Teaching Tips: Help Your Audience Be Active Learners

Brent Ozar doing his thing

Brent uses handouts to get his audience to optimize queries  as part of his presentation

We teach a lot of courses. In addition to our online training, free webcasts and sessions at major conferences, we also teach mult-day events.

It’s incredibly valuable to keep your audience active. Even when you’re working in a lecture format, you should try to help give your audience moments where it’s natural for them to mentally wake up and shake themselves out of a more passive listening mode.

Don’t worry: this doesn’t require changing much as a speaker. You don’t have to make your audience square dance.

There’s two big benefits to building habits to keep your audience active:

Benefit 1: Active listeners learn more

When the role of a student is limited to passive absorption, it’s easy to get bored and sleepy. The student has to constantly refocus themselves, and that takes effort on their part. By giving students built-in opportunities to be mentally active, you effectively give their brain less work to do.

Benefit 2: Active learners are More Fun to teach

Imagine standing in front of two rooms of people: in one of them, people are slumped over with glazed eyes. In the other, they’re alert, leaning forward slightly, following you with their eyes, and taking notes.

If you’re a very beginning speaker, both rooms may terrify you. That’s OK. But if you’ve got a few sessions under your belt, the room of alert people is probably much easier to work with. You get natural feedback about what they understand and it adds meaning to your experience. It helps you do a better job. You’re less tired at the end and more energized.

That’s why it’s worth it. Here’s how to get it done.

Warm up your audience

Costumes are an option to get audience participation

Be careful wearing costumes, unless you ARE a Jedi Knight (or Doug Lane at a team dinner)

Don’t stand at the front of the room in silence before you get started. Chat with the people who are already there.

It’s OK if this doesn’t come naturally to you. I am very shy and nervous around strangers and small talk is quite difficult for me. You can overcome it! Write down a list of simple questions to ask the audience and even glance at it from time to time so you don’t have to remember:

  • Where are people from?
  • What other sessions have people been to? What was good? (If you’re at a conference)
  • What made them want to attend the session / is there anything they’re looking forward to learning?

Remember to smile. Drawing a smiley face on a post it note somewhere and sticking it on the desk helps, strangely enough. (People won’t even know it’s yours.) Welcome people in as they come into the room casually and let them know you’re glad they’re there. If you’re making eye contact, you’re already helping your audience.

Identify your audience’s job role

One easy question to build into the beginning of your presentation is to ask your audience to identify their job title or job role by raising their hands. Build a simple slide that says, “What’s your job role?” at the top and lists a bunch of options, including “Other”. Ask people to raise their hands when you say their role name out loud. (I usually tell people it’s OK to vote twice if they do more than one thing.)

This is a nearly foolproof method to get most audiences in the United States to interact with you. The question is designed to have no “wrong” answer. It also gives you insight into the background of your audience and their interests.

How many of you would like us to stop stuffing you with desserts?

“How many of you want the email address of the developer who wrote transactional replication?”

It’s possible that in some settings the audience will have a hard time even answering this question. Be ready for that, and understand that it’s not you. This gives you an early tip that you may have an quiet group for cultural or situational reasons, which is very useful for you to know!

Ask questions during your presentation

When you first start speaking, audience participation may be scary. Know that you can get past that: questions and comments from the audience are one of the most fun and rewarding things you can work with as a presenter. They help you work in real-world advice and information and make your presentation relevant.

See this as something to build up to gradually over time. Some easier questions to start with:

  • How many of you have worked with this feature?
  • How many folks have heard of this?
  • I’m about to show a big gotcha where I’m going to do ___. Do any of you think you may know what’s coming?
  • Who thinks they might try this out?

For all of these questions, you need to be comfortable with the fact that nobody may raise their hand. That’s OK! You can say something like, “Great, it sounds like this is going to be new info for most of you.” Take that as useful information. If nobody says they might try it out, ask why in a friendly way.

Here’s a few pitfalls to avoid:

  • If you’ve got a super quiet audience, don’t feel that you have to force the questions or make them interact with you. It’s OK. Go with what feels more natural to you.
  • Avoid the question, “Does this make sense?” I’ve had to train myself out of this one. It’s heard as a rheutorical question by many people and may just fall flat.
  • Also avoid, “Is anyone confused? / Does anyone not follow me?” Unless you’ve got a super-comfortable, confident, close knit group, most confused people will be shy to raise their hands.

I try to be very open about areas that have been very confusing to me in the past, or which may have stumped me for a while. Don’t force yourself to do this, but if you can get comfortable sharing with your audience what has been hard for you, this may help them get over the fear of “being the one to ask the dumb question”.

