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The importance of listening

A while back when I was still studying music, I went to a master class conducted by a prominent tuba player. We covered a lot of the usual stuff, like breathing exercises, intonation, and specific excerpts and audition pieces. A major portion of the time, though, was spent on another important aspect of musicianship: listening. As a group, we talked about listening to different musicians to how they would phrase melodies or shape dynamics, discussing guys like Sinatra, Rush, Miles Davis, and many others. It was stressed that spending time listening critically to music was just as important as practicing and something we should be spending a couple hours on daily.

I began to think about this vital part of musicianship recently when I was at SQL Saturday 107, talking with other presenters about how we approached our presentations. For many of us, the practice of public speaking isn’t just about sharing with others of the SQL community, but also about improving our own skills. I’ve written before about how presenting is like performing and, while I’ve been practicing and rehearsing my presentations, I’ve also been trying to watch other presenters to learn what techniques others use and what might help me improve my own skills.

There have been a couple speakers that have taught me a lot, simply by watching them use their craft. Probably my biggest influence to date is Grant Fritchey(b|t). I’ve learned a fair amount from watching him, but one of Grant’s greatest strengths is he presents with passion and excitement. When a speaker is energized about a topic, the audience will be engaged and drawn in by that energy. It’s important because the energy becomes cyclical. The more the audience is engaged, the more comfortable the speaker gets, and the better the presentation flows. I’ve also noticed that Grant doesn’t try to force the audience to respond, but allows his own excitement to resonate in the audience.

Another lesson I’ve learned is how to use humor to relax an audience. Wes Brown(b|t) does some fantastic presentations on storage and part of what makes them work is his easy, natural humor. If you’ve ever met Wes, he’s always got a joke ready. This works for presentations because it relaxes the crowd when everyone shares a laugh. It also gets the audience to respond to the presenter, breaking down the wall between the two. This is important, because it helps create and drive that energy between the performer and audience.

A quick follow up on this, I’ve seen a lot of people use “funny pictures” in their presentations to interject this humor. While this works for some folks, I found this doesn’t work for me. In the style that I give presentations, I find that this approach is a little forced and takes away from the story I’m trying to tell. This isn’t to say that it won’t work for you or for other folks, it’s just a case of observing how others do something, evaluating it for my own use, and making a decision based of that analysis.

Some other thoughts on what doesn’t work. I’ve seen demos blow up on folks, presenters who lose focus, session that try and cover too much material, presentations that end to quickly because a speaker lost control of the pacing, etc. While none of these are related specifically to one another, they always remind me of how important it is to practice. The more you go over your presentation material, the better you will be at presenting it to others, and you can recognize the lack of rehearsal through critical observation.

The key with all of this is to become a student of the craft. Many of us have great technical knowledge, the ability to figure out those tough problems like memory pressure, storage bottlenecks, security, application caching….the list goes on and on. Much of this is because we read and study that craft. If we want to similarly immerse ourselves in the study of public speaking, we should watch what others do. This can be done at the PASS Summit, SQL Saturdays, or your local user group. You also can go online and watch any number of presentations at TED or other webinars given by the community. In fact, it could be very helpful to watch non-technical presentations to add perspective. Just as any musician would spend at least part of his day listening critically to music, you should watch videos, webinars, and other demonstrations with a critical eye.

Now I want to note, you’re not looking for errors just for the sake of errors. I had a music teacher who called those folks “calculator kids”, just figuring out everything that went wrong. That’s not what this is about. By watching presentations critically, you want to catalog what you like and what you don’t like, and try and figure out what things in a presenter’s style works for them. The goal is to find those skills and techniques that will make you a better presenter.

Here’s a little exercise: The next time you watch an online video or go see someone talk about a topic (any topic), write down three things you liked. That’s it, simple enough. Try and do that each time you’re in a session. You don’t even have to say these are three things you will do in future presentations, but by just writing them down you’ll start thinking about those tricks and will choose some for yourself. I promise you, just by doing that, your presentations will better and not only will your audiences get more out of them, you will too.


  1. Great post Mike – it reminded me (again) of being at the SQLSkills Immersion Event last week – talk about polished speakers, with just the right mix of humor awhile still preserving authority on their topics.

    If you have never seen Paul and Kimberly speak, grab a chance at a conference or in an online video (or better yet go to the Immersion Events – AMAZING) – not only will you learn the topic presented you will also learn quite a bit about the art of presenting as well.

    1. Mike Fal says:

      Thanks Andy. I very much want to see the SQL Skills team present. Hopefully even by attending an Imersion Event myself. I like how Paul blogs and I want to see how that translates over to presentations.

