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Technical Presentation Tips from a Keyboard Player – Part 1


Playing Keys

Playing Keys

Now, don’t get confused. While the blog explicitly says “bass player,” the fact is that I have gone back to playing the keyboard since this past summer. I have been privileged to play during Sunday services for myChurch here in Ottawa. Being a part of a great team of musicians and singers is really a wonderful opportunity for me to express my gifts and talents while serving God in a creative way. 

The last quarter of the year is usually the busiest time for me with regards to my speaking schedule. I usually call it my personal conference season – from the annual PASS Summit conference in Seattle, Live360 events in Orlando to the small user group meetings and SharePoint Saturday events happening within the last quarter of almost every year. Those who know me understand the amount of time, effort and resources that I put into preparing and delivering my presentations. And, I love going thru all of the work required to deliver a great presentation.

As a jazz musician myself, I find parallels in how artists think about their craft – how they prepare and deliver their art to the audience. Presentation expert Garr Reynolds (Twitter | blog), a jazz drummer  himself, wrote about how jazz relates to communication and presentations. I thought I’d share some of the things that I do both as a keyboard player and a technical presenter to deliver great technical presentations. If you are a technical professional – systems engineer, developer, database administrator, network engineer, etc. – looking to explore the world of presenting and speaking at events, read on.

      1. Really know your content. No, seriously, you have got to know your content really well. As a keyboard player, as soon as I get the list of songs from my musical director, I listen to it repeatedly – in the car, on my MP3 player, my phone, my laptop, etc. I remember having to use cassette tapes almost 20 years ago and repeatedly play and rewind songs until I can barely hear them. I listen repeatedly until it becomes LSS. Likewise, as a presenter, you should know your content really well that you can talk about it for hours non-stop. Since SQL Server high availability and disaster recovery is what I specialize on, I can talk about it for hours during whiteboard sessions, consulting engagements and, yes, even presentations.
      2. List and gather your props. Props are objects used on stage by actors during a performance. As a keyboard player, I have my trusty old Korg X50 music synthesizer that I use for basic playing. Earlier this year, I got introduced to the world of software synthesizers (synths) and started using Mainstage for the Mac. That means that I now have to carry both my MacBook and my Korg X50 during practices and performance. These in addition to the audio cables, audio digital interface, power adapters, etc. that go with playing keyboard using software synths. As a technical presenter, list down all of the things that you need during your presentation – be it the clicker for your presentation, a laptop running Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple Keynote, the demo workstation to show how things work, a USB thumb drive that contains a backup copy of your slides, etc. But here’s a secret that both great musicians and presenters know by heart. Legendary American jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane once said, “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” It’s not about the tools that you use but rather how you use the tools that you have to deliver the message in a very sincere way.
      3. Organize your content. So, you’ve done your research, collected as much resources as you can, gathered all of the facts, included references, etc. You’ve got everything that you need to write an entire book. Unfortunately, you’re not writing a book (or in our context, producing an album.) You can only put so much content in your music and your presentation with the given amount of time you need to deliver it. When I search for information about a song that I need to play, I try to answer these basic questions:
        • FOUNDATION: “What really needs to be there?” Any piece of music will have melody which is identified by the chords and scales. This is a must and should not be  compromised. Similarly, a technical content needs to have the foundational information. Without the foundational information, the audience will get lost along the way. If advanced concepts need to be covered, don’t assume that everyone in the audience would know it but rather build it in implicitly without them knowing it. It’s like having kids do complex calculus by starting off with basic math.
        • THEME: “What message am I trying to convey?” Did you think that music is just an arrangement of notes organized to make you feel something when you hear it? Music is an expression of one’s self. That’s why there are lyrics that pertain to love, amusement, anger, etc. and they resonate within you when you hear them. That’s why there are theme songs for movies and advertisements. A technical presentation is no different. And that starts with the abstract. The abstract gives the audience a roadmap of what to expect in your content. This is also the reason why we have to really think about writing the abstract because it sets the audience up for the right expectations.
        • STORY:How does my story look like?” The best music that you will hear are the ones that have stories embedded within them. One example that I could think of is that of Bob Carlisle’s Butterfly Kisses.  Take a moment to listen to that song. It touches our heart because it resonates within us. Similarly, a technical presentation needs to have some story wrapped within it so that the attendees can connect with the presenter on a personal level. This is a very tough item to consider and, honestly, I still struggle with this even after more than 15 years of presenting.  I think because technical professionals are so wrapped within the confines of their work environment that it’s hard to find the emotional connection with servers and databases (although I know a few folks who fell in love with their database server that they wouldn’t want to replace them.)  But let me assure you that there is always a story that you can find and relate to your topic if you search hard enough, even if it isn’t our own story. One of the best story that I tell in my disaster recovery presentations was that of having to personally endure the effects of the second largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century.
        • TRIM:What can I exclude?” Great musicians know which notes NOT to play. Great leaders know which tasks NOT to do. “Are you saying that I just wasted all of that time and effort researching content that I am supposed to throw away?” Well, I didn’t say anything about throwing away content. All I said was EXCLUDE. It’s interesting to listen to music that consists of only 4 notes instead of 10. But those 4 notes are properly selected to sometimes produce sound that is way better than having 10 notes. In the same way, pick a handful of ideas from the content that you’ve already researched that your audience would consider the most important ones. Focus is key here. You would be surprised at how much your audience will appreciate the level of focus that you put into your content once your presentation is over. Oh, and about that content that you’ve researched? That will come in handy during the Q & A portion. It may end up being a topic for a blog post. In fact, you’re reading one right now.
        • GRAVY:What can I include that may not be as important but would spice up the content even more?” I keep this to a minimum as much as I can. In fact, I only consider this once I have addressed the first four. You can call this your Easter egg or embellishment. When playing a piece of music, I usually try to squeeze in an unusual chord or tone that would make the sound even better with anyone barely even noticing it unless it was recorded and intentionally analyzed. I do it mostly for fun and experimentation without leading the listeners away from enjoying the music. I do the same thing with my technical presentations – be it a picture in the slide deck or a text in my sample code that I’m demonstrating. People who are aware may be able to pick it up but don’t sweat it if nobody doesn’t. This is for me because I want to make delivering presentations fun.

