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September, 2011:

Performing your presentation

If I asked you when was the last time you went to an awesome rock show or movie, I’m betting that not only do you remember the day, but probably also remember how excited you got. Maybe it was Rush, getting you to move to the beat and sing along with the lyrics, or Captain America, cheering while he took on the Red Skull. I’m sure we all can think back to some artist that got us excited about their art because they put their heart and soul into their performance. Now what if I told you that giving a presentation isn’t really that much different?

For those unaware, I am a musician as well as a database administrator. I studied Bass Trombone performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder and have played in several jazz bands, orchestras, and chamber groups over the years. Sometimes it was a large gathering, other times we probably could have taken the audience in a fight. Every one of these was great, though, because of the rush I got playing music for people and sharing with them some of what I felt when I got to play.

Recently I’ve started doing SQL presentations, trying to build that professional development thing. I’ve enjoyed it and had a reasonable amount of success(well, no one’s thrown rotten fruit at me yet), but it struck me how similar giving a presentation is to a musical performance. I’ve found that just live I’ve tried to share the excitement I feel about music with an people who come to listen to me, when I give a presentation I’ve got the chance to share with people something that I found within SQL Server that’s cool and fun (in a geeky sort of way).

If you look at presentations you have given, I’m sure you can think of the parallels of preparation and practice, both of which take so much of a musicians time. The time spent building slide decks, researching minutiae, and talking in front of a mirror with a stop watch are so very much like a musician studying a score, practicing etudes, and doing breathing exercises. Most of an artist’s life is spent getting ready for that performance. It’s often lost in the mix is done on stage that really brings a song or a show to life.

I want you to think about that last great rock show or movie you went to. You know, the one that had you dancing in the crowd, cheering the hero, or singing along with the band. Musicians find ways to reach out and involve the crowd, so that their audience doesn’t just feel like they’re listening to a show, but that they’re actually a part of it. This is where the magic is, and if you can capture that in your presentation, your success will soar.

“But Mike!” you say, “We’re just talking about the dull stuff. No one’s going to bob their head to query plans, right?” Untrue. After all, the reason we work in this industry, that we participate in the community, and that we present to groups because it’s fun and gets us excited. The folks coming out to these events share that excitement, we just need to tap into that as presenters. It’s this magic quality that I’ve been working on in my own presentation style, so I canengage my audience and break down the wall between me and the people sitting in the room. It’s not easy and I know that there’s a lot that I can still learn here, but these are some of the things I’m trying to do:

  • Lighten the mood. Sure, we’re seeing a lot of dry stuff with databases, but find ways to make it fun. It could be humor or handing out candy for good questions, but try to loosen people up.
  • Get the dialog going. We always expect the audience to ask questions, so it’s uncomfortable when they look at you stone-faced. Typically, people aren’t asking questions because they’re afraid to be the first one. Get past that by asking the audience questions. Once your group realizes that this is a two way conversation, questions will start flowing.
  • Don’t be afraid. After all, people have come to the presentation to hear you. And they’ve come to hear you because they are interested in your topic and you do know what you’re talking about. If you have that confidence, it will project through and engage your audience.

Presenting really is another performing art, and I think if you approach it like an artistic performance, not only will your abilities as a presenter grow, but it will be more fun to boot. It’s hard for me to really put in to words the rush I’ve felt after a great performance, like when I played the Pines of Rome or Count Bubba, but it’s a feeling that can’t be beat. That’s what’s great about presenting, is I have gotten the same rush getting up on stage in front of PASS user’s group. So while most of us can’t shred like Satriani or sing like Tori, we all have the ability to share our passion for SQL Server with people who are just as fired up to learn about it. Revel in that, it’s a feeling to few people get to have.

SQL Saturday #94 Wrapup

So take one part road trip, one part awesome community event, one part hanging out with friends old and new, blend thoroughly, and you get my weekend at SQL Saturday #94 – Salt Lake City. It never ceases to amaze me how much fun the SQL community is, but I love it and can’t wait to get more.

As stated previously, I was asked to do my security presentation, which was nice because after four times presenting the session is very comfortable. (I’m going to need to stop submitting it, though, so I can present on other topics.) The session went smoothly and I finished 5 minutes early, but there was good engagement from the audience, with plenty of questions and folks who stayed after to talk more about the topic.

The event itself was run in conjunction with a code camp event and, while that got the bulk of attendees, I felt like we had a nice sized audience for the SQL sessions. Things seemed to run pretty smoothly and (I don’t think) we had any major crises going on. Attendees floated between both floors, so it was nice to get a good cross section. Also, the code camp brought in a lot of open source and non-Windows people, which added to the variety. We even had a session about MySQL! (which I unfortunately had to miss because it was up against my own session)

Besides attending my own presentation, I sat in on a couple others:

  • Mitch Bottel (b|t) spoke on Policy Based Management and Central Management Server, a topic I’ve been dancing around lately. It was good to get his take on it and he gave a good enough taste that many of us in the room were excited to take what he had taught us back to our workplaces.
  • Chad Crawford had a fantastic presentation on partitioning. While I’ve got experience with the topic, Chad really gave a good foundation of all the principles of table partitioning and enough practical knowledge to get folks started implementing it.
  • Ben Miller (b) had a solid session on SQLPSX for Powershell. This is a topic I’m really excited about because there are a lot of management possibilities out there for shell scripting. I saw enough of SQLPSX to know that it’s going to make my life a lot easier once I start piecing together my own scripts.

Outside of the presentations, we also had a nice chance to hang out. Randy Knight(w|t) and his wonderful wife were incredibly generous by entertaining a group of us Friday night at his house with conversation, cheesecake, and ice cream cake. T Jay Belt (b|t) was an awesome host, putting 5 of us in Colorado up in his camper. Then, on top of all of this, the both of them took a group of us up in the mountains after the event to wind down with some barbecue, a campfire, and beer on a comfortable Saturday evening. Really, I can’t think these guys enough for what they did for this event.

Thanks to the vendors who supported the event as well. It’s because of these fine folks that we can have these events, so don’t hesitate to chat with them at these events. The tools they offer have definitely helped me out managing my environments and they can save you a lot of time, too. The reason they invest in the community is because their success is determined by our success, so they want to see all of us do well.

Finally, big huge gigantic thanks go out to Pat Wright (b|t) and his crew for putting this all together. Hosting a SQL Saturday is a non-trivial event and really can take it out of you, but the benefits are huge. It’s what I love about being a SQL Server guy, because we have this awesome grass roots effort to share and learn to everyone who is involved in our technology. I came out of this event with half a dozen new friends (technical contacts, sure, but I consider ‘em friends first), additional speaking experience, and some new info about technical topics. If you haven’t had a chance to participate in something like this, take some time and figure out where your local user group meets. Check out the SQL Saturday website and get involved. Once you do, you’ll not only see your career take off, but you’ll have a sh*t-ton of fun doing it.

After all, that’s what’s happening for me!