Getting Over It or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Speaking

Consider this the outtakes from my previous post about speaking at SQL Saturday.

It took a while for me to build up the courage to finally get up in the front of a room at SQL Saturday. As I mentioned in my prior post, I did quite a bit of studying of other peoples’ sessions, read peoples’ studies of other peoples’ sessions (Grant Fritchey’s “Speaker of the Month” series) and talked to a few people at the speakers’ dinner. Here are a few of the key things I learned which put me more at ease.

Everyone gets a little nervous

Feeling a little twinge of nerves is completely normal, even for seasoned speakers. Those feelings are what keep you on your toes. Get “comfortable”, get complacent, and you’ll probably overlook something.

Your audience is there for you

If you’ve only ever spoken previously in a classroom setting or making a pitch at work, SQL Saturday is very different. In those other scenarios, you have a mandated audience. People are there because they have to be there. They don’t really care much about you or what you have to say. At SQL Saturday, your audience is has opted into your session. They’re there because you have something they want. They’re receptive. They’re giving you their time and attention.

It’s OK to unwind after you speak

I don’t mean you should run out of the room as soon as you’ve finished the last slide. People may have questions they want to ask you. But if you need to go to the speaker’s room for a bit to decompress and unwind afterwards, it’s OK.

You’ll never finish the slide deck

I completely redid one slide on Thursday night, and was still fiddling with a few others Saturday morning. Just don’t tell people that you were working on it right up until the last moment; as long as what you say matches up with what’s on the screen, they don’t have to know.

It’s only SQL Saturday

That’s not meant to diminish SQL Saturday at all. But you’re not hosting the Oscars. If something goes wrong, it’s not happening live on TV with 50 million people (including your parents and kids) watching. You aren’t a paid professional speaker – you’re just there to share with people. People will give you some slack if you aren’t perfect.

It’s important to look at the feedback you get (attendees: please fill out those evals!). Reflecting on what went well is just as important as looking for areas of improvement.

What went well

  • I hit all but one of the points I wanted to hit. The one I missed wasn’t critical.
  • I didn’t run short on time. I think I paced myself pretty well, and took a sip of water when I felt I needed to slow myself down.
  • All my demos & equipment worked. My demos depended upon Azure, and RIT (our hosts) made major improvements to their guest network since last year.
  • I picked up a Logitech R400 remote so I wasn’t tethered to the podium for changing slides. I’m a “fidgety” kind of person, so in addition to achieving that goal, it gave my hands something to do without attracting attention
  • I didn’t spontaneously combust

What I need to work on

  • People want demos, not talk and slides. I’m already working on trimming the deck down to give myself more time to show and explain code.
  • I had trouble reading the audience. This is something I have trouble with elsewhere as well. Maybe I need to pick up a book on body language.
  • Most of my attempts at levity fell flat. I knew I was rolling the dice and while I didn’t roll snake eyes, I didn’t roll a 7 or 11 either. I also had one obscure reference which I knew only one person in the building would be likely to pick up on, but he wasn’t in the room. That one didn’t hurt me, but had I been able to find the image I really wanted, it would have worked better.
  • I didn’t move around as much as I wanted or expected to. I thought I was going to make more use of the notes I’d written in PowerPoint but to read them, I would have had to stay too close to the podium. Next time, fewer notes & more moving around.

I’m looking forward to working on that last point. I was disappointed with how few demos I had for my session, and that feeling was backed up by some of the feedback I got. Next time, it’ll be better.

I’m not sure when the next time will be. Unfortunately, the SQL Saturdays that are close enough for me to get to interfere with other obligations on my calendar.

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I Spoke at SQLSat (and I Liked It)

That is the first and last Katy Perry reference you will find on this blog or anywhere else in my life.

Last weekend I spoke at the 4th edition of my “home” SQL Saturday, SQL Saturday #383. This was the end of a path that started four years ago, and the beginning of an exciting new one.

About four years ago, I was introduced to PASS. It didn’t take long for people to start talking to me about public speaking. I went to my first-ever SQL Saturday, and kept thinking to myself “I could never do that.” Then I was given the opportunity to attend PASS Summit 2012 and was hooked on the PASS community – SQL Family. I stepped onto the floor at the convention center and felt comfortable immediately. I think my exact words when I called home that evening were “I’m home. I found my people.” Mid-Summit, in a 10-minute conversation with a chapter leader, I was told “you should speak at one of my user group meetings.”

But I have nothing to talk about. I’m terrified of public speaking. I’ve only ever done it in a classroom, in college or high school and I hated it. It terrified me. And I’m not an expert on anything. Well…maybe. Someday. A long time from now.

Time passed. I got involved with my local PASS chapter, got heavily involved with our annual SQL Saturday events, and got to know (or at least meet) more people in the SQL Server community. And I kept hearing the question “so when are you going to start speaking?”

But I have nothing to talk about. I’m not a speaker. I don’t have the polish that all these people on stage at Summit or in the front of the room at SQL Saturday have. I’m not even a DBA!

In 2014, one of my professional development goals at work was to give at least two presentations. I pretty much didn’t have a choice now, I had to get up in front of a crowd. So I wrote & delivered two sessions:

  • An introduction to PowerShell. Adoption of PowerShell had been slow in my office and I wanted to demonstrate how it could benefit the entire IT department. This wasn’t targeted at any particular job role; I was addressing the whole department.
  • A demo of SQL Sentry Performance Advisor & Event Monitor. We’ve been using this software for a few years now and I’ve spent quite a bit of time getting comfortable with these two portions of it, mostly in the course of figuring out why our systems were running poorly.