Give people an activity

I am a huge fan of challenges, quizzes, and interactive activities in our training classes. I’m always trying to think of new ways that I can engage learners to actively think through problems, because I believe that most people learn better when they get to try to solve a problem.

Kendra Polling the Audience

“Who would like to buy a vowel?”

If you’ve got some presenting experience, you can include quizzes and design activities into your sessions. This does involve some risk taking, because you need to have a way to get people comfortable working together. I like to keep group activities short and give people a clear mission, then meet up again right away as a group to dive back into the class learning, but there’s many ways to do this.

Take breaks. No really, take breaks.

As a presenter, you need breaks. So do your attendees. Getting up and moving around on a regular basis helps people focus. Don’t feel like people are better off if you blast them with learning non-stop: they aren’t!

If you’re presenting with a laptop, you can make it easier for your attendees to relax and laugh during the break. We like to put DBA reactions up on the screen in auto refresh mode during breaks.

Alternate Speakers (if you Can)

We often have multiple speakers for our longer training sessions. This is helpful to us as speakers, but it also helps the audience. Changing up between different people with different presentation styles, manners of speaking, and movement helps people learn actively if you can do it.

Humor is an advanced feature

One of the best ways to keep your audience active is to make them laugh. Laughing wakes people up, gets some fresh air to their brain, and gives the audience a sense of togetherness.

But, uh, this ain’t easy. I’ve had to accept that I’m the funniest when I don’t mean to be. If I want to get good laughs out of the audience, I just need to use some of the methods above to help the audience learn actively. If that’s happening and I’m comfortable being my geeky self, I’ll get some great laughs out of them, and we’re all happy.

You can do this!

Whatever stage of presenting you’re at, you can improve your skills at helping your audience learn actively. If you’re just starting out, it’s ok: first just get comfortable being on stage, then start adding these in gradually.

And if you’re sitting in the audience, wondering what it’s like to be on stage, why not take a chance and try it out?

Alaska has a SQL Server User Group!

Alaska is on the PASS map!

Alaska is on the PASS map!

I’m really stoked to share the news: Alaska (my home state) finally has a PASS Chapter of its own! The group just got started last December, and officially welcomed into the PASS organization at the end of January. While they don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account yet, they do have a website and a YouTube channel.

The group meets every month and draws about twenty attendees, according to Chapter Leader Greg Burns. (Greg also runs the local SharePoint user group, which has about eighty members.) The audience is a mix of DBAs and developers, mostly.

Curious. Why would I mention the audience?

Because Greg is running a PASS Chapter for the first time, he could use a lot of help. He’s looking for speakers — remote or in-person — to present at upcoming meetings. If you’re interested in presenting to the group remotely, or just looking for an excuse to visit by far the largest state in the union…[prolonged eye contact with Texas]…just drop Greg a line at AlaskaSQL(at)

But wait, there’s more! If you’re a current or former PASS Chapter leader, you probably have some great tips on how to structure meetings, build membership, advertise your group, line up sponsors, and other things it takes to grow a user group. Rather than flood Greg’s inbox with your collective wisdom, let’s assemble them here in the comments so they’re all in one place. I can think of no better way to welcome Alaska to the SQL Server community than to show them how much we help each other.

51 Questions About Your Conference Session Submission

Jeremiah and I presenting in Atlanta

Jeremiah and I presenting in Atlanta

This weekend, emails went out to folks who’d submitted their sessions for the PASS Summit 2013 in Charlotte.

If you’re bummed, listen up. I know what it feels like to get turned down because I got turned down the first couple of times I submitted, too. The blessing and the curse of the SQL Server community is that there’s so many people who want to help others – but of course this makes it harder to get your place up on the stage. It’s only going to get worse/better as more people continue to discover the community.

Whether you got a good email or a bad one, your work is just beginning. Either you’re prepping for this October, or you need to start prepping for the next conference. In either case, here’s 51 questions you need to ask yourself about your abstract, your material, and your delivery.