Did I say “part 1” in the title? That’s because there really is a lot to consider whether you’re an aspiring musician or a technical presenter. We’ll continue on in the next blog post where I’ll talk about the other things that I do to deliver great presentations. You might want to hang in there a bit until the final part where I explain the process behind all of these. Stay tuned.

Leadership Lessons from Running a SQLSaturday Event


SQLSaturday Philippines

I’ve been involved with the SQL Server community ever since I can remember. I’ve been both a speaker and a volunteer and I know how it felt like to be on both sides of the fence. However, the one thing I haven’t been is an organizer myself. Until SQLSaturday218. This is the very first SQLSaturday event in the Philippines that was held last 9-Mar-2013.  Attendees, volunteers and speakers all claim that the event was a huge success and that they want it to be an annual event. But what they didn’t realize until the event was finally over was that SUCCESS always comes at a PRICE. The rewards of a champion only comes after the hard work and sacrifice, not before. SQLSaturday218 has reinforced a lot of leadership lessons that I have been practicing and teaching throughout the years.

  1. Find a higher purpose. I’ve blogged about this before and I’ve taught others about finding a higher purpose for things that we do.  SQLSaturday218 for me is more than just a SQL Server community event. It’s an attempt to express my patriotism in ways that I can do best. While most SQLSaturday organizers talk about technical education, I talk about loving my country. With the upcoming national elections in the Philippines, political candidates talk about bringing about change. I just made change happen thru SQLSaturday218. This wasn’t my original idea. Marlon Ribunal (blog | Twitter) and Justin Dearing (blog | Twitter) came up with the idea of running a SQLSaturday event in the Philippines. They included me in the conversation because they knew I was a die-hard FILIPINO. And the rest was history. My higher purpose helped me pursue even when the times are tough.
  2. Find allies, ignore detractors.  Every noble goal will have both. I always say that only fruitful trees get picked on. Nobody picks fruits on trees that don’t bear any. And, so be ready to have both allies and detractors. I heard a lot of folks tell me this is an insane idea. Nobody has ever organized a SQLSaturday event without physically being there. I was in Canada planning and organizing an event that was thousands of miles away from where I am, not to mention with a 12-hour time zone difference. I only knew (and have met) a handful of the volunteers. Regular SQLSaturday sponsors won’t fly to the Philippines just for this event. The odds are stacked up against me. I expected to have detractors. I was willing to take the stones that will get thrown at me. But I also did find allies. Niko Neugebauer  (blog | Twitter,) a fellow SQL Server MVP and PASS Community Evangelist was my greatest ally. He was the one who told me that it is possible and that I can make it happen because he was able to do it before. Allies will help you raise your shield when the detractors start throwing stones at you.
  3. Build a GREAT, UNITED team. People are what make things happen. That’s why you need to build a GREAT team. I’ve enlisted the help of people I knew who had the same passion for the community as I have. Culture is very important to me. That’s why I made sure that members of my team share the same values. They all went the extra mile to do things that I can’t because I wasn’t physically available. Some of my allies ended up being a part of the team.  And that’s why I brag about the people in my team who made SQLSaturday218 a huge success. But a great team will only go so far. A GREAT, UNITED team is unstoppable. In order to build a united team, they need to feel that they are a part of it in the first place. And building relationships is what makes that possible. Talk to team members. Understand what matters to them. Make them feel that they are special. Be willing to go the extra mile for them. If we are willing to do this for them now, imagine what they will be willing to do for you in the future.
