Jen McCown (Twitter | Blog) is our host for Un-SQL Friday #4: Speaker Lessons Learned. This particular topic is one I could go in a lot of directions with – what are my tips for success? My biggest blunders? Best experience? First, let me direct you to two different posts I’ve done chronicling my experiences based on my scores at PASS Summit 2010 and at SQLbits 8. Since I’ve done those posts already, let me address a different aspect of speaking: etiquette.

I’m not talking Miss Manners’ version of etiquette. Speaking in front of an audience at a conference or user group has its own dynamic, and I find each time is different. I think there are some basic rules that speakers should adhere to or at least take into consideration to create a more pleasant experience for you, the audience, and that you, the audience, should follow for us.


  1. Watch what you say.
    At a technical conference, your first goal is to be on point and accurate – that’s a given. It’s when you veer off into trying to be entertaining that you can step into trouble. Your jokes may go over huge or they could fall flat and die on the spot. Some people can get away with, shall we say, more “blue”, risque, or “borderline” humor. Me? I’m no wallflower, but the last thing I would want to do is potentially offend someone.Call me conservative, but I realize that audiences are made up of all types of people each with a different background. Anyone who knows me knows I have a good sense of humor and it would take a lot to offend me. I would definitely say I do not have deliciate sensibilities. I can also swear like a sailor, but in my mind, onstage is NOT the place for that 9 out of 10 times. Sean McCown did a session at SQL Saturday #63 on how to curse in an interview, but in general, avoid.
  2. Death by PowerPoint = Fail
    If you’ve got N minutes, don’t have N or N+i slides (or even N-1; you might as well have N or N+i at that point!). You’re most likely not going to do a slide a minute PLUS Q&A. Good luck with that. These days, I try to do a healthy mix of content and demo to reinforce the content. Sometimes demos are not possible given certain subject matter. As a speaker put yourself in the audience’s shoes. Would YOU attend your session the way you put it together? Be honest with yourself.
  3. Do not read your slides verbatim.
    I used to do this 10 years ago. A trained monkey if it could speak could do that, and it’s an insult to the audience on so many levels. If they can read it, why would they bother sitting through the rest of it? I use my slides and  the text as talking points more often than not. Part of keeping an audience engaged is giving them something to listen to.
  4. A little pacing goes a long way.
    One of the ways to be successful – much like a good meal with multiple courses, song, TV show, play, musical, or movie – is to have ebb and tide in your talk. If you’re at a rock show, sometimes you want your face ripped off, but after a bit of that, you may want to slow the pace down to give the audience a bit of a breather. Part of this skill is knowing how to read your audience and react. Be a jazz musician – improvise and go with the flow sometimes. If you know your subject matter, you should be able to riff on something if the audience is digging what you’re covering at that moment. So what if you planned to talk about it for 2 minutes only?
  5. To allow or not allow questions mid-session: that is the question.
    As can be seen in my SQLbits 8 post, I got a comment around that. Having done both smaller, more informal sessions as well as rooms packed with 200 people (or more) at PASS (and let me say this – I am VERY thankful that you guys out there think highly enough of me to show up in those numbers). Here’s one where the etiquette is a big, fat, murky swamp. You could argue that both ways are appropriate and correct. However, don’t sacrifice your talk and go off on a tangent 10 minutes in based on questions. If you can field a few short questions, great. If not, save it until the end. Your call, but you run the risk of losing your audience by allowing a free-for-all.Questions mid-session are easier to handle (at least in my experience) with a small amount of people. In a room full at PASS with like 200 people, not so much. It tends to snowball.
  6. Keep your ego in check.
    Speaking is a lot of fun and nerve wracking atthe same time. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit of self promotion on some level. But realize that as a speaker, it’s not about stroking your ego or coming off like a pompous, know-it-all ass (and I’m sure I have at times been guilty of that; I apologize if I did). The audience wants to get something out of the session, not see you do N minutes of mental masturbation on your part.
  7. Make the best of the environment you’re given.
    When you get in the room, assess the situation and adjust accordingly. I can’t control the environment, but I sure as heck will get dinged for it. Room too cold? My fault. Screens illegible? My fault. Room not set up properly or crappy logistics? My fault. It’s part of what you will have to deal with and accept as a speaker. This is why on some of your numbers for sessions while it counts towards an overall average of your session, you may have to throw it out and do your own. As an audience member, be understanding that we don’t have anything to do with your experience other than the content.
  8. Repeat the audience’s questions.
    I know I’m guilty of not doing this every single time, but especially if there’s no microphone and someone blurts out a question, it’s really helpful to everyone else not in earshot to repeat the question before giving an answer. This is especially important if the session is being recorded. The folks at home won’t have any context.
  9. Remember to turn off e-mail notifications, IMs, etc.
    I know some folks who live Twitter during a session and it’s entertaining (hard to pull off, too, if you’re not someone like Buck Woody). That’s a special skill. but do you want a confidential title or bit of e-mail popping up or your significant other/”friend” sending something inappropriate in the middle of a session? NO. It seems obvious, but you do need to remember to close all that stuff down.
  10. Acknowledge the audience.
    This one is obvious, and very difficult to do. Connect with your audience – make eye contact. Look at them. Don’t look at the floor. Don’t stare at the ceiling. Don’t stare at some random point on a wall. You may have the best content ever, but remember you’re putting on a show, too. They need to be engaged. If you do a poll, repeat the results. Draw them in and don’t let them go.
  11. You have one chance to make the impression you want to visually.
    Showing up in shorts, sandals, and a Hawaiian shirt may not be the most appropriate thing for your talk. Maybe it is. I couldn’t say, but don’t embarass yourself. People will judge you before you even open your mouth. I had someone in my SQLbits comments make one around me not wearing any socks (I rarely do) and they only realized it quite frankly because I was sitting down (see that post – I really wasn’t well that week). I’m OK with that, but at the same time, I could see why they were not thrilled with that. It’s the first time in 10+ years of doing this anyone had a negative comment around something like that. The look, such as a Hawaiian shirt, may have something to do with a theme in your talk but make sure you incorporate it well. There’s a fine line between tasteful and tasteless.