  1. What pain is bringing the attendee to this session?
  2. How are they going to relieve that pain when they get back to the office?
  3. What does the attendee know already coming in?
  4. Who should not attend this session?
  5. Reading your abstract, are the answers to the above four questions crystal clear?
  6. What did you learn from Adam Machanic’s post Capturing Attention?
  7. Did your abstract take one thing off before it left the house?
  8. If you search the web for your abstract title, what comes up?
  9. Who else do you expect will submit on a similar topic?
  10. How will you show your own personality and expertise in the abstract?
  11. Of ProBlogger’s 52 Types of Blog Posts, which one matches your planned sessions?
  12. What other types of sessions from that list could you use to surprise and delight attendees?
  13. Are you teaching why or how?
  14. How would a handout make it easier for attendees to learn your lessons?
  15. What visualization would bring your session to life?
  16. Could you contract out a local design student or company to build it for you?
  17. Are you presenting to teach or to impress?
  18. Have you gotten feedback on your abstract from a proven speaker you trust?
  19. If a teacher graded your presentation, would you get an A?
  20. On that 24-point scale, what would it take to succeed at a national conference?
  21. What topics are you going to avoid entirely in order to save time?
  22. How often have you rehearsed this presentation before giving it to a local user group?
  23. Have you given this presentation before at local user groups and SQLSaturdays?
  24. Did you record the session (either video or audio)?
  25. Did you watch the recording to see where you can improve the material and your delivery?
  26. What questions did the attendees ask at those sessions?
  27. What feedback did the attendees give at the user group or SQLSaturday?
  28. How will you use that feedback to improve your session?
  29. If you gave attendees a test at the end of your session, what questions would be on it?
  30. If your session was a movie, what genre would it be?
  31. What other movies would be sitting next to it in the store?
  32. Who would play the leading role?
  33. What are three words you want attendees to use to describe your session?
  34. How do your abstract, material, and delivery inspire those three words?
  35. Have you clearly attributed ownership to the code and pictures in your session?
  36. If nobody asks any questions at all, will you still be able to fill the time slot?
  37. If you get many questions, which slides/sections can you skip without losing meaning?
  38. Where will you post all of the resources for your session?
  39. If people have a question while reading those resources, how will they contact you?
  40. If this session was a module in an all-day training class, what would the other modules be?
  41. What’s the worst thing that could happen in your session?
  42. How will you recover if that thing happens?
  43. Can you form an instant community of your attendees using a Twitter hash tag or chat room?
  44. What would your session look like with no demos whatsoever?
  45. What would your session look like as 100% demos and no slides?
  46. If you started the session with a question, what would that question be?
  47. What’s the easiest, simplest way for the attendee to learn the lessons?
  48. Could you get the presentation’s learning lessons across with a blog post or series?
  49. When you ask people why they linked to your post, what do they say they found compelling?
  50. What questions did readers ask in the comments?
  51. What’s stopping you from writing that blog post right now to gauge reader interest?

No, really. What’s stopping you? Don’t think for one moment that attendees will skip your session because they’ve read your work. It’s the exact opposite: readers come to your session because they like your work. Whether PASS told you yes or no, start writing your blog posts right now to find out what works and what doesn’t.

Write a Note and Shoot Yourself Today

When I’m writing a presentation or blog post, I often start here:

Yep, still the same smile.

2004 Brent

It’s a photo of me in my office in Dallas, Texas in 2004. When I look at that picture, I remember everything like it was yesterday. I can talk at length about everything on the bookshelf, on my desk, in my drawers (the desk drawers, that is).

I can tell you what technology problems I was struggling with, plus what problems my manager was concerned about. I remember what I knew, and what I didn’t know yet. I can recite the web sites I frequented.

Next, I can turn the mental camera around and see exactly what’s outside my office door: my developers and my support team. I can tell you what they rocked at and what they wanted training on. I can remember how we decorated their cubes for their birthdays – covering Julian’s stuff in aluminum foil, building a princess’ castle for Hima.

The funniest thing, though, is that I didn’t remember any of this until I rediscovered this photo several years ago. All of a sudden, everything was clear to me.

And I realized who I was writing for.

Now, it’s really easy for me to scope my presentations and blog posts because I’m writing for 2004 Brent. 2004 Brent hadn’t studied databases and tried to turn them inside out – he just needed to store data and get it back out quickly. He wasn’t on a first name basis with book authors and MVPs – he didn’t even know what an MVP was.

You need to take this picture today.

Set up your camera with a self-timer or get a colleague to shoot a few pictures of yourself sitting in your work environment. Get pictures of the books on your shelf, the stuff on your desk, and maybe take a screenshot of your task list. Write yourself a one-page note covering:

  • The stuff you’re comfortable with
  • The stuff you’re uncomfortable with
  • The things you want to learn this year
  • The things you learned recently that surprised you

Stash these pictures and words away in a time capsule folder somewhere. A few years from now, when you’re writing a presentation covering something you’ve learned, get these back out. Think about what you knew and didn’t know, and that’s your target audience. Before you use a term or acronym, think back and ask, “Did 2013 Me know that? If not, lemme introduce the topic.”

