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Friday Philosophy – Presenting Sex January 24, 2020

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Presenting.
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These slides are from the first ever presentation I did. And yes, the presentation was at work.

The Evolution Of Sex

My first real job after college was as a trainee analyst programmer for the National Health Service and, as part of the “graduate training program”, we attended a short course on presentation skills. As you would expect, we all had to do a presentation at the end. As most of us had never had a job before and we were dull with no interesting hobbies, most of the presentations I could see being put together around me were a little… boring. I decided to try something different.

If you think the photographs with this article are a little poor with odd reflections, that is because the original images are printed on transparent acetate sheets and were displayed by putting them on an overhead projector – a large box-thing with a blindingly bright light that shone through the acetate sheet and cast the image onto a screen or wall via a mirror/lens bit. Laptops had not been invented back then and I’m not even sure a PC (if you could afford a PC 386SX) could drive a projector. This was all manual – you had to change sheets by hand. At least you never had problems with connecting the overhead projector to the acetate sheet, you simply put the sheet on upside down and back-to-front and had to re position it 3 times before you got it right. This is important, I could not quickly flick between images.

When I put up my first sheet, with the cute little couple holding hands, our tutor screeched and said to one of the other delegates “Oh God! I thought you were kidding when you said what he was presenting on!”. Before I could even take this opening image off the projector sh had stepped forward and told me I could not present this.

“Why not?” I asked, “we are all adults!”. She refused to let me swap to my first proper slide, “This is not the sort of topic that is suitable at work.”

Stand off.

“Well, what do you think I am going to talk about?”. Our tutor was now quite flustered. “I think we all know what you are presenting on – and I shudder to think what the next slide is going to be of!” (or something like that, this was a long time ago). I had no choice. I got her to come closer and look at my next couple of slides…

Her relief was visible. She could immediately see the next slides were not based on “The Joy of Sex” or similar publications and after she’d looked at each of my acetate sheets carefully (just to make sure) I was allowed to continue.


Of course, this had somewhat diluted the tension & expectation that had been building up, but I felt I had milked the initial surprise as much as I was going to be able to. I moved onto the next slide and most of the audience was disappointed by the lack of limbs, bodies and appendages to be seen. As you can see to the left, the next slide was an odd set of little diagram of dots & letters and what many of us would now recognise as a sort-of family tree diagram. As some of you know, my degree had been in genetics (and zoology but that is bye-the-bye).

There is a very interesting thing about sex, as in sexual reproduction. What is the point? Well, apart from the immediate pleasure for animals like us that seem to enjoy the initial act, why do we mix the genomes of two organisms to produce new offspring? It is not mandatory, many organisms (especially plants and bacteria) employ asexual reproduction. All the children are effectively clones of the adult. There is no finding a mate or the need for pollen to arrive, the actual process biologically is a lot simpler & more reliable, and you don’t need males running around using up resources for, let’s face it, a pretty small contribution to the effort. Asexual reproduction is a lot quicker, simpler, needs less energy. A species that does away with sex can out-compete sexy competition.

 

My little talk was all about that, about why you have male and female, why mixing the genes from two individuals and, over time, across the gene pool of your species, is beneficial. I won’t bore you with the details here.

That first presentation of mine went down very well and it was remembered by everyone there. A lot of people (who had not even been there for the premier of that talk) mentioned it to me when I left the company. It made an impression on me too – if you can grab people’s attention at the start of a presentation, it really helps make it a success.

And, of course, as anyone in marketing will tell you – Sex Sells.

In this case, even the lack of sex.

Presenting Well – Tell Your Story November 28, 2019

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I don’t think the key to a really good presentation is the content, the structure, the delivery method, or even the main message. It’s The Story.

Coming to a Conference Near You Soon!

Actually, I’d go as far as to say that there is no one, single key to presenting well – but The Story seems to be at the heart of many of the best presentations I have seen and I think that some of the best presenters I know use The Story.

More and more I strive to present by Telling A Story. It works for me and since I started doing this, I think my presentations have got a lot better.

When you read (or watch) a story, it is about something – a person, an event, how change occurred, overcoming an obstacle. It might be hard to totally define what a story is, but when you read a book and it does not really go anywhere, it’s usually not satisfying and you know it has not really told the story. Some presentations are like that: They have some great content and there is knowledge being passed on but, just as when characters are poorly developed or the plot is disjointed, the presentation feels like it’s made of bits and you come away feeling you can’t join all the dots. With a book lacking a good story you may feel you did not get the whole thing; with a technical presentation you might feel you don’t really understand how you do something – or why.