  1. Read the session title and description carefully before you choose to attend.
    I’ve written wrong ones and taken the appropriate knock, but I can remember one time at TechEd (2003 maybe) where I wrote the title and description to match for a talk on SQL Server and SAN. Unfortunately, it got lost in translation somwhere. By the time it was published, it lost, someone in charge of the database track took SQL Server out of the title and I got people looking for generic SAN advice. You would think that the three letter designation for the session (DAT) would have given people a clue, but no. Boy did I take a hit on the comments and score for that session.
  2. If you are going to attend a session, and you find it’s not your cup of tea after the first few minutes:
    a) Leave as quietly as possible.
    If you’re not going to sit through the whole thing, leave with dignity. Luckily I’ve never had major disruptions, but loud slamming of doors, etc. is distracting to those who really want to be there. And by the way, a speaker will notice you walking out. For me, one of the things I try to gauge in seeing if I’ve lost you as an audience or not is if most of the people who started the session are there for most or all of the time.
    b) Don’t ding the speaker if you are only driving by and crusing past the taco stand. 
    A speaker can’t prevent you from giving all low scores because you did show up even if it was for 5 minutes. However, if you  were just auditing for a few minutes to see if you would be interested in sitting through the whole thing, why would you even bother giving a low score to a speaker? If you went because you were looking forward to it and were genuinely interested but the speaker missed the mark or was horrid, it’s fair to give low scores.
    c) Cliche, but set your phones to silent/vibrate.
    Nothing can kill flow or distract if all of a sudden someone’s phone goes off. Also, if you have to take a call in the middle of a session, don’t speak loudly if you are walking out to take it. Be respectful of everyone including the speaker. I’m sure it is an important work or personal call, but just as a speaker needs to be considerate of his or her audience, be considerate of your fellow attendees and the speaker.
  3. Don’t expect 60/75/90 minute cures.
    I realize when you come to a user group, SQLbits, PASS Summit, TechEd, etc., it may be your one opportunity for training so you want to get as much knowledge in your head as possible. I think we all get that. However, some topics are too broad to cover in a short amount of time so we distill it down and hopefully give you the best context to go use the information. There’s a difference between, say, the pre-con (such as the one I’ll be doing this year at PASS Summit) where I have 7 hours to stretch and a 75 or 90 minute session during the conference where it will either be a focused topic or have a clear agenda of things to cover since the topic could go very long and very wide. Clearly when I have 7 hours I can do a much better job of going deep, whereas in a shorter session, I need to really pop out the few things I think you need to take away and clearly let you know what I’m not covering so you can go do that research on your own. Let’s face it – during a day or two of pre-cons and three days of sessions at something like PASS Summit, at some point your brain is going to scream “Uncle!” and shut down anyway. That’s why as a speaker, it’s my job to give you a few key takeaways even if you forget the rest. Sure, you can buy the DVD and rewatch later, but I still want you to remember something.
  4. Don’t be THAT guy or gal.
    You know who I mean. Some people show up to a session ready for a fight or to be contrarian. I’m not talking about showing up to a friend’s session and some good natured heckling (although be careful not to impact their session). Here’s what I mean: maybe they read a blog post or book and disagree with you. Maybe they hate the feature you’re talking about and can’t wait to vent about it. Maybe they think they’re better than the speaker. Wonderful. Just don’t do something to derail the talk at the expense of everyone else. Take the speaker aside after and have a civil conversation with them. Grab them at another point in the conference. You only make yourself look stupid by being argumentative. Also know who is speaking. For example, if it’s a non-Microsoft speaker, it’s pointless to complain about a feature. The person on the podium most likely didn’t code it. Direct your anger to the right audience.
  5. Give better, more constructive feedback.
    I know you’re not getting paid to do so (although there are incentives like giveaways), but sometimes giving just a number isn’t helpful. If it’s all high numbers, that’s fine no speaker needs the extra praise (but heck, a “You changed my life” is always nice to hear). But if you decide to give a lower number, have the cojones to tell the speaker why. Constructive and honest criticism only makes us better. It’s incredibly frustrating to get all 4s and 5s, but you get a handful of 3s, 2s, and 1s with no explanation.
  6. If you know some (or all) of what’s in the session, be respectful in your comments.
    You attend a 300 level session by someone. You get a few tips, but you wind up knowing a lot of what else was presented. Guess what? You’re ahead of the curve. It doesn’t mean it’s not 300 level content. As a speaker, there will be people who are in that session who see that 300 level content as 400 or 500 because they are at a 100 level. A majority will find it 300 and find it at the appropriate level. Others who are familiar think it’s 200 and too basic. It’s an impossible position to be in sometimes. I’ve had quite a few rude comments over the years along the lines of, “I knew that info already and you suck.” Great! But most of the audience probably didn’t. If you feel it wasn’t <insert level here content> tell me what you would have loved to have seen and why you were disappointed in a constructive manner.