When you’re writing, remember that you’re never writing for your current self. You’re writing for the past version of you. Having these pictures and words will help you define your audience.

Choosing a Presentation Tool

If your New Year’s resolution is to start presenting at user groups and conferences, congratulations! You’re about to embark on a fulfilling journey that will enrich the lives of thousands of people. It’s a blast. Now let’s put some thought into the tool you’re going to use.

You’re going to be working on these same sessions for years – growing them, expanding them, building them into all-day training. Don’t pick a flash-in-the-pan presentation technology that might not be here in a couple of years. Pick the most reliable technology you can find.

If you’re lucky, you can turn your presentations into an entire company. When that happens, you want your employees to be able to give your presentations to clients when possible. Don’t use a hard-to-understand technology – use the simplest, most straightforward way to get your point across.

If you’re unlucky, your laptop will fail right before you walk onstage. Save all your presentations on a USB drive (mine’s on my keychain) so that when disaster strikes, you can turn to the nearest attendee and say, “Mind if I borrow your laptop to present? You’ve got (technology x) on it, right?” Attendees love to say yes, but you’re not going to have the time or bandwidth to download & install new software, and you shouldn’t be installing anything on a stranger’s laptop anyway. I present about Microsoft technologies, so my audience usually has PowerPoint installed. I’ve presented from attendee laptops more than once.

My presentation gear at work. Photo by Michael Kappel.

Use a technology that allows you to move around the stage while advancing slides. When you just get started presenting, you’ll probably stand behind the podium, gripping it tightly, fearing that you’ll fall over if you let go. After a few sessions, you’ll gain the confidence to move around the stage and use positioning just like actors do. You’ll want a technology that lets you use a remote control. I use the $60 Logitech R800 because it’s also got a built-in countdown timer. I can glance down to see how much time I’ve got left, and it vibrates when I start running out of time.

Use a technology that allows for easily exportable, not-easily-editable content. I export my sessions to PDF and give ’em away to attendees. If you give away the native format, some attendees will take your session, edit out your name, and re-present it as their own. Of course, if you’re okay with that (and I am for some of my sessions), then take the other tack – use a technology that your attendees will all have, and will be able to quickly edit and re-present.

The export needs to stand on its own, including in a printed version. If your technology relies on animations to get the point across, and the export doesn’t include the animations, it won’t work. Personally, I do all my animations by having a separate slide for each step. That way even if you’re reading along in a printed handout, you can follow what I’m doing. At all-day training sessions, I’m amazed at how many attendees love following along in a printed copy and writing notes on it. Many attendees don’t have laptops/tablets that can last all day on battery for note-taking, and many conferences don’t have power outlets for every attendee during all-day training sessions.

A couple/few years into your journey, you’re going to be so proud of your chosen technology. You’ll have polished that knife to a sharp edge. At that point, it’s time to step back and pick up a new knife. Try a new tool, and start sharpening that too. The more knives you have, the better chef you’ll be, because different knives work better for different foods.

Every knife technology will fail on you. The slides, the demo code, the services, the remote, the laptop, the projector, the microphone, all of it. If you’ve polished multiple knives, you’ll be completely comfortable when one tool fails. I’ll never forget the time when I was presenting slides via projector about disaster recovery for databases, and midway through my session, the entire conference center’s power went out. I grabbed the whiteboard markers, eager to sketch out the concepts for the rest of the session. Those moments make your reputation as a presenter.

Having said all that, here’s the tools I use:

Text editor – I storyboard my sessions in a text editor first, using one line per slide. I write down the things I need to teach during the presentation, then I start adding and arranging, turning it into a story. When I’m done arranging the story, then I decide which portions need demos, diagrams, pictures, etc. If there’s an overwhelming theme, I try to pick just that one method of delivery. For example, if your session is 80% demos, dump the slides and just put comments in the code. Zoom in onscreen to show those comments in large text. If I can get the entire session delivered in just one tool, it makes the session easier for attendees to digest. If I do have to use two tools (like slides & demos, or slides & whiteboard) then I want to minimize the number of transitions back & forth.

Microsoft PowerPoint – I’m not a big fan of it, but it’s the de facto standard in the MS database world. Many MS conferences require me to use a PowerPoint template, plus I have to upload my slides to them for approval, and they’ll make edits and send it back. This just comes down to knowing your audience and picking a tool all the attendees will have. At our company, we’ve started breaking up our slides into mini-decks that our employees can reuse and present to clients. For example, I might have a 1-hour session on tuning databases, and then rip out two 15-minute sections of that to turn into mini-decks. When a client has a question and there’s a minideck to answer it, the employee can whip it out and give the client the best answer possible.

