How to Rehearse a Presentation

Buck Woody (Blog@BuckWoody) and I did a presentation at the PASS Summit called, “You’re Not Attractive, But Your Presentations Can Be.”  The audience asked a lot of good questions, and I wanted to recap some of ’em as blog posts.  The first one – and one of the most frequent questions I get – is, “How often do you really practice presentations before giving them?”

Teleprompters - also invented by Al Gore.
Teleprompters – also invented by Al Gore.

I’m really, really picky about the transitions between slides – and I don’t mean animations.  I love it when people tell me, “Wow, you must have given this a hundred times, because every time you popped the next slide, it was just perfect timing.”  For some reason, that one attribute really screams PROFESSIONAL to me.  Therefore, when I think I’m done writing a presentation, I’ll step through it a few times just talking through my transitions.  I won’t say every word of the content, but I’ll talk through my last point on the slide, hit next, and keep talking – and it has to be out loud.  During that process, I’ll usually find things that don’t work as well as I’d like, or things that are tongue twisters. I’ll rework the slide order to tell the story better, or come up with better pictures to be punch lines.

There’s a drawback to my presentation style: I don’t always leave an opening for the audience to ask questions mid-presentation.  I’m so focused on my slide segues that I don’t pause at the end of a slide and say, “Any questions?” Instead, I try to build in points every few slides where there’s a natural pause.  I’m also learning to build in more pop quizzes to encourage audience interaction.  As I’m going through the presentation, I try to count the number of slides between audience interactions so that it doesn’t become a barrage of Brent.

When I’ve got the transitions done, then I’ll step through the whole thing out loud once and time it.  One of the points Buck and I made was to over-prepare, then cut – build up way more material than you think you need, then cut down to fit the time you’ve got.  If I’m doing a 45-minute presentation, I like to have 60-75 minutes worth of spoken material, and then I choose which sections I can skip entirely, yet still have smooth transitions and deliver the audience everything I promised in the abstract.

Confident that I’ve got good timing and transitions, I’ll hide the clock and give the presentation out loud from start to finish at least twice.  I check the time at the start and end, and that helps me make sure I’m guesstimating the right time for my natural delivery.

Don't even get me started.
Don’t even get me started.

After I’ve given it a couple of times and it feels comfortable to me, then I review it for questions.  On each slide, I ask myself, “What questions are going to come up from this slide?  What technology on this slide sounds too good to be true or too tough to bother with?  What common errors will people struggle with, and what objections will they raise?”  For example, when I’m talking about the missing index DMVs, people usually ask about heaps, ask when the DMVs reset, or complain that the DMVs give bad suggestions.  I think about how I’d respond to those questions, and if I need a slide to show an answer, I’ll build it – but leave that slide hidden.  That way, when the question comes up, I can wow ’em with a slide answer instead of going, “Well, uh, I, uh, never thought about that.”  Picture how your worst enemy would try to pick your presentation apart, and then arm yourself to defend your position.  If you can’t defend what you’re saying, pull it out – you’re not ready to present that point yet.  You will be someday, but just not yet.

If I have to do demos in front of a live audience, I try to have a dedicated virtual machine per presentation.  For example, I’ve got a VM dedicated just to my Blitz presentation.  I know exactly how that server is configured and how it will react.  I get the VM set up for the first time, then shut it down and save a copy of it to a different drive.  Then I start it back up, step through my demos, and make sure they work.  If they don’t, I set it back up again, save another copy of the VM, and try again.  When I’ve got it fully baked and it works perfectly, I save copies of it on two USB hard drives under three names like BLITZ1, BLITZ2, and BLITZ_Original.

It gets worse.  On presentation day, I fire up both BLITZ1 and BLITZ2.  I do my demos on BLITZ1, but if it blows chunks, I switch to BLITZ2.  It’s like database mirroring for your demos.  When my demos are done, I copy BLITZ_Original over BLITZ1 and BLITZ2 so that I’m ready to go next time.  That way, if I did anything to disrupt the status of that VM (like fix one of the purposely-broken databases), I don’t screw up my next Blitz demo.

And when your demo works, you have to say 'Boom.'
And when your demo works, you have to say ‘Boom.’

I know I sound black-helicopters-and-aluminum-foil-hat paranoid, but I believe the audience deserves it.  I am just so sick and tired of seeing professionals up on the stage saying, “Hmm, I’m not sure why my demo did that.  Well, here’s what it should have done….”  If you’re going to stand up in front of an audience of a hundred people, think of their time as $100 per hour – so your demo is $10,000 per hour.  Take some basic precautions to ensure that your demo, like Colt 45, works every time.