  2. Jeff Sherard says:

    Nice post! Good advice for anybody. I’ll definitely start noting ‘3 things I liked’ in presentations.

  3. Siva Ramasamy says:

    A very useful blog Mike..I completely agree…I have attended your presentations about Partitioning and Social Networking for SQL DBAs @ Boulder SQL User group..I have always felt that your presentation skills are extraordinary… A very useful tip about writing down the three important things…I am going to practice it…
    I have a question. Is there any better way to retain what we learn everyday..? I solve a problem by spending about 2 hours today…I think that if the same problem occurs in the future I can solve it very easily…If it happens with in a week, I can solve it in 10 minutes..If it happens after 6 months, I need to spend at least 1 hour to figure it out.. any help..?

    1. Mike Fal says:

      That’s kind of off topic, but I find that documentation is the best method for retention. I can’t remember everything I work on, so when I complete a solution or figure out a problem, I write it up as a post-mortem and save it. Whether it’s on my blog, the company’s Sharepoint site/wiki, or even just even a shared folder, I just make sure we can always have something to come back to.

      As DBAs, I know we hate documenting, but it is an absolutely vital piece of what we do so that we don’t lose the work we’ve done.

    2. John Sansom says:

      Sounds like you should consider starting a blog Siva! :-)

      Like Mike rightly points out, documentation must be your first port of call but you can take things even further by blogging about your problem solving experiences. It really helps to increase your retention of a given subject whilst sharing/helping your community peers at the same time.

  4. John Sansom says:

    Mike, another great post packed full of wisdom sir.

    Listening is an incredibly powerful skill and one that is often underutilised, particularly in the workplace it would seem, with folks frequently favouring the art of “running their mouth”. Something even I am guilty of on occasion ;-)

    A big thumbs up for your suggestion to identify three likeable things. A great way to encourage active listening. Choosing to focus on positives leads down a much more powerful development path.

    Good stuff!

  5. Kris Hokanson says:

    Thank you for offering your perspective on presentation style and preparation. Alliteration aside your recommendation to practice as much as possible really helped me iron out several wrinkles before I did my presentation.

    I really enjoy how you relate music and professional development, two passions of mine.

    While I love cracking jokes most of them revolve around sarcasm, something which can easily lead to footinmouth syndrome. Instead I’m hoping to take Grant Fritchey’s approach and let my passion for database development provide the panache that keeps a presentation entertaining.

    Very good post though.

  6. Eric Wisdahl says:

    Great post Mike! This is exactly what I do for most SQL Saturday events or user group / webinars that are probably too low level for me to pick up technical content. We should always be looking for a new way to express concepts or to engage with our peers.

    What this blog post needs is more spicy chicken biscuits.

  7. Jason says:

    “it is an absolutely vital piece of what we do so that we don’t lose the work we’ve done.”

    Siva, I keep a 300 GB portable drive with me all the time. It has also a backup copy at home. I have everything from my career with me.

    Wes’ session has a lot of fun.

  8. Jason says:

    Nowadays, more often there are webcast-virtual presentations where there is no eye-contact with audience. (jokes can be too much) Would anybody make any suggestions?

    man, I missed Grant’s presentation. I read his Redgate eBook 2008.

  9. Jason says:

    Let me tell you a story about interactive presentation (which has not being mentioned here).

    In one of the big event presentation, the presenter was talking about truncate log:

    I said (in the audience): there is a checkpoint option that does truncate log as well.
    Presenter immediately responded: the database has to be in simple recovery mode.
    I said: we used that option in production.

    The atmosphere is tense suddenly. The master was embarrassed. After presentation I approached him. I told him he is right, the option automaticly sets recovery mode to simple on the background.
    He says he does not use that feature often. He wouldn’t even sign my book.

    See what damage I realize I have done participating in the interactive session.
    EXEC sp_dboption ‘db’, ‘trunc. log on chkpt. ‘, ‘TRUE’;
    EXEC sp_dboption ‘db’, ‘trunc. log on chkpt. ‘, ‘FALSE’;
    DBCC SHRINKFILE (db, 2);

    The point of the story is that the interactive audience can do damage, especially if some characters are willing to argue to the end of the world.
    Of course, there are ways to control that. Each case is different.

    1. Mike Fal says:

      Personally, I welcome interacting with an audience, but this is one of the many challenges of that kind of format. This is another case where the skill of critical listening can greatly benefit you, by seeing how other experienced presenters manage these kind of interactions. I’ve watched many folks handle this either well or poorly, and as a result have picked up a couple techniques myself. Regarding your scenario, this is the biggest fear of many presenters. We all handle it differently, but at some point all public speakers have to contend with this case and find ways to manage it.

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