Monday, July 22, 2013

Building a Technical Presentation - Part 1

I've been looking for something that I could do a multi-part series on with my blog for a few months now and as I started work on a brand new presentation I thought that would be a perfect subject! While I will always encourage people to get into presenting, it can be a bit daunting for anyone that has not done them before or you did them a long time ago (high school or college). Hopefully this series will help you get started on your first presentation and give it at a local user group in the near future!


As you might expect the first thing that you need to come up with for a presentation is a subject. When coming up with a subject for a technical presentation it can be very broad or specific depending on the time that you have available for the presentation. You can speak about a lot more in a 60 minute slot then you can in a 10 minute one. I have actually found over the years of presenting that I have done now that the longer the time slot the easier it is to come up with something, where the shorter slots require you to really have the details worked out. This might seem counter to how you might think it would go if you have not presented before, but once you get comfortable with presenting you will find that once you get started it will be easy to go for 60 minutes or more on a subject that you know a lot about.

The other thing to keep in mind when choosing a subject is whether or not you will do any demos in the presentation. When you are just starting out with presentations, especially technical presentations I would recommend staying away from doing live demos in your presentations until you are more comfortable. Live demos add a whole set of issues that are very different from just a standard presentation and I will cover that in a later part of this series. For first time presenters I would suggest coming up with something that you can cover by just talking and presenting slides, maybe even a video. Watch out with videos that they aren't too long and if they have audio that the audience needs to hear keep in mind that is time you are not presenting anything. For first time presenters you can use screenshots to cover the step-by-step process, instead of doing a live demo.

When choosing a subject for your presentation it is important to keep in mind what the audience is for the presentation and also if you plan on presenting it in different forums (webinars, user group, SQLSaturday, conferences, etc.). I try to make the subjects that I pick general enough in the early stages that I can mold the presentation to fit different forums and time slots as much as possible. I know that sounds like a lot to think of right from the start, but if you can keep all of this in mind it should help you create a presentation that you will be able to use in a variety of places. Along those lines, I almost never create a new presentation with the thought that I will only present it once. The only way that you are going to make yourself more comfortable presenting is to have something that you can do over and over again. As with everything else in life the more times you do the same thing the better it gets.

You would be amazed at the ways that you can find the subject for a presentation. I have spent hours just sitting down hoping that something will come to me and coming up with nothing and then as I'm sitting down watching TV or reading an idea will pop in my head. The idea for the subject of the presentation that I'm currently working on which inspired this series actually came up in a dinner conversation with a friend as we were talking about past projects. I remembered a specific project I was working on and as I described it to him he mentioned that I should write a blog post about it. I didn't think much about it at the time, but later that night it came to me that while it might make a great blog post it would also make a great presentation. The subject that I came up with was how to create a date/time dimension for a data warehouse, but make it easy to create, update and be reuseable. Sounds simple enough, which is what can make for great presentations, it is something just about everyone needs if they are creating a data warehouse, but they don't want to spend a lot of time on it. It is a broad enough subject that I can create a variety of different versions and it will also have some good demos/scripts that can be used by the attendees.


So, now that you have some subjects in mind for your presentation you can start to think about titles for your presentation. Depending on the presentation that I'm working on sometimes this comes out right away and other times it may take more time and I have even changed the title of a presentation after giving it a few times because I think that the new title is better. Do sweat it if you can't come up with the title right away, start working on the other pieces of it that I will go over in future parts and I'm sure that something will come up the more you work on it.

Some of the things to keep in mind when you are trying to come up with a title for your presentation is if there are any letter/word limits on the length of it. Depending on where you are planning on presenting this presentation you may find different submission rules for titles. For example, user groups won't really care how long your title is, but if you submit to conferences like SQLSaturday or PASS Summit there are limits and it is generally less than 100 characters. While that sounds like a lot you will find that it can be hard to convey everything you want in the title with that few characters. Thankfully it is rare it is just the title that people will see, usually there is also a session summary that will be many more characters in length that you can use (we will talk about writing these summaries/abstracts in a future part of this series).

There is always a debate on it the title of your presentation should be something witty or funny, especially for technical presentations. This really depends on what your audience for the presentation is, as you do more presentations you will get a better feeling for how comfortable you are with doing titles that might be less serious. I tend to change this up depending on what the subject of my presentation is and where I'm planning on presenting it. SQLSaturdays are a great example of it being like a major conference, but since it is on a Saturday it tends to be more relaxed, so funny/witty titles are more the norm. For a conference like PASS Summit they tend to not be so witty, but if you become known as a speaker that does those kind of presentations then using a witty title will work there as well.

As I mentioned at the top of this I decided on this series as I started working on a new presentation. This presentation that I'm working on is a completely atypical for my presentations, in that I came up with the title for it before I had most of the details for the presentation worked out. Don't get me wrong, I had the subject that I was thinking about, but I had not fully fleshed that out when the title came to me. The first thing that I came up with for this presentation title is because of an acronym. For those of you that don't know me so well, I am a big Science Fiction geek, my dad took me to see Star Wars on opening weekend when I was almost 6 years old (this is the FIRST Star Wars, later re-titled Episode IV, not this prequel stuff), so that had a huge impact on me and to this day I am a big Star Wars geek (yes, I'm very comfortable calling myself a geek). As I was thinking about this new presentation I was also thinking about the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who this year. If you follow Doctor Who you know that it is a time travel series with a character called The Doctor that cannot die of old age and in fact regenerates with each new actor that takes over the role (convenient plot idea to keep a show alive for 50 years). The "ship" that The Doctor uses for time travel is called the TARDIS which is an acronym that stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. So, when I knew that I wanted to do this presentation on how to easily create a date/time dimension in a data warehouse I knew that I had to work The Doctor in somehow! The first version of the title I came up with was "TARDDISS: Time And Real Date Dimensions In SQL Server", while clever I wanted to see if I could make it so it didn't sound like a snake was pronouncing this title. After some thinking I came up with "TARDDIS: Time And Reuseable Date Dimensions In Script", this title helped get rid of 2nd 'S' and also does a much better job of stating what the presentation is about.

That is the first part of this series, in the coming parts of this series I plan to walk through the steps that I follow to create this new TARDDIS presentation. The next part will focus on pulling together your thoughts for the presentation and creating the slideshow.