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A Look Back at Speaker Idol 2017

By: on November 9, 2017 in PASS Summit 2017, Speaker Idol

Hard to believe it’s been nearly a week since the end of PASS Summit 2017 and the last round of Speaker Idol. Congratulations to Jeremy Frye for winning – even though he is a Pirates fan.

For those of you unfamiliar with Speaker Idol, here’s the condensed version:

  • 3 rounds of 5-minute lightning talks from people who have never spoken at PASS Summit
  • 4 contestants each round, 1 winner, 1 runner up
  • 1 wildcard selected from the 3 runner ups to fill the 4th slot in the final round
  • Winner of the final round gets a guaranteed speaking slot at PASS Summit 2018 (unless you go to work for MS … which has happened, hence this rule)

The judging panel expanded this year to include Kendra Little (blog | Twitter), instead of four judges plus one extra for the finals who did no see any of the heats. The other judges were myself, Joey D’Antoni (blog | Twitter), Mark Simms (Twitter), and Karen Lopez (blog | Twitter). Bottom line: if you’ve ever seen American Idol, the Voice, or any show, you basically know the format. The emcee this year was Tom LaRock (blog | Twitter) filling in for Denny Cherry (Twitter) as Denny could not be at Summit this year. Denny’s on the mend, and I’m glad he’ll be as good as new soon. Tom had big shoes to fill, and did it well.

Fun fact: I used to judge Speaker Idol back in the day at TechEd before Denny started it at Summit. We did the heats around lunch time. It was a good idea then and still a good idea now. It’s interesting looking back on doing it at TechEd versus at Summit. One thing that I can say for certainty: the quality of speakers has gone up tremendously. TechEd was obviously a more general conference and diverse audience, but with the rise of user groups and things like SQL Saturday in our corner of the world, there’s been a big uptick in quality. There were many more crash and burn moments earlier on with Idol, but now? Not so much. This year’s crop of contestants was particularly good. Our job was not easy – especially for that final round. The smallest of details separated winner from runner up. It was that close.

To me, a five minute lightning talk to me is much harder than a 60, 75, 90, half day, or precon in terms of speaking. To tell a full story end-to-end that is coherent in five minutes or under is not easy. Even harder is cramming a live demo in there. I know people who would say the opposite – especially about a full day precon or a multi-day class. They are hard for different reasons, but I will always contend that being super concise is one of the hardest exercises you can ever do. So kudos to everyone who had the proverbial cojones to not only do that, but willingly be judged by us judge-y types.

Selected notable improvements across board included:

  • Nearly everyone attributed their graphics. Whenever you speak, if you use a picture from somewhere else, give credit. Shame on you if you don’t.
  • A lot of the contestants had much better stage presence this year. Even veteran speakers get nervous, but very few folks just planted themselves like tree or didn’t use hand gestures, etc.
  • Sure, some folks didn’t do the calls and responses right (i.e. always give a number/percentage/whatever if you poll the room as an answer to said question), but there was more audience interaction this year.
  • We had more live demos than in the past. You are brave souls!
  • Even when people had missteps, there were no moments that devolved into total disasters. Give yourselves a round of applause.

I’m guessing they heeded some advice or attended over the past few years … or just had much better practice, like at SQL Saturday. (Side note – submit for one if you have not.)

Tips for future contestants:

  • Make sure your slides are readable. Whether a small room or a big room, a wall of text, small fonts, and bad color choices will give people an unpleasant experience.
  • Make sure you get feature names right, down to caps/no caps, etc. We’re looking at that, and may not call you out on it in your initial rounds, but reserve the right to hold it against you in the finals if you make it.
  • Since the Idol room is known, maybe at some point go and test your laptop. I know I’ve had laptops that won’t connect (for whatever reason) to some rooms over the years, and best to iron that out ahead of time. When it happened this year things worked out, but they don’t always. You’ll at least have a Plan B – which should always be having your slides on a USB key or something.
  • Remember that PASS Summit is not just for US attendees. I keep making this point year after year. If you’re going to use a sports analogy, baseball or football (the US kind, not what we call soccer but the rest of the world calls football) may not translate. Neither will cricket to a US audience, for that matter. Use examples and analogies that make sense and audiences of numerous backgrounds can relate to if possible.
  • We do not require you to do a whole new presentation for the finals – you can if you want. That has its own risk/reward. What we generally look for is that you synthesized our feedback and incorporated it for a better delivery in the finals. Remember that you’re going against three other people who either won their rounds or came in second, so they are no slouches.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell some downsides/risks/personal experiences/give tips along with the facts. People aren’t there to hear you regurgitate documentation. Why should we care? I am not the deepest guy when it comes to what he talked about, but Jeremy won because of what he did, not the subject.
  • We can tell if you’re enthusiastic or not. I don’t need fake cheerleader stuff. Passion goes a long way.
  • Remember we’re judging you to speak at PASS Summit, not a backyard BBQ. You don’t have to do a technical talk or even a data-related topic, but it’s hard to judge if you have the chops if we don’t see some technical meat or tie what your doing into something data/SQL Server-related.
  • I’m the pedantic judge 🙂 Remember that.

One more thing: from a diversity standpoint, it was nice to see people from all over the world and different backgrounds at Idol, but as Karen mentioned at one point in one of the rounds, there were no female entries this year. That makes me sad, since WIT is a big part of the SQL Server community. I would strongly encourage women to enter for next year’s competition. We have lots of strong women speakers in our community.

Hope to see (and judge) you next year.


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