Demo code – think of this as a standalone presentation tool. If you can do a whole session in here (including the title, about-me slide, and resource slide), do it.

Whiteboard – I’ve always casually used this knife to handle attendee Q&A live, but I’m starting to polish it. I’m picking between iPad teaching tools to find one that lets me zoom in & out, record the session, write with a keyboard, etc. I want to get to the point where I can deliver a 1-hour session entirely via iPad whiteboard projected onscreen, and get good feedback from the attendees that it was the best way to learn a particular concept.

Want more tips like this? Check out our past presenting posts.

How We Write

The four of us were talking about the writing tricks we use, and we thought you might enjoy hearing our styles.

How Brent Writes

I use to track my blog post ideas.  I can use it from anywhere via a web browser, phone app, whatever.  I can tell when I’m in the mood to write because I’ll come up with 4-5-6 blog post ideas in a row in a matter of minutes.  When that happens – and it’s almost always in the morning – I look at the day’s schedule and figure out if there’s a way I can spend a few hours writing.  Seems like it strikes in spurts, too – weeks will go by without me producing a single blog post, and then suddenly I’ll have several days in a row where I just can’t stop sneaking away to write.

I can write anywhere, but I can’t be around people I know, because then I feel guilty for not spending time with them.  (This also means no email and no Twitter.)  This usually means that I grab my laptop or iPad and head to a coffee shop or pub that doesn’t mind me sitting there for hours, banging away.  Right now, my favorite writing place is Kroll’s Bar and Grill in Chicago.

I can only write with music playing on headphones – almost always with just one song on endless repeat.  The music affects the tone of what I write.  Bubbly pop music like Lady Gaga and LMFAO produces fun, relaxed posts like my SQL Server 2008R2 Review and my AlwaysOn Availability Groups introduction.  Client findings seem to work best while listening to Tokyo Police Club’s manic upbeat stuff like Your English is Good and Wait Up.  I wrote all of my chapters for 2008 Internals and Troubleshooting while listening to the long version of Death Cab for Cutie’s I Will Possess Your Heart.  Over.  And over.  And over.

I write in a text editor first.  I stopped using WYSIWYG stuff a long time ago because I got too caught up in presentation rather than content.  The words themselves have to seduce me on the screen, just by themselves, without any makeup.  When I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got, I move it into the final production tool (WordPress, Word, PowerPoint) and then start applying the makeup.

How Jes Writes

Sometimes, I think that I could write non-stop, all day, every day. It wouldn’t always be good writing, and it wouldn’t always have a point, but I can put words down all day long.

I have a list of blog ideas – technical and non-technical – in a OneNote notebook. I put down the topic or the title as soon as it comes to me, and a couple sentences if I have more. The next step is to fire up a Word document and put together an outline. Sometimes, that’s as simple as two or three bullet points. Sometimes, it’s a lot more complicated.

The act of writing requires discipline, mixed with a little inspiration. I try to block off specific times to write – that way, I can’t always put it off until I “feel” like it. Of course, if inspiration hits, I will sit down and bang out as much as I can when it happens. If I’m away from my computer, I usually have a notebook with me (I love Moleskine), and I’ve been known to scribble away and then type it up later.

My environment is very different depending on whether I have a technical or non-technical blog. As I write this, I’m in my office, door open, dog running amok around the house, music playing, laundry going, drinking coffee. If I have a technical topic to write about – especially if it involves code or examples – things are very different. Silence rules. I go in my office, I close the door, I turn on the light, I turn off music, close email and Twitter, open Word and whatever tools I need, and go. I don’t want to be bothered – at all, about anything. I’ll hack away for an hour or two, take a break for a snack, and go back at it. I like to finish technical blogs in as few sittings as possible, so I try to start these on a weekend, or during a week I don’t have a lot of stuff happening in the evenings.

When I’m done, every piece of writing gets set aside for at least a day. Then I re-read and edit it, sometimes a couple of times, and schedule it!

How Jeremiah Writes

As much as it pains me to say it: haphazardly. My process isn’t as disciplined as it used to be (or as disciplined as I’d like it to be). That being said, I’ll outline what I do right now and where I want to be.

I keep track of rough blog post ideas in Remember the Milk. As I flesh out the ideas, I add notes and links to references that will help me flesh out the article. Remember the Milk is critical for my workflow because I can get to it anywhere – ideas don’t happen when you’re sitting in front of the computer. They often strike when you’re at work, on the bus, or stuck in traffic. Being prepared with a lot of different ways to record a good idea is critical to saving that idea for later.

