First time speaker at PASS Summit: How I prepared

PASS Summit 2014 was the first time I was selected to speak at a truly major tech conference. While I have spoken at over 30 conferences over the past two years, some of them with several hundreds of participants, this one is different; PASS Summit had 5,900 registrations. My session had 233 attendees, and the room felt pretty packed with a few people standing in the back and sitting on the floor.

PASS Summit 2014 talk

The talk selected was called Integration Services (SSIS) for the DBA, which was a talk I had already delivered at SQLBits XII earlier the year. While my speaker evaluation from SQLBits was very good, I was not quite happy with the talk I already had. Therefore, I decided to restructure it.

And it paid off. Big time.

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

AWSOME presentation

The session was very well balanced. 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

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

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

Another structure is the three-act structure, which is mostly seen in writing, screenwriting, and storytelling.

I used the structure I had learned at university, 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?

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

I also planned a five-ish 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 talk, and not a deep dive into the topic from a developer point of view), and the three things above that they would learn.

Before I started working on the slides or demos, I wrote down a detailed plan for everything in Evernote. I find that I am much faster in creating slides and demos, when I know exactly what it is I need to do. Also, writing these 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 some people can pull it off, like Kimberly Tripp (twitter | blog) and Paul Randal (twitter | blog), but most people can’t; myself included. I do it for my pre-con material, because it is a whole day training, and it is nice for the audience to be able 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 really would like to be better in creating beautiful slide decks.

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

I used PowerPoint, although it is not my favorite slide deck tool. I have done things on my Mac in Keynote and Deckset as well, which is a lot easier. However, I work in a Windows world where PowerPoint is the de-facto standard, so I have come to learn to live with it.

When using PowerPoint, I do the following:

  • Disable the presenter view. When using this the laptop goes from mirroring the screen to extending it. When I go out of the presentation to do a demo, the laptop goes back to mirroring the screen. The problem with this is that the projector will need to readjust. Best case, this gives a couple of seconds of black screen and a bit of a flickering screen 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, piece of paper) instead.
  • Disable the Slide Show Popup Toolbar. I know others who like to draw on their slides, and probably should keep this. I don’t, and don’t want it to show up if I accidently hit my mouse.
  • Disable the mouse cursor during the presentation. I don’t need it, and it is an annoyance if I accidently hits my mouse or trackpad.

Demos

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

The demos should be complex enough to prove your point, but simple enough for the audience to follow. I prefer to make simpler demos, rather than big complex demos. Less things can go wrong.

In my first demo, I started designing a package from scratch. While Buck Woody (blog) says “never type in demos”, I like how others do type in demos; it brings a bit more life 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 see me drag-and-drop for 15 minutes. It worked very well, and much better than if I had only used the finished package to demonstrate how SSIS works.

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

Other things I did was:

  • Have a reset strategy. Although it was not one-click, I could reset my demo in about 30 seconds.
  • 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. I typically go with size 16, but the resolution was higher than I had been told, 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. I have also enable lined numbers, and show query result in a new tab.
  • I used to use ZoomIt, but it had some things that bothered me. It did not feel smooth when being used. Instead I switched to using Windows 8.1’s build-in magnifier, which can do multi-level zoom while still demoing, and seems more smooth than Zoomit. However, it does some funny things when being used inside VMware Workstation, as the mouse cursor sometimes shows up double (one inside the VM, and one at the host system) when it hovers over the VMware title bar.
  • I considered using bigger fonts in Visual Studio as well, but settled for using the magnifier. I think that worked better.

Be Utterly Prepared (No excuses)

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

I try to be prepared for every talk to do, but this time I took it to another level. I have probably put in at least 80 hours into this one hour and 15 minutes talk; not including the time spent on the first version for SQLBits.

And again, it paid off. Everything ran very smooth. Here are some of the comments in the speaker evaluation:

Outstanding!

Presenter was very knowledgeable about the subject. He kept the smooth pace throughout the session and kept it interesting.

The session was awesome. Very interactive. He kept audience awake and engaged in the presentation. He was relaxed but at the same time very focused. He presented enormous amount of information but in a very easy to follow and understand way.

The audience were kept well engaged- excellent use of humour 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 god 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 time allotted. Pace was right on. Nice job!