When people design a talk they usually focus on “what facts do I need to tell, what details must I include”. The aim is to put information in other people’s heads. But facts and code and details are hard to absorb. For many a story helps it all go in more smoothly. You absolutely need the facts and details, but if you start gently, setting the pace – but maybe hinting of things to come or an early nugget of detail maybe  (as you do with story) – then expand the scope and go into the details you stand a better chance of carrying the crowd with you.

If you are now thinking “It’s hard enough to come up with a presentation topic, design the talk and then deliver it, and now you want me to do all that and in the form of a story?!? – that’s going to be so much harder!” well, let me explain why I think it is actually easier.

This man is telling a story of Violence, Despair and… APEX

It’s already a story

First of all, what you want to talk about could be, by it’s very nature, already a story.

If the presentation is about using a software technique or product to solve a business problem – that’s a story about how you did it (or, even better, how you tried to do it and it failed – most people present on successes but presentations on failures are often fantastic!).

If it is about learning about a feature of a language or of the database, your story is something like:

“how do I get going with this, what do I need to learn, the things that went wrong, my overcoming adversity {my ignorance}, and finally reaching the sunny uphills of expertise”.

Flow

A story has a flow. It’s a lot easier to learn a story than a set of facts. Some talks are just facts. In fact {see what I did there} many techniques for remembering lists of things are to make them into a story.

Rather than making it harder to remember, having a story makes it easier to remember your talk and move through it. Each part of the presentation leads to (and reminds you of, up on that scary stage where your brain might burp) the next part. The Story helps remove the fear of forgetting parts of your material, and thus helps Control the Presentation Monster.

For the audience it gives them a progression, a narrative. I find that if a talk does not so much leap from points but more segues into them, it is easier to listen and focus. As I design my talks and add more facts and details, I keep in mind how can I preserve the flow. If I am going to talk about some of the things that can go wrong, putting them all in 4 slides together is easy for me and I have a chunk of “things to avoid” – but it may well break the flow, so I try to mention the things to avoid as I came across them or as I expand my theme. I fit them into the flow of the story.

Added colour

I’m not at all suggesting you invent characters or plot devices for your talk. That really would be hard! I also suspect that, unless you were a brilliant story teller, it would be pretty awful! But you can add in little aspects of this.

If I mention someone in my presentation, I usually give a couple of bits of information about them. Not a biography, just something like “Dave was the systems admin – wonderful collection of Rick & Morty t-shirts and no sense of smell”. There is no need for me to do this, it does not help understand the technical content, but now people have a mental (and possibly even nasal) image of Dave.

Side plots – if in learning about some aspect of say Virtual Private Database I discovered something about PL/SQL functions, I’ll divert from My Core Story and give 3 or 4 minutes on that (as a mini story). The great thing about side stories is that, depending on your time management, you can drop or include them as your talk progresses. If I get asked questions during my talk and it has slowed me down (which is NOT a problem – I love the interaction) I can drop a side plot.

Interaction

All engaged, no phones being looked at…

Finally, when you tell a story you talk to your audience. You are not talking AT an audience. You are explaining to them the background, taking them through the narrative of the topic and leading them, possibly via some side stories, to the conclusion. It is far more like communicating with your audience than dictating to them. And, if you are brave enough to do so, you can look at your audience and engage with them, try to judge if they are following the story and have any feedback or response to it. Mostly any feedback is quite passive (no one shouts out to hear more about PL/SQL functions) but you will catch people’s eye, get a smile, get some indication that they are listening.

For me, discovering that last bit about The Story was when I finally felt I had a way of presenting that worked for me. If I am talking with my audience and I feel there is an engagement, a rapport, that is when I do my best job of it. That’s when I come off the stage buzzing and happy.

Danger Will Robinson!

There is a danger to Telling a Story and that is time. Most good stories build to a satisfying end. Most technical presentations also generally have a main point. But if you are progressing through a Story you might run out of time, in which case you do not get to your Big Expose or you have to suddenly blurt out the ending. It’s like those TV programs where they obviously run out of steam and some kludge is used to end it  – “And then the side character from an hour ago appears, distracts the dragon and you nick the golden egg! Hurr…ah?”.

