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.

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19 Comments. Leave new

  • As a seasoned speaker, do you find yourself embracing the curve-ball questions? Personally I hate non-interactive talks, so I’d rather have a genuine heckler (although no one ever actively tried to heckle me) then a thoroughly engaged but completely silent audience. I’m curious if that’s just me or if its a common thing.

    • I love an audience that’s paying attention, and I love all genuine questions. It’s so much more fun when you know people are really thinking about the topic, right?

      Sometimes questions are crazy enough (or too long-winded) that they’d take the presentation off the tracks, and in that case I ask the person to come talk to me afterward. But I try to time things so that I have enough room to stop for questions along the way, because they really are enjoyable.

  • Well said, Kendra. That first step is hard, but TOTALLY worth it.

  • Kendra, most of the topics have been repeatably covered by seasonal speakers. Unless it is something less common or new feature introduced in SQL 2012, what is your suggestion for a beginner speaker to find topic and start presenting?

    In one of Paul Randal’s blog post, you ‘encourage new bloggers to write about whatever they are interested in, learning about, or passionate about’. I totally agree and just wonder if you feel the same way when you first started presenting. Cause the last thing a presenter wants is to bore the audience to death..

    • Hi Travis,

      That’s a great question. When I first started presenting I chose some less commonly used features as my topics, and now I see that as a newbie mistake– I wish I’d started with the basics and core functionality which I used every day, like backups, restores, indexing, tsql, and administration.

      If you’re submitting to a conference or SQL Saturday, the organizers will try to pick a nice “menu” of topics where there’s not too much overlap, so I wouldn’t worry too much about what others are doing. I’ve also been to several SQL Saturdays and user groups where the organizers wanted MORE introductory content, because many of the conference/ user group attendees don’t work with SQL Server full time and needed good starter material. I don’t think you need to make something advanced or expert to be interesting to a lot of people!

      I also find that if I watch presentations on something I think I know very well, like backups or restores or using SSMS, I find that there are little details I’ve forgotten or never thought about. So personally, I like to go to presentations of all levels.

  • Hallelujah and amen, Kendra. I’ve seen some similar growth in my career and I’ve only been speaking for a year now. I think the other great benefit is recogintion. You broaden your technical network with other speakers at various events as well as identified as an knowledgable on SQL Server material.

  • Well put! Another avenue to speak at are the PASS Virtul Chapters. Some folks don’t live close to a local chapter. Never fear, virtual chapters are here to help with that situation! We are always looking for speakers and have been the starting point for many presentations.

  • Kemdra
    Looking back over the last 5 years the #1 career enhancing step was when I finally did my 1st presentation (100 ppl) a few years back,sure over the time since there has been a lot of effort,late night’s and some hard-work to get to where I’m @ today.

    Would I want to stop presenting… Hmmm one day maybe but not yet, it is so much FUN to meet and have the honour to be able to share my knowledge and have the thrill @ learning sql server with others

    Plus I’ve got to meet some of the awesome #sqlfamily people and I’ve more to meet in the future

    My next events in August, I’m @ Belfast,Northern Ireland (it is a new UG I’m helping them get started), another event in London events (my London SQL PASS chapter) and then on the 25th I’m doing Live meeting event for the Nepal UG

    Excellent post..
    Loved the artwork (I’ve been there myself)

  • Yes I thought we had about 15-20 and then we filled the place to max…
    it was on “Indexed Views and Computed Columns” I still remember it like it was yesterday

    Last year @ PASS I was gob-smakced when 310 attendees turned up for my “Waits Session” so not sure if I can top that anytime soon

    Funnily enough I don’t get that nervous about presenting..{and I’m partially deaf}

    but exams scare the @#£$% out of me and I have the knowledge exam on 13th Aug (deep breaths needed here)

  • I still get nervous when delivering presentations and I’ve been doing this for more than 14 years now. For beginner speakers, I do recommend presenting on topics that you think are very simple but give a different twist to it. This is a bit of a stretch to the geek in us where we want to get down to the meat of the content. Most of my presentations nowadays are wrapped in stories that get the audience emotionally engaged because we all love stories and we easily remember things when they are told to us in stories. That’s why I spend most of my time preparing on the structure and storyline of my presentation because the content is pretty much every day knowledge. An example of this is my 24 Hours of PASS presentation on Windows Server Core
    where a call to action is to prove detractors wrong. I did blog about how I do my presentations here

  • This is a great post and the comments are excellent. I’m hoping to see some new presenters at PASS because there are tons of talented speakers out there.

    I just wanted to add a few more points that might help someone.
    1. Another benefit of presenting is in the preparation itself. It helps you strengthen your own skills because you don’t want to be embarrassed you’ll be doing a good job of researching the topic and becoming really good at it.
    2. Don’t forget about the Virtual chapters at PASS! It might be an easier place to start for some people who are too nervous to be stared at by tons of strangers. Just remember to still brush your hair because some virtual chapters use webcams; yes I’ve had experience with being unprepared from this angle.
    3. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know the answer to a question but make sure you try to follow up with the person who asked to provide them the answer.
    4. Provide a place for your attendees to get the slides/code you use for your presentation. I setup my own blog for that, might be your route or you may have another approach.
    5. Two huge ROIs in my opinion. One is that you have a resume/CV builder! Doing online recorded presentations can also be a portfolio for people to see your talents and gauge your knowledge.

    Also if you have a dog that barks at the UPS truck it’s always good to warn the audience, right Kendra?

  • Marian Chicu
    April 24, 2013 8:01 am

    Hi Kendra,
    I know this is an old topic, but wanted to let you know that your posts (from all 4 of you, but especially you and Brent) encouraged me to take it to the next level (actually 1st level :D). So this week had a first for 2 things:
    – I held a presentation in a CodeCamp event (with about 100 attendees)
    – we had the first meeting for a group of DBAs that want to start a user group (there were 7 of us).
    But I guess that the real work is only starting. Anyway, thanks for the heads up, you’re doing a great job keeping us informed :-).

    • WOOHOO! That’s great to hear! That’s the highest compliment we can hear, that we spurred folks into taking it to the first level. 😀 Congratulations and keep up the great work!

      • Marian Chicu
        April 24, 2013 8:34 am

        Thanks Brent. It was..complicated, to say the least, but I guess it’s addictive. Now I’m looking forward to my next one (we’ll hone the skills inside our group, so at least now we have where to practice :D).

    • Kendra Little
      April 24, 2013 5:40 pm

      That’s really awesome! Thanks for letting us know. 100 attendees is a pretty big crowd, too– way to go!


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