First time speaking at a large tech conference: How I prepared

This is the story of how I prepared for the talk at my first large tech conference and ended up getting a great speaker evaluation.

PASS Summit 2014 was the first time I was speaking at a large tech conference. While I have talked at over 30 conferences over the past two years, some of them with several hundreds of participants, this one was different; PASS Summit had 5,900 registrations. With 233 attendees the room felt packed. A few people were standing in the back and sitting on the floor. 

PASS Summit 2014 talk 

The title of the talk was Integration Services (SSIS) for the DBA. I had already delivered it at SQLBits XII earlier the year. While my speaker evaluation from SQLBits was excellent, I was not happy with the talk I already had. Therefore, I restructured it. 

And it paid off. 

My speaker evaluation score was well above average, and one of the best I have ever got. Some comments in the evaluation were:

AWESOME presentation 
 
The session was very well balanced. A great amount of slides and demos. 
 
Fantastic, well-prepared session, with great demos incl. Game of Thrones demo!! 
 
Explanation of version differences, in particular, was enlightening. Thanks. 
 
Some very useful management techniques learned David was extremely engaging and made the topic fun for everyone in the session.

Structuring the presentation

A good structure is everything. When I wrote my dissertation at the University of Bradford, my supervisor introduced me to the following structure:

  1. What?
  2. How?
  3. So what?

Another structure is the three-act structure, which creative writing, screenwriting, and storytelling use.

I used the structure I had learned during my studies and ended up with this:

  1. What is SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS)?
  2. How do I deploy, configure, and execute SSIS packages?
  3. How do I monitor and troubleshoot SSIS packages?

The last question is not a “so what?”. But I thought it would still fit into that category. At least close enough. 

I also planned a five minutes introduction, where I introduced myself, the topic, who the talk was for (I wanted to make sure that people knew it was a level 200 DBA focused session, and not a deep dive into the topic from a developer point of view), and what they would learn. 

Before I began the work on slides or demos, I wrote a detailed plan in Evernote. I find that I am much faster creating slides and demos this way. Writing things down in plain text makes it easier for me to think about the content and structure than if I was doing it in PowerPoint.

Slides

I am not a big fan of slides with a lot of text. I know people can pull it off, like Kimberly Tripp and Paul Randal, but most people can’t; myself included. I create tech-rich slides for my workshop material, because it is a whole day training, and it is nice for the audience to go back and go through the notes. However, not for short talks. 

Instead, I prefer a big font with just a few words. I am a big fan of Zack Holman’s slide decks and would like to be better at creating beautiful slide decks. 

The slides would follow the structure I had written in Evernote. 

PowerPoint is the de facto slide deck tool in the Windows world where I live. I have created slide decks on my Mac in Keynote and Deckset, which both are great options. When using PowerPoint, I change the default settings:

  • Disable the presenter view. When using presenter view the laptop goes from mirroring the screen to extending it. When I jump out of the presentation to do a demo, the computer goes back to mirroring the screen and the projector will need to readjust. Best case, this gives a few seconds of a black screen and a flickering display for another second or two. Worst case, it messes up the resolution. Don’t use it. Use speaker notes on a separate device (iPad, Surface, a piece of paper) instead.
  • Disable the Slide Show Popup Toolbar. I know others who like to draw on their slides and should keep this. I don’t and don’t want it to show up if I move my mouse.
  • Disable the mouse cursor during the presentation. I don’t need it, and it is an annoyance if I hit my mouse or track pad.

Demos

My demos took place in SQL Server Management Studio and SQL Server Data Tools. I tried to use geekiness and humor in the demos rather than just using a standard demo database. For example, I got hold of a Game of Thrones data set and had Dr. Who quotes in my data flow. It spiced things up and worked well. 

The demos should be sophisticated enough to prove your point, but simple enough for the audience to follow. I prefer to create more straightforward demos. Fewer things can go wrong. 

In my first demo, I began the design of a package from scratch. While Buck Woody (blog) says “never type in demos,” I like the life it brings to it. So, I drag-and-dropped my first demo; but only halfway. Then I brought in a finished package, so the audience did not have to watch me drag-and-drop for 15 minutes. It worked very well and much better than if I had only used the finished package to show how SSIS works. 

The rest of my demos were pre-scripted in T-SQL. 

Other things I did was:

  • Have a reset strategy. I could reset my demo in about 30 seconds in case something went wrong.
  • I had configured SQL Server Management Studio to use a larger font size, displaying the results in a separate tab, include the query in the result set, and added line numbers. Size 16 is what I normally use, but the resolution was higher than they had told me, and it was hard to read from the back of the room. So I bumped it up to 18 when I did my tech check. Other settings I changed: Enable lined numbers and show query results in a new tab.
  • ZoomIt is the preferred tool by many presenters, but it had things that bothered me. It did not feel smooth. Instead, I switched to using Windows 8.1’s built-in magnifier, which can do multi-level zoom while still demoing. 
  • I considered using bigger fonts in Visual Studio as well but settled for using the magnifier. I think it worked better.

Be Utterly Prepared (No excuses)

As Scott Hanselman writes in a blog post about being prepared for absolute chaos at technical presentations: “Be Utterly Prepared (No excuses)“. 

For every talk I give, I prepare. This time I took it to another level. I put in at least 80 hours into this one hour and 15 minutes talk. 

And again, it paid off. Everything ran smooth. Here are comments from the speaker evaluation:

Outstanding! 
 
Presenter was very knowledgeable on the subject. He kept the steady pace throughout the session and kept it interesting. The session was awesome. Very interactive. He kept the audience awake and engaged in the presentation. He was relaxed but at the same time very focused. He presented an enormous amount of information but in a very easy to follow and understand way. 
 