  4. Over communicate.  It’s the leader’s job to keep the team informed. But sometimes, the same message has to be communicated several times in order for every one to get it. Over communication breeds clarity. It also addresses misunderstandings among those who receive the message. SQLSaturday has a website that organizers can use to do whatever they need to organize and run the event. While I maximized the use of the feature to send email communications to speakers, volunteers and registered attendees, I went the extra mile of sending personal emails. Every week for the past 6 weeks, I sent event updates to the registered attendees and those on the wait list. I also sent emails to the volunteers, giving them a picture of what to expect and what is expected of them. I also sent emails to my team about things that matter to us in order to make this event a success. I responded to emails, answered questions on instant messenger, did Skype calls, etc. in order to properly deliver the message.
  5. Ask for help but operate with a bootstrap mindset. My idea was to run SQLSaturday218 with very minimal to no sponsorship. That’s is because I wanted to create a mindset of creativity and resourcefulness. Plus, I also understand the challenges that most of the SQLSaturday sponsors have. It’s hard to spend money on sponsorships without the possibility of having immediate returns on their investments. I call myself the “self-proclaimed marketing guy” and I try to practice what I preach. I didn’t just go around asking for sponsorships. I only asked those who I believe will benefit from doing so. I even turned down several potential sponsors and explained why this would not benefit them. However, I didn’t just turn them down without offering them a long-term perspective of their marketing initiatives. And because we kept the bootstrap mindset, we operated as if we didn’t have resources. It’s amazing to see how people come up with creative ideas just because we don’t have the resources. So, when the resources became available, they were used to reward those who came up with creative ideas that got implemented.
  6. Have a detailed plan but be flexible enough when things don’t go as planned. I had a detailed project plan in place from start to finish. I shared it with my team and allowed them to make suggestions and modify it as necessary. But everyone knows that nobody can prepare and implement a perfect plan. Being flexible when things don’t go as planned is necessary for success.  We had delays with some of our deliverables. There were changes in the room assignments that affected the schedule and the signs that we printed out. But because everyone on the team understood what was expected, they all made things possible outside of the plan.
  7. Step back when necessary. Leaders have the tendency to do everything because they believe that success (and failure) lie in them. What they don’t realize is that not stepping back prevents potential rockstars to shine. At the day of the event, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Same thing with the volunteers. What’s really surprising is that I didn’t even have the chance to do a briefing session before we start doing the real work. All I did was shake their hands and introduced myself to them. Now, understand that these are people whom I haven’t personally met. But it’s as if they knew me very well and knew exactly what I expected of them. The volunteers were running on auto-pilot. That kept me focused on what I can do best. Had I not stepped back, I could have ruined the creative ideas that they were able to pull off and possibly discouraged them from trying again.
  8. Give as much A.I.R. as you possibly can. I blogged about giving appreciation, inspiration and recognition. As attendees were commenting on how great the event turned out to be, I took that opportunity to thank the sponsors, volunteers and speakers for making the event a huge success. At the volunteers’ and speakers’ dinner, I commented on the fact that I felt like having a great team from heaven. I sent emails to my contacts about how the event turned out to be, again, mentioning the fact that I had the best volunteers and speakers ever. I sent emails to the local sponsors, highlighting some of their staff who did a great job of volunteering at the event. I kept telling others, even sending personal emails and instant messages to the volunteers and speakers after the dinner, and constantly appreciating and recognizing their contributions. All of them wanted to be a part of next year’s SQLSaturday Philippines.

Leadership expert Dr. John C. Maxwell once said that “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been a student of leadership for the past decade.  The lessons I’ve learned help make me become a much better leader and also inspires others to do the same. With the outcome of SQLSaturday218, I think this will become an annual event with the help of the local SQL Server user group.