I’ve tried using any number of WYSIWYG editors – they help me agonize over font choice. I’ve tried distraction free editors – they get in the way of working with reference material. When I want to write, I use a text editor. Sublime Text 2 works for me; it has tools for writing prose and tools for writing code. Once I’m in the editor, I draw up a rough title and introductory paragraph – the first paragraph works as an outline. After putting together an outline, I write slugs to draw the reader through the article. It’s after I’ve outlined that I start writing.

I’m a big believer in revision. The first time through an article, I write down my thoughts as quickly as possible while trying to stick to the outline I’ve put together. If there are interesting diversions, I make a note of them and carry on. After the first draft, I let it sit and work on something else.

Clutter is the disease of American writing.

William Zinsser said that. He’s right. During my editing process, I distill my writing. Once I reach minimalism, I build it back up; carefully adding words where they’re needed. I repeat this process several times until I’m as happy as I’m going to be with the results. Whether I’m writing prose or code samples, I use this approach.

Unfortunately, I don’t succeed every time. My least favorite writing is something I produce quickly. I feel that a moment of genius or art has struck and that I can happily push “Publish” and move on to something else. The discipline of revision isn’t there and it shows in the quality of the work – it’s sloppy, jumbled, and dissatisfying. In a perfect world, I could revise each piece three or four times.

My writing process takes time and discipline and is a piece of habit. Great writing doesn’t come from a burst of inspiration, it comes from daily exercise. Relentlessly tuning my prose makes it easier to write something better the next time through.

How Kendra Writes

I admit it: I hate writing sometimes. Writing is very difficult for me. Here’s how I cope.

Mainly, I try to play to my strengths. I have some good skills that I value. I’m really good at a few types of writing, and I’m also a really fast typist. When I’m working in a form of writing I’m good at, I’m much more productive than when I work in a form where I struggle.

Here’s where I shine: I’m great at describing a problem and creating an action plan to solve the problem. I’m a star at documentation and writing up recommendations. I love the balance of trying to add just enough detail and links so that the nuances are clear, without getting so bogged down in detail that the meaning is hidden.

I practice this type of writing a lot in my work. When I write this way, I don’t really need much of anything except my laptop– it’s pretty easy for me to “get lost” in the writing. I tend to stop noticing things around me. I try to remember to stop and drink water or stand up and move around periodically.

Here’s where I struggle: more creative forms of writing. Blog posts are incredibly hard for me. We try to be very thoughtful about blog posts on this site and have a lot of internal discussions about how we can write the best posts possible. It’s just not as simple and straightforward as business writing where you’re out to slay a specific dragon. It’s more about connection and humor and finding meaningful things to share with a much bigger audience.

Here’s what I’ve done to try to make myself better at writing things where it’s hard for me:

  • I don’t force myself to write creatively at very busy or stressful times.
  • I encourage myself to write creatively when I’ve finished my task list for the week or had a great night’s sleep on a weekend morning.
  • I remind myself that I am good at writing, even if some forms are hard for me. (There’s no worse thing for you as a writer than to tell yourself that you’re a bad writer.)
  • I encourage myself to let writing flow creatively in one session, then use another session to go in and edit furiously.
  • I stop writing when I’m still feeling good about it.
  • I save off content in Evernote and periodically pull out older content and work on it again– I don’t set myself a quota for finishing.

I also sometimes get to integrate the forms of writing where I’m strong into the website, too! I created most of the sp_BlitzIndex® documentation in one long afternoon of thinking and writing about indexes– and I’m so proud of it. Those pages would not have made a good blog post, but they’re a way I was able to contribute sharing information in a meaningful and helpful way.

To me, becoming a better writer is all about mindset and strategy. Observe where you’re strong, appreciate what you’re good at, and build from there. Don’t try to write like anyone else, just always strive to write as well as you can.

Our PASS Summit 2012 Schedule

Next week, the Brent Ozar Unlimited® crew will be attending PASS Summit in Seattle, WA. It’s a busy week, full of networking, learning, and teaching. Here are a few of our highlights.

Want to add our sessions to your schedule, and view more information at your fingertips? PASS Summit has gone mobile with Guidebook! It’s available for iOS, Android, Blackberry and web-enabled devices.