The audience was kept well engaged- excellent use of humor and great slides. Excellent! You really made a connection with your DBA audience! 
 
Great personality. 

He enjoys his work & it shows in his lectures. He had a really good connection with the crowd 
 
Speaker had great energy and was very passionate and knowledgeable about the material. Would have bought whatever had he been a sales guy. Great job. 
 
Very well done presentation; good match of material to the time allotted. The pace was right on. Nice job! 
 
Awesome sample data. We love the disarming, personal touch. The speaker was very knowledgeable of the content and did an excellent job repeating questions and answering them. 
 
David was extremely engaging and made the topic fun for everyone in the session. Loved it!

Here are a few things I did to be utterly prepared:

  • I wrote detailed speaker notes in Evernote. Not every sentence I wanted to say, but keywords and phrases in a bullet point format. And then I had the speaker notes on my iPad on stage. Nobody seemed to notice it, as I glanced on it from time to time, and it helped me not forget anything. 
  • Backup speaker notes. Yes, even with my speaker notes on my iPad, I had a few details I kept forgetting when doing my dry runs. I wrote them down on a few pieces of paper, in large writing, and placed them on the table on stage.
  • I practiced. And then I practiced more. Until I knew my talk inside out. Before the presentation, I always do a few dry runs. But this time I did it significant more times than usual. I am not great at winging it, because I believe structure is so fundamental to a great talk. I would feel like Speaker 47 if I did.
  • My demos worked. But oh my, did I have a lot of demo fails during my trial runs. Minor stuff, but still something that annoyed me. Trying them out repeatedly helped me get rid of those glitches and made everything run very smooth.
  • I ran my demos inside VMware Workstation. One benefit of using a VM is that it is easier to move the demos to a backup computer. 
  • I brought not one, but two backup laptops. Both laptops had an identical setup (slides and VM for demos) as the primary laptop. And am I happy I did! Because both failed. But my primary laptop worked fine.
  • Time management is very important. To ensure I would not run out of time, I created few additional demos. The extra demos were essential to the talk, in case I didn’t have time for them. Having a watch that shows the remaining time is important to control the pace the talk. One of the best things I’ve bought was a Logitech Professional Presenter R800, which has a build in LCD display that shows the remaining time.
  • At the end of my talk I didn’t take any questions. It is better to end the talk on a high. This was a tip I learned from Scott Hanselman. Instead, I took questions throughout the session. I was happy with this decision. When other presenters taking questions at the end of their session, the audience walked out during the Q and A. Not a few people, but the majority. Instead, my talk ended with a link to the slides and demos, a “thank you so much for attending and have a great conference,” and an applaud from the audience.

On the day

One of the most important things I do when I arrive at a conference is a tech check. While PASS Summit had a projector in the speaker ready room, I went during the lunch break to the room I had to present in and did a tech check. There was trouble with the projector. The result was skewed screen resolution or the screen cut off, which showed in many other presentations. I got a technician to look at it and got it fixed within 5 minutes. 

Don’t do the tech check right before the talk. Never. Things go wrong all the time. I have learned this the hard way. To avoid technical failure, I have over time collected a big bag with different cables, converters, USB sticks, batteries, an extra mouse and extra presenter. 

During my tech check, I went to the back of the room several times and made sure everything looked great.

  • Is the resolution correct? Is the image not stretched? I had trouble here and needed to get a technician. The problem was that my laptop couldn’t figure out the correct resolution.
  • Is part of the image cut off on the projector? This happens more often than not and also happened here. After changing the resolution and pressing the auto adjust button on the projector, everything worked.
  • Big enough font on the slides? Looked good.
  • Did the colors look good? Are they readable? Are the photos and other graphical elements sharp and easy to see? Check, check, check.
  • Big enough font in the demos? No, so I bumped it up.
  • Did the magnifier work? Yes.
  • Was the Logitech presenter and mouse working and charged? Yes.
  • Was the laptop charged and plugged in. Always check if it is charging – I have tried to run out of battery mid-talk.

During the talk

I always try to start right on time. I am Danish that way. And end on time. Sometimes I small talk with the audience before the talk, sometimes I don’t. If I do, I am being a little silly or telling a funny story. 

I followed the prepared script close, but still allowed time for questions throughout the talk and going off-script here and there. 

I had a lot of fun. The first few minutes are always the hardest. Will they like it? Is everything working fine, or will the laptop blow up (or just run out of battery)? After that, I am having a blast. One of the best comments I got was that I take my personality with me onto the stage. I try to do that as I want to show people I am having fun doing this. 

To sum up, I try to not waste everybody’s time for an hour and 15 minutes by being prepared.

Further reading:

A few blog posts and online courses I recommend anyone serious about public speaking at tech conferences. They helped me a lot.

First time speaking at a large tech conference: How I prepared

13 thoughts on “First time speaking at a large tech conference: How I prepared

  1. Ernest Libertucci says:

    Great article. I intend to start giving presentations both at my office and my local PASS chapter and I believe your advice will be most helpful!

    Like

  2. Peter Tran says:

    Great advice! This reminds me of one of my favorite Latin phrases: “Amat victoria curam” (Victory loves preparation). I hope to hear you at PASS Summit.

    Like

  3. Wow! I’m very impressed with the complete list of preparation you do. Now I really need to watch your PASS Summit 2014 Session 🙂 Thanks for presenting! It is really awesome to now have you as a colleague!

    See you again soon David!
    Julie

    ps: I really love the “What”, “How” and “So What?” structure! It makes absolute sense after reading it.

    Like

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