You can modify the run time with side plots as I say above, but if you are going to Tell a Story, you need to practice the run time more than normal.

You can finish early, it’s better than not finishing at all. But being on time is best.

 

How to (Not) Present – The Evil Threes November 22, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Perceptions, Presenting, User Groups.
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<< I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you)
<<<<Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present)
. . . . . . . . . Presenting Well – Tell Your Story >>

I’m going to let you into a secret. One of the most commonly taught “sure-fire-wins” to presenting is, in my opinion, a way to almost guarantee that your presentation is boring and dull. Whenever I am in a presentation and I realise they are going to do the “Rule of Three”, a little piece of me dies – and I check to see if I can get to an exit without too much notice. If I can do so I’m probably going to leave. Otherwise, I’ll be considerate and sit quietly. But I’m already thinking I might just watch cat videos on my phone.

The Evil Three!

The Rule of Three is a presenting structure that is useful if you hate presenting and you feel you are poor at it, but an inescapable part of your role is to present information to groups of people, be they internally to your team or to small groups. The principle is this:

  • People will only remember 3 things from your presentation.
  • There are three parts to your presentation – the start, the body, the end.
  • Use lists of three. I have examples below but basically do something like “be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over”. 3 parts.
  • 3 squared – use the above to create a killer presentation!
    • Tell the audience in the intro the three things you are going to tell them (briefly)
    • In the body explain each one of the three points in turn, in detail (using lists of three)
    • at the end, sum up the three points briefly.
    • Finish. To indifferent applause.

The problem with the Rule of three is it is a formula, a structure, to help the presenter to cope. Which if presenting is not your thing is OK. But it is not a method for engaging the audience or for making a talk interesting. It is in fact a straight jacket on a talk. As soon as it starts you know that you are going to be told three things. You will be told them again – but actually you won’t, as the presenter nearly always has 2,4, 5, or 12 things to tell you and they will “make it fit”. And at the end, you will have to listen to a summary of what you heard twice already – but again, it will be squeezed into the 3-point-rule.

I guess part of the reason I dislike this technique so much is that back when I started presenting, it was ubiquitous. I’d say half the talks I saw were Rule of Three style and they were the bulk of the poor ones. Back then we did not have Smart Phones. Many of us did not even have Dumb Phones (you know, ones that pretty much only made calls and sent texts, but worked for a week between charges). I played a lot of “snake” during those bad talks. Another thing we had back then was more in the way of training courses. And maybe that was the source of the popularity of this style…

After a year or two of my “presenting career” I went on an “advanced presentation skills” course. I checked before hand that it was not a course for those who had never presented or had to present but it made them want to die,  but that the course was aimed at taking you from being competent to being a skilled presenter. They said yes, it was, it was for people who already presented but wanted to be more engaging, more dynamic, more able to get the message over. My next question was “so no Rule of Three then?” They said no, no Rule of Three.

This presentation Sucks

The course was all around the Rule of Three.

Now don’t get me wrong, if your aim is to describe something fairly simple and all you want to do is get that information from your brain into the brains of the people listening, with the minimum of pain to you, then the Rule of Three will work. It is fairly simple and it is efficient. But you better have a topic that has 3 parts to it and you are using this method as you are only presenting as you are being forced to and this is a way to cope.

If you want to Present, then the Rule of Three sucks. It really sucks. It sucks the enjoyment out of the talk, it sucks the energy out the room, and it sucks the oxygen out of the atmosphere.

They heard I was doing a Rule of Three presentation

The one part of the Rule of Three that I do have a lot of time for is having three parts or examples to a phrase or description. “Be strong, be bold, be brave!” Listing three options such as “If you want to wake up a little the try some light exercise. Go for a walk, get on the bike for 15 minutes, or even a jog a mile or two”. This is a pattern the ancient Greeks used a lot, as you will find out (ad nauseam – which is Latin not Greek) if you google “The rule of three”.Two does not seem enough and 4 or 5 seem a little over the top. But don’t use it all the time as otherwise it can make what you say (or write) too formulaic, too structured, too obvious… a bit crap.

Anyway, having got to the course and discovered that it was all on the Rule Of Three, to say I was annoyed would be a serious understatement. The course was not at all on how you make your presentations more engaging or how to identify things to avoid. (And I will do a post or two on those topics next).