8:30 am – 5:30 pm: Brent and Jeremiah will be presenting at Red Gate’s SQL in the City event in Seattle. This is not a SQL PASS event, but if you’re in Seattle on Monday, find out if you can swing by– the event is totally free. Brent will be talking about “Six Scary SQL Surprises” at 10 am. Jeremiah will be talking about code quality in “Red Gate Tools- The Complete Life Cycle” at 11:30 am. Register here.


5:15 pm: We’ll be meeting our First Timers at the Orientation & Networking Session. This is a valuable program from PASS. A first-time attendee at a conference of this size could be overwhelmed. Then we’ll be attending the Welcome Reception, saying hello to old and new friends. What fun and games does Tim Ford have planned for us this year?


6:30 am: Jes will kick off the morning with the second annual #sqlrun, a 5K run along the waterfront. Get info and sign up here.

10:15 am: Jes presents The What, Why, and How of Filegroups. .

11:30 am: Jes is attending the PASS Chapters Luncheon!

1:30 pm: Bob Dylan, er, Brent will give his Lightning Talk, Bob Dylan Explains Tempdb!

3:00 pm: Brent is on deck again, this time with Real-Life SQL Server 2012 Availability Groups: Lessons Learned.

4:30 pm: Jes will be at the PASS Community Zone. This is a new area that will introduce people to all the great community events available. We’ll even have games and prizes! Please stop by, say hi, pick up a game card, and get to know the members of the community!


11:30 am: Kendra is a panelist on the Women in Technology lunch. This great event also features panelists Stefanie Higgins, Kevin Kline, Denise McInerney, and Jen Stirrup. Jes will be sitting at the blogger’s table, capturing the discussion of “Women in Technology: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?”

1:30 pm: Jes is presenting “Lights! Camera! Piecemeal Restore!” as one of the Lightning Talks. Come to room 307-308 to watch us.

3:00 pm: Jes will again be in the Community Zone that afternoon.

5:00 pm: We hope you can be in three places at once! Brent will Diagnose T-SQL Performance Problems Fast with sp_Blitz®. Jeremiah is guiding the audience through A Developer’s Guide to Dangerous Queries. And Kendra will have on her lab coat as she presents Index Psychiatry: Diagnose and Treat the Top 5 Disorders.

7:00 pm: Microsoft and PASS are sponsoring the Community Appreciation Party at Seattle’s Experience Music Project!


Friday will wrap up an incredibly exciting week.

11:30 am: Jes will be hosting a table at the Birds of a Feather lunch – the dining hall will be organized into areas of interest, and you’ll be able to network with MVPs, MCMs, speakers, and more. This is a great opportunity to meet other people interested in the same field you are!

1:00 pm: Kendra has a Spotlight Session, SQL Server First Responder Kit.

If you’re attending PASS Summit, enjoy! It’s a great experience, with many hours of learning and many great people to meet. If you can’t attend (this year!), make sure to follow the #sqlpass hashtag on Twitter, and catch the live stream of two rooms from!

Conference Speakers – Check Your Room Size

When you’re speaking at a conference, try to get the room schedules long before the event day.  Right now, the PASS Summit conference schedule is available, and each speaker’s room is listed.

Then, check out the building’s floorplan – in this case, the Washington State Convention Center’s floorplans page.  Check out the seating capacity for your room.

My audience (right before they walked out)

My audience (right before they walked out)

You don’t have to think about filling the room or imagining the audience in their underwear, but knowing the size of the room can help you mentally prepare yourself for what you’ll be facing.  I take different approaches in different room sizes.

In small rooms (for under 30 people), I look every single person in the eye and make sure they’re following along.  When I’m losing somebody, I’ll prompt them for questions and change my presentation pace.  I can make faces to illustrate my disbelief or happiness with a particular point, and I know everyone will see it.

In mid-size rooms (for 30-100 people), I’ll try to take the pulse of the audience by looking around.  I’m less able to change the presentation pace based on facial expressions – and I’m less able to use my own facial expressions as a presentation tool.  Repeating audience questions becomes critical here because people on one side of the room can’t hear questions from the other side.

In rooms designed for over a hundred people, I have to be more animated.  People farther back can’t see my facial expressions at all, and I need to convey more things via audible cues.  My visual cues have to consist of giant hand waving and pointing.

When I know the room size ahead of time, I can even adapt the presentation to work better.  For example, in large rooms, I’ll use visual punch lines on the slides rather than trying to tell a story with my facial expressions.  In addition, the bigger the room, the bigger the font – I can’t rely on projectors to convey small bullet points in a 500-person room.

