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What I Learned Giving My First Presentation

by Mark Wilkinson · May 20, 2014

SQL Saturday 292: Detroit

Recently I had the privilege of speaking at PASS SQL Saturday #292 in Detroit; I presented a session on the importance of monitoring: What Just Happened?. This was my first time presenting to a room of people I had never met before, it was also the first SQL Saturday I had ever attended, and it was a great experience. There is a real sense of community in the SQL world, and it really shows at events like this.

Grant Fritchey mentioned this in both of his sessions, but it really needs to be repeated: All of the attendees/volunteers (and most of the speakers) at SQL Saturday are not being paid, and are sacrificing their own free time to teach and learn about SQL Server on a Saturday. As Grant put it, this makes those attendees some of the most valuable people in the market. They are people that are willing to give up some of their own time to better themselves and learn something new.

What I Learned/What Worked for Me

My session went better than I could have hoped, I got some great attendee feedback (both positive and constructive) and look forward to speaking at future SQL Saturdays and user group meetings. While preparing for and delivering the presentation, and while listening to other presenters, I learned a lot about what makes for a good session, and what I shouldn’t have wasted my time on.

Be Gracious

Thank EVERYBODY. Without everybody at the event, you wouldn’t be there. Every single person at these events is important. Without the hard work of the volunteers and your fellow speakers, there wouldn’t be an event. Without the time sacrifice of your audience, you wouldn’t have anyone to present to. Don’t just remember this in the back of your mind, actually go and thank these people. Shake their hands and thank them.

Ask Other Speakers What to Expect

Ask around and see who the typical audience is in a “beginner” session. I thought I knew, but after starting my presentation I found out I was wrong. I found out that my definition of “beginner” might be a little closer to intermediate. When I started asking questions I was getting fewer raised hands and head nods than I thought I might, this actually made me more excited to present. It was cool to know that some of the attendees were being exposed to brand new concepts in my session. This was unexpected but in my mind it was a bonus.

Do Your Research

As I said above, you might have the opportunity to expose people to ideas that are brand new to them; make sure you get it right. While it is perfectly fine to answer a question with “I am not sure, I will have to get back to you on that.” it isn’t perfectly fine to guess and possibly give someone bad information.

Check in with Your Audience

Get a pulse on your audience from time to time, reel them back into the presentation. Before I would start covering a new topic I would poll the audience to see how many of them were familiar with it. Not only does this bring the attention of the audience back to you, it can also help you determine how you are going to cover the next topic. For example, many of the attendees in my session had never heard of wait statistics, so it wouldn’t make much sense for me to launch right into a discussion of the sys.dm_os_wait_stats DMV without first explaining a bit about what it means when a query is “waiting”.

Break Things Up

I am always a fan of well-placed humor, and it can do wonders to revitalize the audience. If humor isn’t your thing, try to get some other type of interaction out of the audience. Ask questions about situations they have been in that are similar to those you are presenting, ask them for guesses “What do you think lock wait types tell us?”, or as I mentioned above just ask them if they are familiar with the concept you are covering.

Be Prepared

Get to the venue early. Make sure you have enough time to get everything open and ready. Nobody in the audience wants to watch you fiddle around waiting for SSRS to spool up, or watch you frantically searching your hard drive for that missing demo script. On the same note, make sure you have a backup if your demo doesn’t work. If your demo bombs, at least make sure to have some screen shots to show what the audience would have seen.

Don’t Over Prepare

Preparation is great, do as much research as you need. Just don’t try to write down every last word you plan on saying. If you spend time trying to “remember your line” you will likely just end up with a lot of “uh…” and “um…” moments in your presentation. If you instead just focus on KNOWING the topic, you can focus on the facts and worry less about exactley how to say it. Presenting is just talking, but to a larger group of people than you might be used to.

Be Gracious

No, this isn’t a typo. This is a point that needs to be repeated. THANK EVERYBODY. Thank the attendees when they come in, thank them when they leave, thank them when they ask questions, or when they correct something you just said, thank the volunteers, thank the vendors, thank the local user group president that put it all together… THANK EVERYBODY.

Now Go Present

I highly recommend signing up to present a session at your next SQL Saturday, or User Group meeting. Don’t assume your ideas would be “dumb” or “not technical enough”. Attendees come in at every level of expertise possible, from “this is my first day on the job” to “I have been a production DBA for the past 10 years”. Just find a topic you are passionate about and submit it. If you are passionate about something, and you feel like you could contribute to someone else’s understanding of it, submit a session and see what happens.