I’ve been very privileged to be able to work alongside Kevin on a few projects during our time together at Quest. To be honest I was a little unsure on how to structure this interview as Kevin has so many strings to his bow. We could talk about being an MVP, being a former president of PASS, a blogger, a columnist, an author but eventually I settled on being a speaker.
Thanks for agreeing to do this Kevin.
Before we start on the main part of the interview on speaking, tell us all a little about yourself. I realise I may have stolen some of your thunder there in the intro.
I’m a typical American mutt with Italian, English, Irish, and German heritage. My parents met in California where I was born. But I grew up in one of American’s most eclectic cities, Huntsville, Alabama. Huntsville is in the deepest of the Deep South, yet I don’t really have a strong Southern accent. Why? That’s because the city is home to NASA’s second largest laboratory, the Marshall Space Flight Center, and the US Army’s largest, the Redstone Arsenal. It was a place where, as a kid, you friends’ families included cotton farmers and astronauts, immigrant PhD rocket scientists and xenophobic members of old timey country churches. All of these divergent threads led to a rather led to some funny and conflicted experiences. You could probably write a comedy script from the push-and-pull of the conflict between old Southern rules of hospitality and courtesy coming into conflict with the big city rules of speed and efficiency that I experienced on a daily basis.
You know it’s coming… How did you start in acting?
LOL. I do indeed get that joke all the time. And yes, I actually did some acting in high school and college. There’s a cheesy ‘80’s movie called Space Camp where you can see me as an extra in several of the background scenes. It was filmed partly in Huntsville, home of the original and largest Space Camp.
Last one I promise… How are the jeans?
Actually, the fragrances are the better part of that job than the clothes. I get to pick all the models out for the Calvin Klein advertisements. <I wish!>
You were an Oracle guy, why make the switch from the dark side? Bonus points for sticking with a Star Wars theme.
Indeed, Oracle was my daily bread for six years and was the focus of my first book which, thankfully, is no longer in print. As an aside, that book was written in the days before email. It took 9-months to write and, like a healthy baby, weight 9-lbs when shipped to the publisher. I was working at Deloitte at the time and, like many Rebels wanting to break away from the Empire, saw a strong opportunity for advancement by switching from the centralized Oracle team to the decentralized SQL Server initiatives. There wasn’t a “team” yet for SQL Server, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get in on the ground floor.
Like the force your online brand is strong, would you say that helps in being asked to speak at events?
Without a doubt. I’m asked to speak at far more events than I could ever attend. I know some top speakers who use that situation to get preferential positioning at the big events. And that certainly has value. My strategy is a little different. I do enjoy going to the big events, but I also like to go to small events too. There’s usually a better chance of connecting with individuals and having a chance to actually have a conversation at the smaller events. In my opinion, this is a much better way to building long-term connections, for lack of a better word “fans”, who’ll stick with you over the long haul.
But personal branding is a virtuous cycle, what engineers would call a positive feedback loop. Delivering good sessions builds your online brand. And by building your online brand, you help build up demand for and attendance at your in-person events.
Incidentally, I’ve seen strong bloggers put in a poor performance in person and end up eroding their online brand. Both sides of the equation need to be strong, or else the weaker side of the equation will pull down the stronger. Conversely, if they’re both strong, then they’ll build the other up.
What social media channels do you use to promote your sessions, blogs, webcasts etc.?
I’m most active on Twitter these days, with posts on Facebook and LinkedIn as well, throughout the week. I recently added Google+ to the mix as an experiment. I try to blog at least once per week, although I’ve fallen off the bandwagon lately. And I’m trying to get back to one or two webcasts per month. Some utilities can really help lighten the load. I’m a fan of Hootsuite, which lets you make a single post that appears on all of your social media channels. And I’ve started to use Bit.Ly for all of my links because it provides exceptionally good metrics for tracking where clicks come from.
As I said in the intro we have known each other a little while and I’m lucky to be able to call you a friend. Why did you want to stand up in front of people and talk about SQL Server?
When I first started speaking, I was terrified. On the other hand, I also knew that there wasn’t a lot of institutional knowledge about SQL Server. As a long-time Oracle guy, I’d spent a lot of time in enterprise environments where you needed a well-defined process to optimize your investment. Few SQL Server people were exposed to that sort of rigorous approach because of the departmental origins of many SQL Server deployments. I simply saw a need and, having the heart of a teacher, wanted to help.
You are of course one of the most prominent speakers on the community circuit; I was astonished by some of the trips you have told me about and the toll it must take on not only you but your family. First off, what was the most exhausting tour you have done and secondly what keeps you focussed during these mammoth tours?