Note that the room size – not the number of attendees – dictates your approach.  If you’re in a giant room, it doesn’t matter if less than 30 people show up – you still have to use the big-room delivery style.  And don’t judge your success based on the percentage of empty seats – that’s the success of the meeting planner, not you.  It’s their job to pick the right room size for each presentation.  Jeremiah and I are both in the monster 6E ballroom that holds over a thousand people.  They’re betting that a whole lot of people want to hear me talk about AlwaysOn Availability Groups and him talk about A Developer’s Guide to Dangerous Queries!

You Can Give A Technical Presentation (Video)

In your dream, you’re standing in front of a room full of dozens of people, presentation mouse in hand, about to present to them on (insert SQL Server feature here). You wake up in a cold sweat. You’re either terrified, or excited and terrified.

Are you ready to start presenting? Join Jes as she shares her secrets to building and giving successful technical presentations!

Become a Presenter, Change Your Life

I began presenting on SQL Server two years ago. At the time I was a Senior Database Administrator. My workdays were spent getting ahead of the next big performance problem in an environment where software changes rolled into production like gangbusters. I was under a lot of pressure to be super-technical, stay on top of the latest software changes, and anticipate problems at every turn. It was tempting to spend all my technical efforts on my job. Instead, I decided to interact more with the outside world.

Getting ready to present at 24 Hours of PASS

Looking back, becoming a speaker is the single most important career decision I ever made.

There’s No Obvious ROI on Technical Speaking

Deciding to get up and present on technical topics wasn’t easy. I knew that investment costs came out of my personal life. It was clear that I would spend a lot of free time working on presentations and building my speaking skills.

Risk was obvious, too. Presenters get asked all sorts of random questions from the audience. I knew that I could prepare like crazy and there would still be things outside of my control. Before you start speaking, the risk of embarrassment seems HUGE.

And what do you get in return? When you begin speaking, engagements are unpaid. You’re speaking at night or on the weekend, and “Thank Yous” are your payment in the short term. These are great, but you might wonder if they’re worth all the investment and the risk.

What You Get from Becoming a Technical Presenter

When you get into the habit of giving talks on a technical topic, it changes you. You become a presenter.

Presenting isn’t just a set of skills. It’s like playing a sport— you learn the techniques, but you use them in the process of becoming an athlete. Presenting develops a specific side to your personality and skills. As you continue presenting you customize your techniques and find a style of delivering and interpreting information that’s genuinely your own.

This personal transformation is your return on investment. It may not sound like much, but it’s a very big deal.

Speaking with Confidence and Clarity

Most technical speakers don’t begin with great confidence OR great clarity. Most of us begin speaking just as best we can— we’re trying to share how to do something. As you gain experience speaking you learn to handle the unexpected: odd questions, equipment failures, power outages. You start to feel at home working with people and you identify ways to explain concepts better. Most people who keep going learn to be better communicators.

Soon, standing up and guiding a room full of people through a set of concepts is no big deal. Do it enough, and you begin to enjoy a challenge.

Picture yourself being this confident presenter who can handle any curveball. Now picture that confident presenter speaking for you in your next performance review. Imagine them in an interview for a new job. Imagine them helping train their team to do something new and exciting. That “speaking athlete” finds it easy to use their presentation skills to advance their career and lead their team.

This is where I started

That person isn’t more talented than you. They aren’t smarter or better. They just worked hard to become a great speaker.

Three Simple Steps to Becoming a Technical Presenter

  1. Start speaking
  2. Keep going
  3. Listen to feedback

That’s it.

This list requires hard work, no doubt about it. You’ll need to design a talk, write it, submit it, and then actually give it. This is a very big deal for many people and seems huge. It’s OK— remember that topics which seem obvious to you are likely completely new to many people. Teach what you know.

I’ve placed “listening to feedback” as number three for a reason. Feedback is incredibly valuable and helpful, but don’t kill yourself with criticism after your first speaking adventure. Understand that you’re doing something new and appreciate that you’re actually doing it! Just by itself, that’s great! Once you find your sea legs, actively ask for feedback on where you can make yourself stronger, and listen carefully.

Where to Get Started

The SQL Server community is full of friendly and supportive audiences. These folks love to share and exchange information, and they’d love to have you join the ranks of speakers. They also want to help you succeed!

Your best bet is to find a SQL PASS User Group in your area. Frequently, user group leaders have options for new speakers: you might be able to do a shorter session for your first try, if you want. Talk to the chapter leaders and ask what works for them.

Sometimes people start giving presentations at their workplace to smaller groups. Some people start submitting sessions to free SQLSaturday conferences.

Whatever your path, the hardest part is deciding to get started. It’s time to get out there.