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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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