Awesome sample data. We love the disarming, personal touch.

The speaker was very knowledgeable on 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 some of the things I did to be utterly prepared:

  • I wrote down detailed speaker notes in Evernote. Not every sentence I wanted to say, but keywords and sentences in a bullet point format. This way I knew what to say when. And then I had the speaker notes on my iPad on stage. Nobody seemed to notice it, as I simply glanced on it from time to time, and it helped me not forget anything. It was the first time I did this, but definitely not the last time. It really helped me to remember some of the details.
  • Backup speaker notes. Yes, even with my speaker notes on my iPad, I had a few details I kept forgetting when doing my trial talks. 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 some more. Until I knew my talk inside out. I always do a few practice runs before a talk, but this time I did it significant more times than usual. And it paid off. I am not very good at winging it, mostly because I believe that structure is so fundamental to a good talk; and to be honest, I would feel a bit like a 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 mostly, but still something that annoyed me. Trying them out over and over and over again helped me getting rid of those glitches, and made everything run very smooth.
  • I ran my demos inside VMware Workstation. One of the benefits of using a VM is that it is easier to move the demos to a backup computer. However, I really want to fix the issues mentioned above I had with the magnifier (ZoomIt was even worse).
  • I brought not one, but two backup laptops. Both with identical setup (slides and VM for demos) as the primary laptop. And am I happy I did! Because both of them failed. Luckily my primary laptop worked just fine.
  • I am getting really good at time management. I made sure that I had a few extra demos, if I was having too much time, but also made sure that they were not demos that were essential to the talk. I ended up using one extra demo, and cutting three others. I used to have my iPad standing showing a watch, but one of the best thing I’ve bought was a Logitech Professional Presenter R800, which has a build in LCD display that shows the remaining time.
  • I decided that I didn’t want to end my talk with taking questions. This was a tip I learned from Scott Hanselman, as it is better to end the talk on a high. Instead I took questions throughout the session. I was so happy for this decision; because what happened for most other presenters I saw taking questions in the end was that the audience started walking out during the questions. Not a few of them, 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 to do a tech check. While PASS Summit did have a projector in the speaker ready room, I went during the lunch break to the actual room I had to present in, and did a tech check. There were trouble with the projector, as the resolution was not the one we were told (which unfortunately showed in a number of other talks, where the screen resolution was screwed, and some of the screen was cut off). I got a technician to take a look at it, and got it fixed within 5 minutes or so. Don’t wait doing a tech check until right before the talk. Never. Things go wrong all the time (I have learned this the hard way).

I have now a pretty big bag with different cables, converters, USB sticks, batteries, extra mouse and extra presenter. I didn’t need any of it, but in the past I have used all of it at one time or another.

While doing my tech check, I went several times to the back of the room, and made sure everything was working the way it was supposed to.

  • Does the resolution look 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 automatically.
  • Is something cut off on the projector? This happens more often than not that the bottom or one of the sides of the screen is cut off, and also happened here. After changing the resolution and pressing the auto adjust on the projector, this was fixed.
  • Was the font on the slides big enough? It was.
  • Did the colours look good? Are they readable? Are the photos and other graphical elements sharp and easy to see? Check, check, check.
  • Was the font in the demos big enough? It wasn’t, so I bumped it up.
  • Did the magnifier work as it was supposed to? Yap.
  • Was the Logitech presenter and mouse working and fully charged? Yes.
  • Was the laptop fully charged and plugged in (and actually charging). Always check if it is actually 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 usually being a bit silly or telling a funny story. This time I didn’t. Next year, I will, as I think it works pretty well.

I followed the prepared script pretty close, but still allowed time for questions throughout the talk and going a bit off-script here and there. Not much, but a couple of the jokes were not scripted (some were though).

Most importantly, I had a lot of fun. The first couple of 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) on stage? But after that, I am having a blast. One of the best comments I had was that I really take my personality with me onto the stage. I try to do that, as I want to show people that I am having fun doing this.

To sum up, I simply 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 that I recommend anyone serious about public speaking at tech conferences. They helped me a lot.

First time speaker at PASS Summit: How I prepared

13 thoughts on “First time speaker at PASS Summit: 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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