International travel, in particular, sounds glamorous, but it’s better described as a hard slog where no one speaks your language. Ha! My hardest tour was in the spring of 2011. This tour included stops in Brighton, UK for SQLBits as well as stops in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and a few cities in Germany. The pace was relentless. The suitcase was huge and heavy. The hotels had no elevators for that heavy case, which really aggravated my bad back. (I’d had a spinal fusion in 2000 due to an injury). And, unknown to me at the time, I was showing the signs of Type 2 diabetes.
One of the things I’d not wanted to admit, during times of travel, was that my productivity drops. I have trouble saying no. So I would never adjust my deadlines for things like white papers if they coincided with a long speaking tour. One of the biggest productivity gains I ever made, and which really helps me keep focused now, was to admit that I simply can’t do more than two things at one time. While on a trip, that meant I could answer email (barely) and conduct myself properly at the speaking events. Anything more than that meant I would fail to deliver even mediocre results on any of my obligations. The moral of the story – it’s better to do just one or two things really well than many things poorly.
For those people who have been living under a rock, you host and present virtual events as well as physical sessions, how do you prepare for a webcast?
I cheat. <laughs> Seriously, one of the best way to present on a wide variety of topics is to know your strengths and then, when getting out of your depth, bring in a friend who’s strong where you are not. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy co-presenting and panel discussions.
My first choice for presentation topics are scenarios that were a great struggle for me to master personally. My view, unsubstantiated by any research, is that when someone in a class asks a question many other people were wondering the same thing. So my thought is “Why don’t I ask that big question for everybody else in the room?” Most people are shy. I’m not (although I used to have a “shyness that was criminally vulgar” as Morrissey puts it). So, I’ll take the hit for my friends to get a straight answer for everyone. That’s also how I conquered stage fright, even in front of huge audiences – think of them as personal friends who want to hear your opinion.
My wife also likes to tease me that I spend very little time writing presentations. How can that be? Well, as it turns out, I’ve already spent dozens of hours thinking about the presentation, turning it over in my mind. So that when I sit down with PowerPoint, it all flows out very quickly because all of the major points that I want to make are fully conceptualized.
My final pass through a presentation, btw, is also counter-intuitive. In my last pass, I actively seek for content which I can remove or at least condense. I’ve learned over the years that I will average about 3 minutes on a single slide. Because of that metric, I can now tell at a glance whether my 27 page slide deck will fit in the one hour allotted for the presentation. Do the math: 27 slides x 3 minutes = 81 minutes. No way! Add in demos or other elements that allow you to extemporize and it’ll be a disaster.
I’ve found that proper time management in a presentation is one of the biggest separating behaviours between inexperienced versus experienced presenters. That’s why the recommendation to practice, even to an empty room at home is such a good idea when you’re new to presenting. Even better, is to record a video of yourself presenting and then review it with a critical eye for improvement.
I dropped a teaser in the last question, this time same question but focussed on physical events. How do you prepare for these? Stage presence must be in your mind when formulating a session. Your presentation style is very fluid and your sessions can be a lot of fun. How did you get to this style of presenting? Is it something that you have watched others do, read about or just a natural progression?
I can’t deny my Southern roots in answering this question. In my youth, I spent a lot of time at church watching Southern evangelical preachers captivate a room with their charisma and style. As I observed, I also realized that this charisma could be learned, just as it’d been taught to them in seminary. I then promptly forgot that observation until around 2005.
By that time, I was doing a lot of presentations both in my professional capacity and as the sitting president of PASS. But my presentations were primarily information-only. Yes, I was getting the most elementary of presentation style right: speak clearly, project so you can be heard in the back of the room, maintain eye contact, keep a conversational tone, use legible fonts, and so forth. I think my presentations had a lot of information, but not much personality.
It was at that stage that I remembered the impressive style of the evangelists of my youth. So I went back to some of library and reread books I had acquired about developing skills as a story-teller. Once I relearned those lessons, I think me presentation style hit a new level of performance.
Too long of a story, I know. But the gist is that, I studied and practiced a lot to make my presentation style might seem very natural, ad hoc, and unpracticed. :^)
Having presented a few webcasts myself now, tell me how do you pick your subjects?
I mentioned a bit about my cooperative approach to presentations to the earlier question about preparation. Another strategy I use to pick topics, which is rather ironic, is to present on things that I do not know very well but I’m interested in. I’ve found, as a teacher, that I study with greater focus when I have to teach the subject to others. Being asked a question for which you’re unprepared is a big motivator to study more thoroughly.
