The Art of Conversation & PowerPoint


PowerPoint, Hammers, Processed Mac n’ Cheese, and Presentation Arts

I’m taking a new approach to producing presentations. In the past I’ve always come up with an idea and then spent countless hours in PowerPoint designing, writing, and conceptualizing the full presentation.  Converting what may start out as fresh food for thought and over-processing it into blue box mac n’ cheese.  The over-processing is no longer working for me. I’m starting to find that developing the concept and flow of the presentation is better-served with non-technical approaches.  Too long now I’ve been treating PowerPoint as something more that what it is: a tool to present an idea to one or more people. I’ve been crafting the message to fit the tool.  I was picking nails that would be best-driven with my hammer.  That’s not how you build anything with substance.

The Art of Conversation

I have sat through too many presentations where the speaker was not providing a clear message.  Perhaps (s)he was letting technology get in the way of the message or worse: trying to convey too much in the time available.

My goal for 2013 and beyond is to convey a clear and simple message in my presentations, erring on the side of having too much time than not enough. I only have an hour or two with my audience and in the past I’ve taken the approach that I need to fill that time with ALL THE INFORMATION.  In the process I may deliver a great amount of content, but I have to maintain a pace that is unreasonable for delivering the message in a fashion that will resonate and be retained.

I’ve become fond of the phrase “Denial of Service Attack on Your Brain” when talking about technical conferences. Too much information is a failure in the delivery process; there is no long-term retention. Because of this realization I made a concerted effort last year to deliver presentations that provided no more than three points to remember. I’m taking that further this year in slowing the pace of the presentations, building in discussion time and discussion points along the way so that questions don’t become relegated to the end of the session as people begin to pack up and think about their next stop on the schedule for the day.

This is also the approach I’m taking with my presenters on SQL Cruise in 2013 and 2014. I want them to plan easily on 30 minutes of discussion time in their two hour session blocks because on the Cruise I’m seeing great results and some really good in-depth discussions that add so much more value to the time spent in the classroom.
Granted, the environment is different on SQL Cruise then, let’s say, SQL Saturday; but the impact of conversation is the same. If you make the lesson personal to those in attendance it will resonate. Recanting a talk you’ve given 20 times and not allowing for conversation and personalization is not adding value to an attendee’s day.

Visualizing the Session

Slide_Deck-1My goal is to enter into a contract with PowerPoint until I am confident in my message and what I intend to get across. The use of Post-It Notes is providing me with a visual cue of when I am trying to do too much in the time I have been given. I start with jotting down a rough outline and creating “slides” on Post-It Notes first.


Working from left to right and top to bottom I build the flow of my presentation.  Throughout the entire process I shuffle around the order; interjecting additional concepts I wish to include until I feel I’m ready to complicate matters with TecHnOLogY! I treat the amount of Post-It Notes as the canary in my time spiral coalmine.  If I start to see either too much paper or too much writing it’s time to trim the message and allow for some of that scary black space of unknown that denotes conversation time.

The Unknown is a scary thing too.  Many presenters fear it and would rather be able to deliver an session that is rehearsed and refined to the syllable.  While that delivery method may have its place, it doesn’t work for me.  I prefer to have my facts down and my demos rehearsed, but there is something about getting up in front of a room of my peers and having a conversation about a topic, rather than a one-dimensional assault of data.

SQL Saturday Madison

On April 6, 2013 I’ll be back in Madison, WI for SQL Saturday 206.  I’m delivering a case study session dealing with taking our busiest Windows (not just SQL) server in terms of IO load from a state of crisis to one of peace; oh and adding IO overhead of Change Data Capture along the way.  The session: High IO! High IO!  It’s a Case Study Yo Ho! is being developed via this approach as is the presentation on Telecommuting I’ll be co-presenting with my wife, Amy Ford, Director of Operations for Microsoft Partner BlueGranite at SQL Saturday Chicago the following weekend.  Amy is a new telecommuter and will be presenting from that angle as well as the impact telecommuting has upon the family dynamic.

Here is a glimpse into what the Madison conversation will look like:

We’ll talk about how I determined there was a problem:


I’ll follow that up with the approach I took into collecting specifics on the scope and root cause for the IO issues we were facing.  Along the way I’m going to be really interested in how the audience would approach this problem.  Just because I’m up front talking doesn’t mean I’m the one with all the answers – it just means that I was the one who set aside their public-speaking fears and had something to say!


Then we’ll move on the mechanics of fixing the problem now that I (a) identified there was a problem and (b) what the problem was.


Then comes the most important step in the entire process:  letting go of fear, placing trust in your skills (and the fact that you did this entire run-through in a non-production environment FirST!.  It the F5 step…


Finally, the second-most important step in any tuning exercise:  taking new benchmarks and comparisons between the old hotMESS and the new hotNESS.



See You in Madison

It’s a full month out and I’ve told you exactly what I’m going to talk about. I hope you’ll still come to the session anyway.  If not, then let’s make a date to go to my favorite breakfast place in Madison on Sunday Morning: Marigold Kitchen! (Now that Bennett’s Smut-N-Eggs has closed of course!)

We can mix some SQL Server, professional development, and SQL Cruise stories into our applewood-smoked bacon and Gruyere omelets.