Dealing with Presentation Criticism

Writing and Presenting

I just had a champagne moment.

Dozens of good feedback forms, and one not-so-good one.

Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) blogged about having these champagne moments in his life, times when he was almost-but-not-quite-ready to pop the champagne open because he still wanted to take things higher.  My standards aren’t quite so high – I recognize certain achievements as being champagne-worthy, and this is one of ’em.

My presentation at SQLSaturday Chicago last weekend was probably one of the best presentation experiences I’ve ever had. To explain it, I need to step backwards through time starting with a pile of feedback forms.  I’ve got a little stack of papers on my desk (pictured at right) from dozens of attendees.  When I review feedback, I break it into two piles: good comments and bad comments. The pile on the left?  All good.  I got one and only one piece of negative feedback:

“Just OK. Only theory. Need to be more in depth and practical session.”

I can live with this because every single part of it is incorrect.  Sounds horrible for me to say, but bear with me and I’ll break it down:

  • “Only theory” – nope, I’ve lived all of these lessons, and there’s nothing in this deck that I haven’t validated via experience.
  • “Need to be more in depth” – I can’t go into more depth when the session is only an hour long. The only way to go into more depth is to reduce the number of topics covered, and the abstract specifically explained the number of topics that would be covered.
  • “Need to be more practical” – I finished up with a checklist of things you need to do when you get back to the office and a set of links to do them. It simply doesn’t get any more practical than that without me visiting your office and doing it for you (and I’ll be happy to do that for a price, but you don’t get that for free at any conference.)

That’s the only single bad comment I got this time, and I’m fine with it.  I consider this my most successful presentation so far, but it’s not because of the stack of good comments.

The Key to Getting Good Comments

Getting positive feedback on your presentations is really simple: get bad comments first, then make your presentations better. My stack of good comments today are the result of me constantly paying attention to yesterday’s bad comments and figuring out what I need to improve.  Here’s a tour of some of the good comments I got this time, and how they came about.

“Great information I can use on Monday morning!  The take home checklist is much appreciated!” – Recently I was going back through my notes from the MCM training and I noticed that I’d made a lot of notes about things I wanted to address with my own servers when I got back to work.  It hit me – I was building a checklist.  Why not finish up every presentation with a list of things the attendee should do when they get back to the office on Monday?  Rather than recapping what I’d told ’em, I gave them a list of things to do.  This weekend’s presentation was the first one I finished that way, and it was a smash, generating a lot of good feedback.

"He'll be on in just one more minute..."
My Opening Act

“Brent O always gives a fun and informative presentation” – I don’t think you can present successfully with a sense of shame. I’ll wear a Richard Simmons costume to talk about weight stats – I mean wait stats – or I’ll show contortionist photos as I explain good filegroup design. Don’t take yourself seriously. Do you enjoy reading Books Online with all information and zero humor? My attendees sure don’t, and if I don’t keep things lively, they zone out. I keep watching my slides to see if I’ve got enough fun injected into my information. If I don’t have at least one fun slide for every 10-15 informational slides, I get nervous.

“Good presentation and humor and always down to earth.” – For me, being down to earth means that I try to identify with every person who asks a question. There are no stupid questions, because at some point in the past, I asked the exact same question. When I hear a question, I about the point in my career when I wondered the same thing, and I think about what was on my mind at the time. For example, at SQLSaturday Chicago, an attendee asked for clarifications about why we shouldn’t separate clustered indexes and nonclustered indexes onto separate filegroups. I’ve been there myself! I remember reading similar advice on the web, thinking it was a good idea, and applying it to some of my databases. It keeps me humble. Experience doesn’t mean I’m better than anybody else – it just means I’ve made more mistakes.

“Great content available online is good.” – More and more attendees are bringing wireless gadgets with ’em. They’re bringing iPads with cellular data connections or they’re tethering their phones to their laptops, and they’re surfing the web during the presentation. It’s not enough to tell attendees that the slides and the code will be available sometime next week: they want it right freakin’ now. Before your presentation starts, create a page on your blog with your presentation resources. Put one or two links on there, and upload the PDF version of your slide deck. Give attendees a short, easy-to-remember URL with or the WordPress GoCodes plugin. Good comments will ensue.

“Great approach to simplifying complex concepts” – Even though I don’t cook, I like watching the cooking show Good Eats by Alton Brown. He uses crazy props like a life-size cow made of foam to illustrate how science improves cooking.  I don’t leave Good Eats with a degree in science, but I know more than I need to know in order to improve my cooking.  (If I cooked.)  I try to take that same approach with databases by teaching you what you need to know, yet not boring you with the minutiae that doesn’t actually improve your skills.

“More detail than expected which was excellent.” – When someone does want to know more than what’s on the screen, and if I’m running ahead of schedule, I’ll go deep or off-topic in order to satisfy questions.  I have to balance the questions with the clock, so I also have to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of links with more info.  I use the WordPress GoCodes plugin to save my favorite resources on all kinds of topics.  For example, if someone wants to know more about the file cache problems on Windows, it’s easy for me to remember instead of  Attendees love it when you can give a 30-90 second answer to a question, plus write a whiteboard link for much more detail about the topic.

“Only complaint is that Brent only had one session.” – On the surface this is an awesome comment, but there’s a dark side.  As a presenter, if you see this as a negative comment and you try to get more sessions, you’re doin’ it wrong.  Relax and enjoy the event as an attendee.  Network with your other presenters, because they’re like your coworkers.  I only had one session this time, so I was able to veg out before my session, help another presenter get feedback, and then start my session relaxed and focused.  That brings me to the next phase of our backwards-in-time journey.

