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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.

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Be Consistent With Your Brand


More Broken Glass

More Broken Glass by autowitch

Black baseball cap with a fashionable army jacket. That’s the image that people who know me recognize when they hear my name. When I started speaking at conferences and events here in North America, I became intentional about the image that I project. Let’s just say that everything started with a profile photo I gave Microsoft Singapore for use in their marketing collaterals. I couldn’t find a professional-looking profile photo when they asked for one back in 2007 for a conference I’m scheduled to speak at. So I gave them one that I have. I was wearing a baseball cap. That photo instantly became my official profile photo – from the book chapters I wrote to the case study documents from Microsoft Learning. And so I’ve decided to maintain that image and became very intentional about its consistency. I’ve also taught professionals how brand consistency helps in improving their career. A simple test that I do is perform a Google search on my name and check the results. If I get the results that I want consistently – be it the profile photos or keyword combinations – that means I have done a good job in creating the brand that I want.

I like doing experiments. I always like to try something new to test a hypothesis or just to break away from the rut. Several days ago at an event where I am supposed to speak at, I’ve decided to do a social experiment. I’ve decided to abandon the “baseball cap and the army jacket” image and just stick with my good old fashion self, the one where you can barely see hair on my head. On top of that, I’ve decided to include my new personal assistant – my eyeglasses – as part of my image. I wanted to test if I have successfully created a personal brand throughout these years. I knew the side effects of being inconsistent with my personal brand when I’ve decided to rename my LinkedIn and Twitter profiles several months ago. And so I went on with the experiment. The people who knew me well didn’t have much problems recognizing me. They were confused at first but have gotten over it. Moving on. I walked among the crowd. I heard people saying they wanted to attend my session. That’s not surprising since I knew many people wanted to learn more about the topic that I’m going to present on. What’s really surprising is what happened next. I heard people asking if they’ve already seen me. Some of the event organizers are starting to become restless because they couldn’t find me anywhere. Somebody told them that I was already at the venue. They just couldn’t find me. Or maybe they were looking for somebody else. Maybe they were looking for the guy wearing a baseball cap and the army jacket.

The experiment highlights few key points regarding branding:

  1. You/We are a brand. Whether we like it or not, our personalities are our brand. Same is true with companies, products and services. Quit avoiding the fact. You might as well do something about it and…
  2. Be intentional. Don’t wait for others to define your brand for you. You do not have control over that. Instead, define it for them. If you don’t define your brand, others will do it for you. I chose to be intentional about the brand that I have built over the years and I expect the results I’m getting.
  3. Know thy self. It’s hard to define something if you don’t even understand what it is. Whether it’s a person or a product, we need to know what it i and hat it stands for. Knowing one’s self takes time but it is key to successfully creating a brand.
  4. Be consistent. Imagine seeing a Coca-Cola logo with an orange colour. I can’t. That’s because I’m used to seeing it with the colour red. It becomes confusing when a brand is inconsistent. That’s the main point of my experiment. If we are inconsistent with our brand and our personality, others will be confused. Worst, they will eventually forget who you are.

If there’s one key point to consider when it comes to branding, that’s CONSISTENCY. And it doesn’t just work for branding. It does so too with leadership. You’ll earn the trust and respect of the people you lead.

You Are A Story Waiting To Be Told

January 29, 2013 1 comment

Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as the US Secretary of State, once told of a story about the immigrant vendor selling hotdogs in the streets of New York. Being a New Yorker and an immigrant himself, he understood the challenges of being an immigrant, much so as an African American. Every time he has an opportunity to go back to New York City, he always takes time to grab a hotdog from one of the immigrant vendors in the streets of Manhattan. In the past, every one seems to recognize who he is because of all the security staff and police accompanying him anywhere he goes.  After returning to private life, he went back to New York City, this time on his own and without anyone accompanying him. As he was about to pay for his hotdog, the vendor recognized him and refused to take his money.  After which, the vendor replied, “America has already paid me and my family because I was able to have my own business and make a living.”  That statement struck Gen. Powell that he goes about telling this story every time he delivers a speech.

Whether we like it or not, the things that we do every day do make an impact whether you’re a manager leading a team or a stay-at-home mom. It’s not a question of whether or not we’re making an impact but rather how we want to make an impact. Executives and celebrities tell stories about how their parents encouraged them to pursue their dreams, teachers who didn’t give up on them,  supervisors who believed that they can accomplish far beyond what they can think of. The list goes on and on.  I get to tell the story about how my mom exemplified honorable work ethic and hard work, how my pastor friend Alfred taught me that excellence must be a lifestyle and how my wife’s wise words of “your time will come” kept me going.

How we make an impact on someone else’s life may not end up on tomorrow’s newspaper or the next New York Time’s best seller’s list. But I’m pretty sure they will end up as stories getting told by your kids, the next generation of leaders or potentially as a story embedded in a TED talk.