Finally, I give the presentation in front of people.  I try to never give a presentation for the first time at the regional or national level or on a webcast.  Webcasts are tough because it’s hard to gauge the audience to know whether or not you’re holding their attention and bringing it home.  Regional and national audiences tend to be bigger rooms, and I don’t want to be experimenting in front of more than 50 people.  As I’m giving it, I make mental notes about what felt like it worked, and what needs to be reworked.

When people stop me during the presentation to ask a question that I hadn’t anticipated, I’ll stop right there and write down the question or type it into the PowerPoint slide notes.  If someone cares enough to ask it out loud, there’s probably a few more people in the audience who wanted to ask but were afraid, so I’ll build it into the next version of the presentation.  If nobody asks questions or laughs when I expect them too, I’ll note that, because I gotta keep things engaging.  My goal isn’t to eliminate the questions; my goal is to be able to celebrate them happily and intelligently when they occur.

I often respond to questions by saying, “That’s a good question,” and it’s not because I’m buttering them up for good evaluation surveys.  I believe it’s a good question because I thought of that exact same question during my preparations, and I’m mentally excited because it means two great things have happened.  I’ve engaged them enough to think like I think, and I’ve prepared myself enough to think like they’ll think!  I’m at one with the audience.  It’s my very own moment of Zen.

At the PASS Summit, an audience member asked how Buck and I pulled all these rehearsals off since we live in different cities.  We were lucky enough to get together a couple of times before the Summit to rehearse, and we focused on the transitions.  When you’re co-presenting in front of big audiences, it’s so important to know how the handoffs will work.  With smaller audiences, I don’t mind winging it when I’m co-presenting with someone I know well.  I’ve co-presented in front of 15-20 people with Tim Ford and Tom LaRock on various occasions, and because we know each other’s backgrounds, it’s easy for us to pause mid-slide and hand things over with a question.  If you have to co-present with minimal planning, think basketball: don’t hog the ball.  Pass back and forth as frequently as you can.  The audience appreciates the banter and chemistry.

If you get the chance to be a guest on a podcast or interview, listen to a couple of past episodes to learn the rhythm and host personalities.  For example, when I’m on Virtumania, I know I can play things fast and loose with the innuendos, but on a SQL Server Magazine interview I have to keep things a little more straight-laced.  You get massive bonus points with the host if you know some of the in-jokes they use, like running gags or sound effects on the show.  Give them ample opportunities to interact with you – stop, take a breath, and ask questions like, “Have you had any experiences like that?”  Remember that you’re a guest, not a host, but by all means, speak up.  I keep a stopwatch up on the screen so that I can see seconds moving, and when I start talking, I make a mental note of the time.  If I’ve gone on for more than 45-60 seconds, it’s time to shut up and let ’em get a word in edgewise.

Huge Blogger Panel Discussion
Huge Blogger Panel Discussion

If you’re invited to a panel discussion or roundtable – a presentation where several speakers share the stage – that stopwatch advice is especially relevant.  Before the event starts, I jot down a few talking points on a Post-It note or a napkin, whatever’s handy, so that I can jump start discussions if things get quiet.  On the other hand, I also do some quick math: I take the length of the session, divide it by the number of speakers (including the moderator), and that’s my share.  If there’s an hour-long session with four speakers and a moderator, that means I get about 12 minutes.  It’s my duty to help the moderator by livening up the room with 12 minutes of fun banter, and it’s my responsibility to the other presenters to make sure they get their 12 minutes.

Reading back through this, I realize I’m probably making it sound more intimidating than it is.  I certainly didn’t start out rehearsing my presentations this thoroughly!  The only reason I approach it this way today is that I’ve come to realize my presentations are a valuable library.  When I’m working with a client, I love being able to say, “Here’s the issue you’re having, and I’ve got a presentation that talks about how to solve it.  Let’s get the staff together for an hour and we’ll cover this presentation with specifics about your environment.”  My clients love this highly personalized training, and they see real value in it.

Yes, companies will actually pay you to give your presentations to their staff – even the very same presentations that might be available for free on the web.  The value is having the right presenter give the right presentation at the right time.  There’s an overwhelming amount of free material online, and nobody’s got the time to peruse it all.

