What is it like to be a presenter at the News Stars of Data virtual conference

 

Back in early July 2021, I presented at the SQL Server Meetup I co-host with Anthony Fortner. We had a speaker no show a couple of months prior and then for the July meeting a speaker had to cancel about a week before the meeting. I couldn’t let another month go by with no Meetup. So, I created a presentation from nothing, practiced it and gave it live for the first time in about a 7 day time span. It took about 15 hours of work and was my first SQL Server presentation to a public group. I learned a number of things from that experience. Then I gave a revamped version of the presentation to New Stars of Data in late October.

In late September this year I was on LinkedIn and engaged a conversation about presenting on SQL Server.  New Stars Of Data had been advertised recently and if I remember correctly, that came up in the discussion. I mentioned I might apply to be a speaker. Andy Yun chimed in and encouraged me to apply. I thought, “Why not! I’ll apply and see what happens.”

I applied and was accepted. Ben Weissman sent me an acceptance email with some introductory information about the conference and introduced me to Leslie Andrews, who would be my mentor.

I’ll admit that I had only heard the name. That’s it. I didn’t know anything else about Leslie, but I assumed that if she’s a mentor for New Stars of Data, she must be at least well-known. If you look at her Twitter profile and who is following her, etc. you can see that she is indeed well-known. I was excited and interested to work with her, and nervous. I mean, lots of people know her so she’s “SQL famous.” What will she think of me? Will I embarrass myself talking to her because I won’t know what to say? I was anxious for no reason. Leslie is very personable and easy to talk to.

3 Questions I asked my mentor about speaking at New Stars of Data

We set up a video meeting. As I prepped for the meeting with three questions:

  1. How many people are generally in the presentation sessions?
  2. Is there anything I should consider that’s different because of the number of people in the session?
  3. What advice do you have for me?

That first question was to set my expectations. I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by 50, 100, 200 people being in my session. That would have been fantastic, of course! However, I wanted to know what to expect because that would help me manage my emotions the day of the presentation. My theory was that the more people I was speaking to, the more nervous I might be, but if I at least knew that ahead of time, then I wouldn’t be as nervous.  Leslie told me that there might be as many as 50 people in the session.

My second question was “Is there anything I should consider that’s different because of the number of people in the session?” This was just a curiosity question since I had never given a presentation to more than just a handful of people at a SQL Server Meetup. Leslie told me that there was nothing really different to prepare for whether there were 5, 50, or 200 people. That was actually a bit of a relief.

Advice from Leslie Andrews: Round 1

My third question was, “What advice do you have for me?” Leslie gave me 3 main ideas to think about.

  • Write down what you want to say and memorize it

I didn’t end up doing this. the point of this advise was to get me comfortable with the presentation. I did practice the full presentation at least three times in the week or so before New Stars of Data. Additionally, I went over a few spots in the presentation where I was having difficulty with the slides and demos. By the time I presented at New Stars of Data, I had also presented the topic two previous times. I recorded each time I practiced it in it’s entirety so I could listen to it. I did the recordings of my practices because I wanted to hear how I sounded.  Was I too monotone? Did I sound engaged? Were there a lot of filler words? I was asking myself those questions as I watched the recordings.

  • Showing yourself on camera is not required

While not required, I did turn my camera on for the presentation. I had built this presentation about 6 weeks or so prior and had given it twice before to SQL Server Meetups. The second time I presented, I ended up with my camera off. I found that to be unnerving. It made me paranoid that I wasn’t actually talking to anyone. For that reason, I did turn on my camera when I presented for New Stars of Data

I was already familiar with this presentation as I had attended it at the last PASS Summit. I learned a lot about font sizes, colors, and other visibility issues related to presentations.

Advice from Leslie Andrews: Round 2

I provided Leslie with my existing slides and asked her for feedback. I also provided her with a link to the first time I gave the presentation. Here’s what she said.

  • Be sure to update font sizes in SSMS for results and execution plans.
  • Leslie felt that the slides were fairly wordy and commented that slides with a lots of words tempts people to read you slides rather than listen to what you’re saying.
  • She suggested that I add one or more slides to explain the concepts of High Availability and Disaster Recovery. She said I shouldn’t assume that everyone in the session will know what those ideas are about.
  • I needed to add at least three slides. One each for prompting for question at the end, one for thanking New Stars of Data and a duplicate of my contact info slide at the end to show when I was done.

I wasn’t surprised by bullet point #2. Wordiness in my writing has always been something that people point out. I’ve worked on it, but it’s a work in progress. Also, I want my slides to be a resource of sorts after the presentation. Nonetheless, I did tone down the amount of words on my slides.

I hadn’t realized I was making an assumption that people would know what HA and DR were about. Therefore, it was nice to have someone on the outside point that out so I could explain what I meant.

A Mistake I Made with the Slides

I made a bunch of changes to the slides based on the above. Then I had to practice for that second time I was giving this presentation to a live group prior to presenting at New Stars of Data. I made a significant mistake here. I didn’t have enough time to make a bunch of slide changes and practice enough with those changes before the second time I presented to a live group.

As a result, I felt that the second presentation wasn’t nearly as good as the first time I gave it. I just wasn’t comfortable yet with all the changes I had made. I made a few more tweaks to the slides before New Stars of Data, but by about two weeks out, I committed to stop messing with the slides so I could get comfortable with the presentation format.

 

What Happened the Day of New Stars of Data?

The day of New Stars of Data, I was up 90 minutes earlier than usual to use the link to the track I was in to join a panel discussion in progress. My presentation was at 8:45 AM Central time in the U.S. I just wanted to be sure that the link was going to work and catch a bit of that presentation. I also wanted to be sure I was wide awake when it was time for me to  present.

The speaker who was right before me had cancelled so there was a gap in the track. I was concerned that I might lose most of my audience, but I couldn’t control that. I connected early to my session track and Deborah Melkin was there to greet me. Andy Yun was also there. These people are “SQL Famous” , but they set me at ease.  I decided to take questions at the end because I didn’t want to interrupt my flow in the presentation once I had settled in. Deborah said that made complete sense and was happy to handle questions at the end.

The presentation went well overall. I had a few bobbles with my words and one time where my finger hit the scroll button on my mouse, causing my slides to scroll forward several slides. I felt good about the presentation though.

A few days later, Ben sent me  a pdf of my feedback. Everyone had good things to say, and that was encouraging. One person shared the observation that they felt my vocal tone could have been more varied so that I sounded more engaged and excited about my topic. I wasn’t shocked by that. I’m not a particularly animated person when I’m talking. I’m also a new speaker and I’m sure there were some nerves there. However, I also know from listening to my practice sessions that I had improved that part of the presentation already and it would get better as I settled in as a speaker.

 

Next Steps to Take

  1. Consider sharing what you know. If you’ve solved a problem in the I.T. realm, then you have something to share. You don’t have to be an “expert” to help others by sharing what you’ve learned.
  2. If you would like help with anything in this post, or with something else related to SQL Server, reach out to me on Twitter, and I’ll be glad to offer assistance.

 

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