Keep in mind though, that when I say “do not know very well” I don’t mean an area which is completely unknown to me. For example, I’d never put a presentation together today on building a cube in SSAS. I don’t know anything about that. Instead, I mean a topic that I’m reasonably well acquainted with but not expert in. For example, I’m quite good at Transact-SQL. In fact, I wrote the first widely popular book on T-SQL (O’Reilly’s Transact-SQL Programming written back in the mid-1990s). But I haven’t spent much time learning about the new windowing functions that came out in the SQL2012 release. So, while I learned about that new feature, I might also approach it as a teaching opportunity and build out a slide deck to go along with the learning experience.
What would you say was the most difficult part of a session to pull together?
Without a doubt, it’s fact checking. There are two reasons. First, I have the mind of a storyteller, not a scientist. I remember names and faces well, as I also remember narratives. But I don’t retain facts very well. I can learn facts quickly, but I also forget them quickly. For example, I’m a history buff. Like a lot of history buffs, I love the great stories of olde (sic). I can tell you all about the War of the Roses, why York and Lancaster went at each other, what the fallout was of the conflict. But I don’t recall the specific dates of the war, nor the specific times and locations of the battles. Similarly, I can tell you all about query optimizer behaviour, but I have to look up the facts when I want to mention a specific trace flag to alter that behaviour.
My second challenge with fact checking is, ironically, longevity. I’ve had so many versions of OS’es and databases roll through my psychic infrastructure that facts which were once solid in my brain are now rather mushy. I find myself, in some presentations, saying things like “I can’t remember if they changed this in SQL2005 or SQL2008, but I know it doesn’t work that way in SQL2012.” Alzheimer’s?
As a veteran presenter you must have received some really strange feedback, what would you say was the most off the wall comment?
You’ve toured all around the world, what has been your favourite event or venue?
As I mentioned earlier, I’d rather connect and bond with a dozen people out of one hundred attendees, than speak to a room of one thousand and bond with none of them. The largest crowd I’ve spoken to was nearly 4,000. So believe me when I say that the bigger the crowd, the less the intimacy of your connection. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy the SQLCruise so much, where I get to spend a week with around 15 people. (And perhaps it’s because I’m on a cruise ship in the Caribbean?!?)
As for specific speaking engagements, my one tour through Oceania and SE Asia is a stand out because it was so foreign and different. (Thanks to Dr. Greg Low of SQLDownUnder for making that possible)! I also especially enjoy venues and events where I’m extended the personal hospitality of a host. Ireland is especially hospitable, but Denmark and Israel are also real standouts in that regard.
This is the question that I think most people are going to be interested in. What tips do you have for someone who wants to try their hand at speaking?
Sure, there are a variety of tips that are quick and easy to implement. There are also some that are easy understand, but hard to make happen. Here are some tips for those who are new to speaking, but want to give it a try.
Preparing to Speak
- Meet expectations:
- Figure out what your audience wants to hear and structure your presentation accordingly. Giving a DBA-oriented presentation to Devs is not the path to success. Same thing for highly detailed 400-level classes for a room that’s mostly junior staff.
- Make sure that your abstract properly matches what you’re speaking about. Many new speakers deliver a session that is NOT what the abstract describes. Even if the session is good, the audience is usually disappointed.
- If you have demos, practice them during slide construction. When finished with both the slides and demos, fully power down your laptop. Power it back up and repeat your entire demo without connecting to the Internet. I can’t tell you how many demos have failed because A) the venue does not have Internet access, and B) Some widget on the laptop was not configured properly to auto-start, DNS wasn’t available, etc. In some cases, you may even want to have standalone screen shots, in case the demo environment crashes utterly and completely.
- Arrive about 30 minutes early for your session. Observe the layout of the room. Get comfortable. Oh, and don’t expect anyone to sit on the first two or three rows.
- Bring spares of important “parts” of your presentation gear. I carry extension cords, a clock, mice, remote pointers/clickers, power supplies, video adapters, etc. It seems natural that any room you present in will have a clock and a power outlet nearby, but it’s surprising how often that will not be the case.
- Practice before a friendly crowd or even one friend. Solicit constructive criticism.
- Remember that it takes at least a couple minutes to speak to each slide. Practice to be sure you’ve got the timing right.
- New speakers often either go way over their time limit or, more often, talk too fast then finish early. It’s understandable. They’re nervous. Provide yourself a natural breakpoint, such as a bottle of water from which you’ll pause and drink from every couple of slides. This also gives your audience a natural point to ask questions.