Question: Do you have a story about someone who made an impact in your life? What about something you did for someone that is worth sharing to others. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

PASS Summit and The Value Of Building A Community

November 13, 2012 1 comment

Photo courtesy of Sheryl’s Boys

I’m a community person. I’ve built my career around the value of communities. It all started when I was in high school and wanted to raise funds that will help the student community by improving our sports facility. We wanted to host a dance party within the school premises and invite students to participate. When the school didn’t approve of our proposal, I was disappointed. So disappointed that I gathered all of my close friends and proposed the idea of running the party outside of the school premises but within the jurisdiction of the local community for safety reasons. We had a noble goal (help the students in our school,) a business plan (host a dance party to raise funds,) and a handful of volunteers (my close friends.) I guess everyone was passionate about the idea that it started spreading throughout the different schools within our community. Soon, everybody was asking us how they can participate. We’ve expanded our fund raising efforts to include other schools in the project. It was a success and the rest was history. We won the hearts of the school administration staff that they let us do another fundraising project for the next year. I’ll never forget that experience.

Last week, the SQL Server community was all hyped up on Twitter and other social networking sites talking about the PASS Community Summit. This happens to be the world’s largest and most intensive technical training conference for SQL Server and BI professionals. There were some major announcements made last week which are considered highlights of the event. If you ask attendees, new and old, about why they made the investment in attending the event, you will get different responses. But there’s one constant theme that resonates among the different responses: PEOPLE. Communities are social units built by people for people. Seth Godin talks about building Tribes, Brian Allain talks about how community wins, social networking sites have become successful because of the idea of communities.  Successful businesses know how to build and leverage communities. In fact, many would agree with me on this that, Microsoft has leveraged the SQL Server community to build the product to what it is today. But setting aside the marketing and business aspects of building and/or being a part of a community, the real value comes from meeting some of our basic human needs – RCGC:

  1. Relationships. Along the corridors of the conference center, I see people giving hugs and high fives. Who would ever think that these are a bunch of geeks hammering on their keyboards solving the toughest SQL Server problems? But they connect on a personal level, telling stories about the travels they’ve made, the previous events that they have attended, the next one that they will go to, the parties that they need to attend, etc. I’ve given and received hugs myself throughout the week. One that really stood out for me was meeting up (and hugging) a good friend of mine – a former SQL Server MVP – who joined the Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services team back in 2008. It’s like a family reunion since I haven’t seen him for more than 4 years.
  2. Comfort. During a conversation I had with a database administrator in a large gaming company last week, he mentioned about feeling one with the community. Back at work, he felt like he was all alone and that no one understood nor appreciated what he was doing. Being around and talking to people who share the same passion as he has made him feel secure, knowing that there are others who feel the same pain that he feels, enjoying the same successes that he experiences and speaking the same language. He immediately blended in even though it was his first time attending the conference.
  3. Growth. We all came to the conference knowing that we will learn something new – whether by attending sessions or simply joining a conversation. I asked questions about the next version of SQL Server and the recently released Microsoft HDInsight. I’ve learned a thing or two about deploying SQL Server using PowerShell and a little bit of PowerView on Excel. We all desire growth in more than one aspect of our lives. The event provided an opportunity for growth for those of us who made the investment.
  4. Contribution. One speaker commented on the fact that he feels the satisfaction of seeing people’s face light up when he talks about a solution or feature that will help solve their problems. I got a kick out of the experience myself when people I don’t know approached and thanked me last week for the articles I’ve written on MSSQLTips.com. We are wired to have a desire to contribute and make the world a better place. Most of the community leaders I know have been doing this – volunteering and speaking at events – for decades and they still feel that they need to do more. My hats are off to the wonderful people in the SQL Server community that made the PASS Community Summit 2012 a successful one – from volunteers, speakers, chapter leaders, the members of the board, etc.

Being a part of a community meets our basic human needs. But it certainly goes beyond that. I’ve gotten contracts and  job offers in the past from people in the community. In fact, the community has definitely helped me grow my career in one way or another. But let’s leave the topic about the business value of building and/or being a part of a community for a future blog post.

Question: Fill in the blank. “The one thing I love the most about the SQL Server community is _______ ?” You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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UPDATE: I realized that the T-SQL Tuesday theme for this month is all about the SQL Server Community and is being hosted by Chris Yates (BlogTwitter) so I decided to join the conversation.

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.

Making Social Networking Work




While I am not an avid fan of social networking, its a fact that even businesses use it for their advantage – hiring people, getting potential business contacts, marketing, etc. Many people just use it for fun while others are reaping the benefits of maximizing their use. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to name a few of these social networking sites have become popular due to increased usage. In fact, even Pizza Hut hired a “Twintern” to promote their brand to their Twitter followers. While it has become a hype, making it work for you requires a lot of work. An article in NetworkWorld highlights 10 keys for making social networking work for your advantage. One thing I learned thoughout my experience with people is that whatever works with them works in just about any media. Think about it. Do you remember your classmates from decades ago unless you’ve initiated contact with them on a regular basis? What about the very first job you had? Do the people still remember who you are? How did you know about your current job? It’s all about others – not you. If you jump into the social networking bandwagon thinking you want to be connected to others, first, think about what’s in it for them. I see a lot of posts on these sites promoting products and services without even reading the code of conduct on the usage of the service. A lot of people find this pretty annoying and, hence, simply ignore them. But when people find out that you are there to help them out, they bring down their barriers and are more open to what you have to offer or your need.

Bottom line – if you want social networking to work for you, remember that it is not about you