The Keys to the Zen Energy Balance

Brent in his native habitat
Me at SQLSaturday Chicago

As I took questions from leaving attendees, Allen White asked me, “Did you know you started about fifteen minutes early, and you ended about fifteen minutes early?” Yep – perfect timing for length on that one.  I’d started early because there was literally no space left in the room!  With fifteen minutes before go-time, people were standing in the aisles and sitting on the floor.  No sense in waiting around for more folks to come in, because no one else could have crammed in without filing a sexual harassment lawsuit.  Allen himself had taken the presenter’s chair – not that I would ever present sitting down anyway.  I’m one of those running-around-wildly presenters. I’m one espresso short of screaming, “DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS!”

During the presentation, I’d had a good balance of energy and calmness.  I’d relaxed before my presentation by sitting through Erin Stellato‘s good presentation on baselining, and I’d snuck out about fifteen minutes before the end in order to grab coffee. Over the years, I’ve figured out that a shot of adrenaline – err, caffeine – helps get me upbeat, attentive, and focused right before a presentation starts. When the presenter’s zippy, the attendees are zippy. I sat back in her session, drank my zoom juice, and opened up my slide deck.

The moment Erin Stellato finished her presentation and the room’s doors opened, suddenly attendees started flooding in. People had been waiting outside to claim a seat. I hustled up to the podium because I like hooking up my laptop right away to make sure everything works, and when I looked up, the room was chock full of nuts. That’s a fantastic feeling for a presenter, knowing that people really, really wanna see this particular topic. Despite a lack of caffeine and music, I found myself totally energized and pumped up, and that wasn’t anywhere near what I expected.

See, months earlier, when SQLSaturday crew picked this abstract, I was actually disappointed. This wasn’t my favorite presentation. Sure, I was happy with it, but it wasn’t the kind of presentation that really made me proud to be a presenter.  But whaddya know – it ended up being one of my best presenting experiences.

This week, I’m presenting at Connections for the first time, and then it’ll be time to read comments again, and keep sluggin’ through the bad ones.  I look at presenting the same way I look at database administration: being good means you’re never good enough, and you’re constantly trying to find the next way to up your game.  That’s what Scott Adams meant in his champagne moments blog post, and he’s absolutely right.

But I’m still drinking champagne as I write this.  Cheers!

If you liked this post, you might also like some of my past posts about my quests:

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How to Build a SQL Server Support Matrix
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20 Comments. Leave new

  • Congrats, Brent. 🙂

  • Excellent post Brent. As one who is trying to get into presenting, your comments and insight are invaluable to us rookies. Keep them coming!

  • Excellent post, Brent! THNX

  • Ahh, I need to figure out a way to feed you an extra cup of coffee if I’m ever going to be in a session of yours, becuase I want to see you do The Balmer.

  • Great write up and insight into the world of presenting. I hope to catch one of your presentations in the very near future.

  • Good Eats! ala Alton Brown. I love that show. Wife hates it but she doesn’t get that geek side of me so much.

    Great article overall but now I’m going to watch an episode of Good Eats.

  • Hi Brent,

    Your blog is interesting for two reasons. Along with the technical content, you even keep adding the softskills part of it. I am sure this will help in getting few more Brent Ozers in SQL World, and I hope I become one sometime down the line.

    I keep following you on your blog and this is first time I am commenting 🙂 and felt is right place to comment.


  • Hi Brent,

    Can you share the Monday checklist? Is it only meant for people who attend your sessions?


    • Hi, Phani! Thanks for the compliments. Unfortunately, the Monday checklist is only for the people who attended the session right now. I may make ’em public later though.

  • Brent.. are you ready for some buddy…
    I think that you .. sorry I just can’t do it.. you are showing us how we can improve and that is IMHO awesome..
    I will see you soon @ SQLCruise (Alaska)

  • I love this quote: “Experience doesn’t mean I’m better than anybody else – it just means I’ve made more mistakes.” Did you take it from somewhere?

    • Ross – thanks! No, it just rolled off my tongue, but you know what the Barenaked Ladies said: it’s all been done. Somebody’s said it somewhere, no doubt.

  • DM Unseen AKA M Evers
    March 31, 2011 3:34 am

    Brent, just for my curiosity, how many presentations a year do you do (did last year)? How many of them are (more or less) repeats?

    To Put in Another way:


    USE BrentOzar

    SELECT COUNT(Presentation) as PresentationsPerYear,
    Year(PresentationDate) as Year
    FROM community.Presentations as Presentations
    GROUP BY Year(PresentationDate)


    USE BrentOzar

    SELECT COUNT(DISTCINCT Presentation) as DistinctPresentationsPerYear,
    Year(PresentationDate) as Year
    FROM community.Presentations as Presentations
    GROUP BY Year(PresentationDate)

  • Ameena Lalani
    April 4, 2011 12:01 am

    I was one of the lucky one in your session in SqlSat67 and I felt the energy in the room. Presentation was awesome and thanks for including one of my comments in your blog post. I know you will not know which ones as feedbacks were anonymous.

    • Ameena – cool, I’m glad you had a great time! The energy was fun thanks to the attendees – you were wonderful. It was an honor presenting to you all!


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