I was starting to get a bit more relaxed about talking in front of people. But this was a comfortable environment – I knew everyone in the room. That summer, I attended Mark Vaillancourt’s (b | t) session DANGER! The Art and Science of Presenting at SQL Saturday Albany, looking to fill in some gaps and figure out how to put myself at ease in less familiar territory.

Well, maybe I can put together a beginner-level session.

In February 2015, I attended SQL Saturday Cleveland. One of my goals for the day was to catch beginner-level sessions. I wanted to study the type and depth of the material, as well as how it was presented. Late in the day I had my breakthrough moment. The room was completely packed and the crowd was hanging on the presenter’s every word. I finally had a grasp of how to tailor a topic to a “beginner” audience.

I don’t have to put on a flashy show with 20 different advanced features and techniques. There’s room for the basics because there are always people who are new to this stuff and they want sessions too!

That same month, we needed a a speaker for our chapter meeting and rather than find someone to do a remote presentation, I decided to dust off my PowerShell talk from work, retool it for a DBA crowd, and go for it. It went pretty well, and the next week I took the plunge. I wrote up an abstract and submitted for SQL Saturday.

Pressing this button is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve done. Deep breath…go.

At the chapter meeting, I’d gone over 90 minutes with my slides and demos. At SQL Saturday, I’d only have 60. I had my work cut out for me. I spent April tweaking and tuning my slide deck, honing my demos. I felt like I had a pretty solid setup. The Sunday before SQL Saturday, I sent myself to the basement and started rehearsing my presentation. I went 48 minutes. Without demos or questions from an audience (proving that cats don’t care about PowerShell).

Hard stop at 60 minutes. What can I cut? Where did I waste time? Am I speaking too slowly?

Every night that week I was in the basement, running through my presentation and demos. I got myself to 55 minutes for the whole package.

That’ll have to do. If I get questions mid-session, I’ll just drop a demo or two to make up the time.

I arrived home from the speaker dinner Friday night and did one last run through my deck. I had just redone one of my big slides Thursday night. Friday was a terrible run, but it was getting late. I had 38 minutes on the slides themselves.

Saturday morning, I awoke at 6 and my brain was already in overdrive; on a scale of one to ten, I was at an eleven. I fired up my Azure VMs so they’d be ready well ahead of time and hit the road for RIT. I found my room (I was speaking in the first slot) and got myself set up. I wanted to check and re-check everything. I was not about to let a technical problem take me down.

That settled, I milled around a bit and as 8:15 arrived, I found myself escalating from 11 to 15. People started filtering into the room and I tried to chat with them a bit as I’d read about doing so in Grant Fritchey’s (b | t) most recent Speaker of the Month post. That helped calm me down a bit.

8:30. Showtime. Breathe.

I feel like I fumbled a little bit on my intro (before I even got off my title slide), but by the time I hit my 3rd slide, a calm fell over me. I got out of my head and cruised through the material. It seemed like it was going smoother than any of my rehearsals. I wasn’t relying on my written notes. I got a couple chuckles out of the audience before I reached my demos. As I returned to the keyboard, I glanced at the clock.

What? 9:00? I burned through my slides in 30 minutes and I’d planned for close to 40. Am I speaking that quickly? Did I stumble that much when I practiced?

Fortunately, I’d set up my demos in preparation for such an event. I had a set of “must do” demos, and then a bunch of alternates which I could bring in to fill some time. I got through my demos, answered the lone question I was asked, and wrapped up right on time.

As people filtered out of the room and I started packing up, an enormous weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was done. I survived. And scanning through the feedback, it looked like I did an OK job. Reading through it later, I saw a few notes that meshed with things I was thinking during the session, and I will definitely take into consideration for the next time.

Yes, the next time. I’m doing this again. I’m hooked.

Slides & demos from SQL Saturday Rochester

Slides & demos from my SQL Saturday Rochester presentation “Easing into Scripting with Windows PowerShell” have been posted on the SQL Saturday site.

Thank you to everyone who came out for my session and all of SQL Saturday!

Rochester SQL Server User Group February Meeting – Slides & Demos

On Thursday, February 26th I presented “Easing Into Windows PowerShell” to a packed house at the Rochester SQL Server User Group meeting. Thanks to Matt Slocum (b | t) for being my semi-official photographer.

Me, presenting!
Presenting Easing Into Windows PowerShell at the Rochester SQL Server User Group February 26, 2015

We set a chapter attendance record! I had a lot of fun presenting this (my first time speaking outside my company) and we had some great conversations during and after the meeting.

I’ve posted my slides & demos for your enjoyment.

Rochester PASS Chapter February Meeting – I’m Speaking!

On Thursday, February 26th at 6:00 PM EST I will be speaking at the Rochester PASS chapter meeting. The topic is “Easing Into PowerShell – What’s It All About?“.

You’ve been hearing a lot about Windows PowerShell, but you’re wondering if it’s something you should be looking into. In this introductory session, we’ll talk about what PowerShell is, where it came from, how it works, and what it can do for you. Whether you’re a junior DBA or seasoned veteran, you’ll find something that PowerShell can help you do easier.

If you’re planning to attend, please let us know by RSVPing at Nextplex. Slides will be posted here the following day.