The Pen and Paper in the Digital Age of Social Media

November 18, 2012 2 comments

I wanted to start this blog post with a reference to a TED Talk by Hannah Brencher about love letters to strangers.


In an earlier blog post, I talked about my experience with working on a large SharePoint 2010 upgrade and migration project for a Fortune 500 company. I’ve told people stories about why the project became very successful despite the different challenges and difficulties that we encountered along the way. The secret lies in the great and wonderful people I’ve worked with – from the project manager, the engineers and even the application testers. The project has given me he opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with those involved.

Several weeks after the project went live, I was having a conversation with the project manager about the way we manage our relationships and dialogues we have with the people that matter to us. She mentioned the fact that even after celebrating her birthday just a few days ago, most of the greetings that she received were all in digital format – text messages, emails, Facebook messages, etc. The conversation concluded with the fact that greeting cards have now joined the ranks of dinosaurs and the Dodo bird on being extinct. I have to admit that while I like sending hand-written notes and letters to people, I save the reader the agony of reading my hand writing. I still remember the gruelling writing exercises that I had to go thru in grade school just to improve my hand writing – write, scribble, erase, write, and so the cycle goes. And while most people say that practice makes perfect, I just couldn’t get my hand writing right. I can’t even read my own hand writing sometimes that I always resort to typing my notes after meetings so I could legibly read and recall the ideas I wrote.

A few weeks ago, I sent the project manager and one of the application testers books that I think would be valuable to them.  Dr. John Maxwell’s book  – Everyone Communicates Few Connect  – was the latest book that I have read from the author and decided to send a copy to the project manager. For the application tester,  sent a copy of the SharePoint 2010 branding book because I believe that the book would be very helpful in her day-to-day job. Included with the book was a hand-written note thanking them for their contribution to the success of the project and described how the book would help them improve their productivity at work. I think I’ve scribbled on a few sheets of paper before finally tucking one inside the envelope and headed over the post office. I was more concerned about the recipients having a hard time reading my handwriting than the impact that it would have in their lives.

In today’s digital age where social media has taken over our modes communication, it’s so easy to take for granted the value of  inter-personal relationship. It still amazes me how people in the workplace would send an email response to a colleague that’s a few cubicles away rather than take a few steps and have a face-to-face conversation. Oh, those lovely email threads spanning multiple responses when it could have been made even clear with a phone call. Social media and the digital age only thrives because they leverage on the most important ingredient in the marketplace : PEOPLE. We humans desire to feel special and important. We love receiving feedback for the work that we do and long to be connected with the people that matter to us. That’s why people flock to Facebook and Twitter. We want to join conversations, share our uniqueness and simply feel validated. And that’s why I feel that the pen-and-paper approach of connecting with people will never go out of style.

After coming back from the PASS Community Summit in Seattle, I received a hand-written card from the project manager thanking me for the wonderful gift. She was also a big fan of Dr. John Maxwell and his books. But what really struck me was how she related the story of the application tester who received the other book. The gift came at a time when she felt really discouraged and was starting to believe that her work in the company didn’t matter. The book and the hand-written note from me made in impact in her life: it validated her value. It didn’t just make her day, it literally ignited her to become excited again with the work that she does. Most importantly, I’ve gained another level of appreciation for the hand-written letters that I send out, knowing that they do have an impact on the lives of the recipients. I’ll still make sure that they’re legible before I send them out.

Question: Have you been encouraged recently by a hand-written note? When was the last time you sent out one? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Be Remarkable And Turn Your Customers To Marketers


Image courtesy of http://boboling.com/

We were at The Works with the kids for some burgers last weekend. If you know me, I’m not a big fan of burgers especially that my wife is awesome at cooking (I may end up managing a restaurant if I quit being a tech geek one day.) When you’re in a restaurant, you’re the customer. You reserve the right to a good experience and a great service. But as we were preparing to leave, I’ve decided to teach my kids a simple lesson on being remarkable.