Your presentations are worth the effort.  Your audience and your clients will love you for it!

Previous Post
Free SQL Server Training Videos from SQLbits
Next Post
MCM Certificate Photoshop Contest

16 Comments. Leave new

  • Great post, Brent – lots of thought went into this, just like your presentations!

  • SteveLaRochelle
    January 10, 2011 9:33 am

    Your extensive preparation is apparent in the web casts I’ve seen. I also saw(?) a user group presentation you remotely did that I haven’t seen listed as a web or regional/national level. I assume it is still in progress. How long is the path from creation to national presentation?

    • Steve – thanks, sir!

      Some presentations never make it to the national level. Sometimes I build them into other presentations, sometimes I use ’em on paid events like SQLcruise or my SQLskills MCM training, and sometimes I just don’t feel like they really resonate. I throw a lot of stuff up against the wall to see if it sticks.

      When something DOES make the progression, I’d say it’s usually about 6-12 months to progress from creation to the national level.

  • Thanks Brent! Brilliant blog post, as usual!

    I just remember a funny case of a PowerPivot presentation at the Microsoft central office in Stockholm: a presenter had traveled 20 hours in one direction to present PowerPivot to the Swedish SQL User Group (maybe some 120 people), and as he was taking a 10 minute break between the 2nd and 3rd parts, his laptop started installing the Windows Updates (scheduled for 3 a.m. by default – Seattle time). Long story short – the laptop never recovered from installing the updates. During the part 3 and 4 of the presentation the laptop was still showing that funky screen “Installing update 2 out of 3… Please wait…”. So the presenter had to switch to paper and pencil…
    What’s the moral of the story? Always have paper and pencil available. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  • “Reading back through this, I realize I’m probably making it sound more intimidating than it is.”

    Yeah, like how I am completely, mind-blowingly terrible at anticipating questions people will ask, making me think that I’m completely screwed for ever being able to do this? 😀
    (I also know that writing sentences like that won’t help any, hahahaha)

  • Hard to avoid Murphy. No matter how redundancy you might build into to your Presos.. Every now and than he seems to find a way to rear his ugly head.

  • Boom!

  • Hi Brent,

    Nice post 🙂
    But I think that you can’t rehearse each presentation in the way you have described. Sometimes you only have a limited time for preparation when you have to deliver an urgent presentation for an important customer.

    When you are also working with brand new technologies you also have not the time of 12 months until a presentation will mature and finally go to the national level, e.g. when you want to present on SQL11, you have to do it know, and not in 12 months.

    I also think that you Americans have a lot more chances to “play” with your presentations, because you have a lot of community events (e.g. SQL Saturday’s) where you can try out things how they will work with a large audience. In Europe we don’t have too many such events, where we can try and play around… 🙁



    • Klaus – you’re right about not being able to rehearse customer presentations. That’s how I deliver my consulting findings – via presentations – and I don’t rehearse those at all. They tend to be more interactive than audience-based presentations because the customer is constantly asking questions. For those, I don’t need smooth transitions between slides.

      About SQL 11 – I actually do have SQL 11 presentations now that I’m giving to small groups (clients) in anticipation of more national releases later in the year. Guys like you and me don’t need to do national presentations on SQL 11 right now – that’s up to Microsoft. However, later in the year, we probably will.

      If you don’t have enough local events, why not start some? 😀

  • Brent,

    What a fantastic article! I’m glad I’m not the only one who says ‘That’s a great question.’;) I love it when I have an answer ready for what was probably a complicated question.

    One quick question. Do you rehearse in front of a mirror? I always tend to worry about my mannerism when I speak.

    • JD – thanks! No, I don’t rehearse in front of a mirror, but whenever my sessions are videotaped, I watch the videos again later to work on my general mannerisms. Rehearsing in front of a mirror, you tend to miss some of the things you’re doing in front of a real audience.

  • Great post, Brent. Between yours and the one Mark Miller just did on, I have no excuses for disengaged audiences and powerpoint slides!

  • Thanks for an awesome and very helpful post Brent. I’ll be presenting some sessions on AlwaysOn Availability Groups and Service Broker at my local user group and at a couple SQL Saturdays, and they will be my first real professional presentations of this kind. I’m really looking forward to it, and this post gave me some excellent ideas on how to prep for it.

    One line that really stood out to me was: “My goal isn’t to eliminate the questions; my goal is to be able to celebrate them happily and intelligently when they occur.” Very well said. Thanks again Brent! 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.