Presentation Tips

If you’re familiar with the Adatis blogs, you will have seen we write a lot of technical content. Today I am writing about something a little different – getting in to speaking at technical conferences.

Adatis is a great place to work, one of those reasons is the extent that they support the SQL community. One of our values as a company is “Giving back to the community”, we do this through organising user groups, sponsoring SQL Saturday’s as well as sponsoring SQLBits. But Adatis also support and promote giving back through sharing knowledge by encouraging Adati (The singular noun of Adatis) to start speaking at user groups and conferences.

This blog is all about that, it was intended to be an email sent internally, however I feel it is relevant to anyone looking to get in to speaking.

(SQLBits 2017 #DataDataRevolution)

I talk at user groups and conferences quite a bit, I do it partly because I love it, but mainly to give something back to the community which got me to where I am today. My career really started when I attended my first technical session at the SQL South West user group in Exeter . This was the first technical session I had ever attended. I was quite new to a lot of SQL Server and this session was on performance tuning SSIS by Andy Leonard (it blew my mind). Since then I have grown with the group – it is where I did my very first session and its one of the places I most enjoy presenting.

Since that day I have received a load of great feedback and help from so many speakers – Too many to name, but I am sure you all know who you’re. So I wanted to document a bit of the help and guidance I have been given, with some of my own.

Start small.
It may seem like a good idea to go straight in to trying to speak at a large conference, for some this my work, for others it will be a total disaster – Trust me! My first SQL Saturday was a nightmare (some of you reading this may have attended that session). Laptop issues, demos not working, anti-virus updates. Going straight in to a large conference adds pressure. Start small, look for your local community and branch out from there. I would recommend talking to your local user group leader, if there is no local group, maybe set one up!

My personal recommendation is:

  1. Internal company – get used to speaking
  2. Local user group – Small friendly group. Ask for feedback
  3. Larger user group – More people, still friendly, but harder to gauge the audience.
  4. SQL Saturday local – Get selected to speak locally, this will help you get selected internationally
  5. SQL Saturday abroad -Same as above
  6. Large conference ( SQLBits) – You will need some experience before a conference like bits, same sort of deal as a SQL Saturday, but the pressure is higher.
  7. PASS Summit / other conferences – High pressure.

Be prepared.
Seems obvious, but there are different levels of being prepared. This is what I do to ensure that I am prepared.

  1. Have presented this session numerous times, either to myself, to Adatis, or maybe just to my wife.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Pre-record demos – If something doesn’t work you can always fall back on this.
  4. Run through you presentation the night before
  5. Run through your presentation right before
  6. Have uploaded your slides and demos somewhere before the session (include a link in your slides)
  7. Test the room beforehand – make sure all the AV is working
  8. Run your demos before the session.
  9. Take a few minutes to relax.

Ask others to validate you session abstract.
As a new speaker I had a tendency to write sessions that I was really interested in and neglect that the people who might want to attend the session were not me. Write session abstracts that appeal to an audience, and make sure they know what they are seeing. I always try to appeal to three key areas:

  1. What is the problem – Why am I talking about it. Why should you give me an hour of your time?
  2. Who is my audience – Is this talk for developers, business professionals c-level execs? If your audience is not sure, they won’t attend.
  3. How will you solve the problem and what are the key takeaways?

The trick to being selected to conferences, is to do the above well. How do you make sure you have done it well, ask people you know. Offer to help others validate their abstracts and they will do the same.

Slides are important, but remember you’re batman!
The guys at BodyTalk say this a lot. You’re Batman, your slides are Robin. Don’t get this the wrong way around. You’re leading the session, the slides are supporting what you’re saying. You don’t need slides to do a good job, you need a good session. Try not to confuse your message with unnecessary logos etc. Only show what you need to.

Tell a story
An OK session will deliver the content you wanted to see. A fantastic session will deliver they content you wanted to see and empower you to take the next step. Telling a story is the best way to achieve the latter. Appeal to the emotional side of the audience and take them on a journey. Everyone, even you at some point knew nothing about the subject you’re talking about, so remember weave your narrative to build to your point. That point could be why someone should use Master Data Services, why Extended Events are a good thing etc.

Talk with passion.
Monotone will send your audience to sleep. Use your voice to show emphasis and to control the mood of the room. You’re passionate about your subject, otherwise why would you be talking about it. Take pauses to add emphasis, control the speed and pitch of your voice to add weight.

Book accommodation and travel in advance.
Talking a lot is fantastic, problem is, it that it costs a lot to keep travelling all the time. Inside the UK is not that bad, however trips across Europe every few months, quickly stacks up. I like to book early and use AirBnB where possible to keep the costs down. I frequently share hotel rooms with other speakers I know to reduce costs. Some events will put you up which helps, but these are few and far between.

Check when your session is on
Might seem silly, but look at what time your session is on, and look in advance. If you need to be somewhere and you’re on last, you need to let someone know before the day! Last minute schedule changes will really hurt the attendance of your session.

Don’t drink the night before your session
Being hung-over and trying to talk to a room of people is not fun! Don’t do it. I must remember to listen to my own advice more often!

Get yourself a speaker bag/kit
I have a speaker bag, it contains everything I need to talk pretty much anywhere. In this bag I keep the following:

  1. A stack of business cards. So important
  2. Laser pointer/clicker
  3. An AV converter – VGA/HDMI etc. Conferences will not supply this for you. Best grab one for your kit.
  4. A multi-usb extender & A LAN to USB convertor
  5. Multiple board markers in different colours – That work and are tested!
  6. Wi-Fi extender – Assume the wi-fi is bad wherever you’re talking.
  7. A flash drive with backups of all my sessions, demos with every version of the tools I am using.
  8. More pens than anyone ever needs.
  9. A mouse.
  10. Batteries for all devices
  11. A switch-blade beard comb – To look sharp.

I keep this bag organised, so I know that when I arrive at any venue I have all my gear sorted, tested and working.

Attend other sessions
Attend sessions by people you aspire to be like. See how they act and present. Try to mirror their technique. Read about good technique, more importantly read about bad technique. There are many presentation anti-patterns. Over the last few years I have done most of them, trying to be funny was mine – It just diluted the content.

Talk to your audience
If you can involve the audience. Ask them how they are doing, why there are here. See if they have used the tech you’re talking about. Welcome audience participation. Set a precedence that questions are encouraged.

Ask for feedback
Then learn from it.

Enjoy it!

Speaking in front of rooms of people is nerve-wracking. Learn to enjoy it, slow down – It might seem like you’re taking massive pauses, trust me, you’re not. Give yourself time to think and enjoy it.

If you want support but you don’t know who to ask. I recommend that you talk to speaking mentors. Or give me a shout. I would love to help.