- When making jokes, tread carefully. One person’s joke is another person’s insult. (I usually stick to self-deprecating humor).
- Similarly, be aware of how transient and localized cultural references might be. I once made a joke from the 1990’s movie The Princess Bride to a large 100+ person. No one in the room had seen the film. It’s possible that many people in the room weren’t even born when that film was new.
- Always introduce your acronyms at least the first time you use them. I attended a session on Active Directory for the DBA, quite recently in fact, where the speaker assumed that we knew what all of these various security and AD-related acronyms were. I didn’t. And, in fact, I never really did learn what they were, nor what the majority of the points were that he was trying to make.
The Art of Speaking
- Get to know your audience a bit first, if you don’t already know them. Ask for a show of hands by job type or something like that. You might find that, while you can’t change your slides, you can be flexible enough to choose an example that’s better for your current audience than the example you used with previous audiences.
- Body language:
- Hold your bearing with confidence. No slouching! Meet the gaze of your audience from time to time.
- If possible, don’t stand in one spot. Follow the model of TV weather forecasters who move back and forth to the map occassionally, pointing out areas of interest. (Never present the non-demo components of your session from a seated position unless you have a medical reason for doing so).
- Conversely, don’t fidget. Some of your audience will get fixated on your bobbing leg or twitchy hands and lose the thread of your presentation.
- A theatre trick I use is, when telling a story for emotional impact or to really drive home a lesson, over-emphasize an emotion’s body language. For example, imagine that I want the audience to remember that a specific DBA practice is a really bad idea. I might very visibly slump my shoulders and put on a very sad expression while saying “Please do NOT do this!” It usually will get a laugh, plus help folks remember your point. Experts have said that 75% of your meaning can be conveyed in body language. Using those non-verbal cues effectively in your presentation can move it from average ratings to above average ratings while making no changes to the content.
- Speak as if you’re projecting into the very back of the room. Similarly, modulate your voice in volume and tempo as you might when telling a funny story to friends. I’ve seen tiny ladies fill their audience with a sense of wonder at the way they could command a room and I’ve seen big, intimidating men fill their audience with pity at the quiet, tiny voice they used.
- Tell your audience how you’d like to handle questions at the outset. If you want questions to come at the end, say so. If you don’t mind questions during the presentation, pause every 2- to 3-slides and ask “Any questions?” You might alternately seed questions yourself, like this “Now some of you might be wondering about …” and interject your own sensible question. This has the added benefit of A) answering an FAQ, and B) making you look super-smart.
- Do NOT read what is written on your slides. It is an automatic human reaction to read the written word when it’s in front of them. Your audience will do that automatically. And they will be disappointed if, on a given slide, you don’t add anything over and above what is written there. Instead, use your slides to enhance or justify what you’re saying rather than the slides acting as the crux of what you’re saying. Some very good speakers don’t even put words on their slides, instead using only images on their slides. The point is, as the presenter, you want to be the focal point of attention.
- Prepare an anecdote or example for each of your major points. Examples could be about how the technique made somebody’s life better, more efficient, saved a project, whatever. You’ll always have a use for them because people love a good story.
- Check the time after every couple slides. Remember (again) that it takes at least a couple minutes to speak to each slide. If you’re running behind, you can skip or quickly summarize a slide as needed. If you’re running ahead, interject more examples to illustrate the point(s) your trying to make.
- Anticipate, especially in demos, that font size is extremely important. Make sure the fonts are legible from the back of the room with a “Can everyone see that?” There are a number of ways to handle this in advance of the actual demo: set your resolution low (I seldom use greater than 1280 x 720), set the SSMS or VS default font size to something large (16 pt), and definitely install Zoomit!
- Intro: Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
- Summary: Tell them what you told them, most importantly, tell them what you want them to remember about the session.
What are your ambitions for the rest of the year?
As usual, I’m going to try to boil the ocean – meaning I’ve got much bigger aspirations than I can ever achieve. Here are a few things I’m shooting for:
- Publish at least one eBook derived from my Leadership Skills for IT Pros DVD set.
- Completely redo my website.
- Publish my first utility on CodePlex, a full script-based demo for AdventureWorks to use in demos and presentations.
- File a patent application.
And maybe even spend some time with my family!
Thanks for your time Kevin.
You can find out more about Kevin’s SQL Server exploits at his blog: http://kevinekline.com/
(For more about the actor go to: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000177/
For new pants go to: http://www.calvinklein.com)