audience and help them connect to you.
10) Make sure that your laptop, demos and slide deck are ready to go before the session. Often, I will attend the previous session in the room where my session will be held. About 30 minutes before that session is done, I’ll fire up my laptop and get everything warmed up, especially if I am using virtual machines. It is often hectic between sessions and this way you will know that you are ready to go.
11) Don’t do something crazy like reimage your machine the day before the presentation or wait until the last minute to put together your demos. I know that some folks like living on the edge, but it is so much better to be prepared.
12) It’s normal to be nervous before the presentation. You will be fine once you start presenting. I actually think that I do better when I am a bit nervous.
BONUS TIP: Record your presentation before ever giving it live. This will help you make sure that it is organized and you don't get tripped up over any of the points. This is also a good way to make sure that your timing is OK. You may find that you have two hours of material for a 75 minute time slot.