My 7-year-old is fond of origami, the Japanese art of folding paper. He would spend time watching YouTube videos to try and learn how to make those pieces of scrap paper into works of art. As the waitress started packing up our leftovers, I asked my son to create a paper swan from the pieces of paper that the restaurant used as table mats. and gave it to her. What started out as a gesture of appreciation for the waitress ended up as a simple example of word-of-mouth marketing. There are several lessons to be learned from this simple experience that would help transform your customers to marketers:

  1. Be remarkable. Most restaurant patrons would simply say thank you, leave a tip to the waiter/waitress and smile on their way out.  That’s because it’s what most people do. My son did something remarkable – created a paper swan and wrote a “thank you” note together with it. When we deal with our customers, are we just concerned about delivering the goods and services we promised or do we go out of our way to create an experience worth “making a remark about?”
  2. Give something away. A tip for the waiter/waitress in a restaurant would be enough. But that’s standard nowadays. What’s not is giving a paper swan and teaching the recipient how to make one.  Delivering goods and services promised and contracted would be enough. We give our customers what they paid for and nothing more. But giving them our precious time and attention on things that matter to them? A thank you note after a service engagement or a hand-written birthday card would make your customers feel special
  3. Provide tools to spread the word. A paper swan was not enough, my son created two more – one big and another small – coupled with a story of the “swan family.” With three paper swans on her hand, the waitress started telling all the other patrons about her experience and displayed the works of art for everyone to see. People started gathering around the paper swans and started talking about them.  When your customers start telling others about you and your products or services, you need to provide them with tools to make it easy to spread the word – email attachments, samples, discount codes, etc. Anything to keep the conversation going.

Our family is not in the business of turning paper into works of art. We were just having fun while turning a simple gesture of appreciation into a lesson in marketing. Do you have a story to tell about turning your customers into marketers? Post your comments here. I’d like to hear from you.

If It Aint Broken, Don’t Fix It. But If It Is…


A common expression in IT is “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” as it is important to keep a consistent experience in the infrastructure – staff get’s to send emails on time, they get to access their sales documents on the portal, etc. But what if it is broken? We fix it. The mail server went down, we get a severity one alert to “immediately” resolve the issue together with an email from the CEO saying email is of primary importance in the organization.

I wonder why so many organizations don’t do so. They see a business process that doesn’t work, a work environment that does not foster creativity, or a marketing campaign that does not bring results – they’re just simply broken. Yet management still expects to see better results. W.L. Bateman highlights this in a very popular quote, “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got.” If it’s broken, you’ve just got to fix it

I saw this video of Seth Godin‘s presentation at Gel 2006 which somehow highlights what this means.

Include staff development in your business model


I’m a bit biased when it comes to staff development and training. I’ll admit – I’m a trainer. But somehow, your staff development has a direct impact to your organization’s success. I was on a conference call assisting a staff on installing and configuring a new technology that they need to deliver to their customers. The first thing I usually recommend is to go for a formal training. What’s “not” surprising is that the most common response is “we don’t have a budget for training.” The irony behind it is that one generates a revenue when delivering any type of service. Organizations expect to get something without giving something as an investment. What’s worse is that I’ve seen organizations where their business model doesn’t include staff development at all. Most consulting and services delivery companies where they bill their clients by man-hours want to make sure that the majority of the time they bill should be charged to the clients. Where does staff development and training come into the picture?

We spend money on our stock portfolios and financial investments, thinking that they will have a good return in the future, depending on the market movements. We invest in making a good impression and creating a brand image. What could be more important than the very people who help the organization generate the revenue and profits that all balance sheets reflect?

As Zane Zafrit, CEO of Conference Calls Unlimited, said, “It’s clear that people really do make a difference in the success of (an organization)

You Get What You Pay For




With all these scares on the melamine issue from products coming out of China, I couldn’t help but think about the very principle behind it. I am not against low-cost labor or cheaper alternatives but the bottom-line still remains which happens to be one of my favourite taglines these past few days: you get what you pay for. A lot of multinational companies have outsourced their manufacturing to China because of the low labor cost, thinking that it would eventually end up with increased profits. Probably for the short term but with products being recalled, I don’t know how they would quantify that. The same is true for just about anything. A lot of companies treat employees and staff the same way. They think that not sending people to training or not properly investing in them would eventually end up with increased profits because of lower costs. This ends up with employee morale going down causing them to become unproductive and eventually leave. Management thinking that they can get away with not investing in their staff ends up being more costly in the long run.


Same is true with leadership and teamwork as pointed out in the Law of the Price Tag in the book The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork by Dr. John Maxwell. When organizations are not willing to pay the price for growth, they end up losing a lot. Bottom-line still is: you get what you pay – or not pay – for.

The next time you see a cost entry in your balance sheet – whether for an employee benefit or a business investment – evaluate it with a different perspective. I don’t see it as cost when it is for an employee benefit but rather as an investment. And always remember: you get what you pay for!