However I did manage to have some fun. On all such presentation skills courses you do at least one, if not several, practice presentations to the other delegates.

I did one that went down very well. It was on why I so, so, so dislike presenting by the Rule of Three.

Controlling The Presentation Monster (Preparing to Present) November 18, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in humour, Perceptions, Presenting.
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As I covered before, nerves before a presentation are not a bad thing. In fact, many excellent presenters/performers recognise that those butterflies of anxiety are necessary to make your presentation really sing. But you need to control the Presentation Monster. You want to take it down from lion-taming to annoyed-but-fundamentally-not-evil-cat-training.

Presentation Monster Gonna Get You

Embrace the Emotion

As the linked-to post above describes, nerves before a performance (and presenting is a kind of performance) are normal. So the first thing to do is accept that you not only will be nervous/anxious/really wanting the toilet very badly but that, if you didn’t, your talk is probably going to be poor.

Just accepting that and knowing that the people you see presenting apparently in an island of calm are mostly faking it helps. If they can fake, it so can you. Some of the below will help you turn down the anxiety dial or, if there is a need, even turn it up a little to get you buzzing.

Practice, practice…. practice.

I know it sounds obvious, but this is so true. You need to run through your presentation several times and in the right way. And people often don’t do it well.

When I prepare a new presentation, once it is written, I want to run through it from start to finish, in real time, 3 times. This is where most people go wrong and they make one of the following mistakes:

  • They will spot a problem on a slide, for example some text is garbled or an image is too small. And they stop to fix it, and then continue the practice session. Well, you just stopped the flow of it all and any timings you do will broken. Don’t do this – if you are still correcting big mistakes then your talk is not ready for the practising step, small mistakes you can go back to once you finish.
  • As each slide flicks up they go “yeah, OK, I know what I am going to say” – and move on. Don’t. Say it. Imagine the audience, talk to them, include any anecdotes or side points you plan (or suddenly think of), and speak slowly. It is way better to be faster for the real thing than slower as most presentations lead up to a Big Point or the Most Interesting Bits at the end, and if you run out of time…
  • They never time it. How do you know this takes 45 minutes unless you have done it in 45 minutes?

Practice any anecdotes or jokes. Ideally you want them to sound spontaneous but, like sincerity, you can fake spontaneity 😄. You will know if you are the sort of person who will wander off topic or throw in something you suddenly think of. If you do, the speaking slowly during the practice is vital, and make the talk 5 minutes shorter. You know you can fill it. You can’t so easily drop content without it being obvious and dropping content usually goes down poorly.

Once you have done a presentation for real a couple of times then it gets a lot easier to repeat, but you really do still need to do a full run though before each time you present it.

The aim is to ensure that you know your material, you know it will fit, and you will not be surprised by a slide coming up when you don’t expect it.

Just One!

A Little Glass…

If you partake of alcohol, consider having a drink, ONE drink, about 1/2 an hour before you present. A glass of wine or a beer.

Why? Well, alcohol is a depressant, in that it turns down the nervous system a little (as opposed to making you sad and morose, which it can in larger quantities). It enhances the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA in your brain. The end result is it relaxes you a little and it also slightly suppresses the social filters we have in our heads to stop us saying things we worry we should not say. It actually helps when presenting if you are a little more… open and verbose.

By having the drink half an hour before you present, it will be having it’s full effect as you get going. By only having one you are still in control. If you are having 3 beers or half a bottle of wine before presenting, you are probably doing this very wrong and should stop!

An alternative is to have a coffee before you present. The caffeine gives you a mild lift, makes you a tad more buzzy.  However, if nerves are a real problem for you, this might not be the best option. But if you want a little more energy, it can help.

Stop Messing With The Content Dave!

A few years ago I was at a conference, the evening before it started, having a drink and a chat with friends. Dave (not his real name, it was Rob) said he was going to tweak his demonstration for tomorrow. An early session tomorrow. I told him to leave it alone, the last thing you need is to stop it working. He agreed.

The next morning I went a little early to Dave’s session as I wanted somewhere quiet to drink my coffee as I was a little …tired from the bar the night before. Dave was already there. He was hunched over his laptop, typing like a crazed chimpanzee with a sugar rush, swearing. “Dave – did you mess with the demo?!?” “It won’t work anymore, I can’t make it work anymore!!!”. And then the audience arrived.

What followed was 45 minutes of high stress for Dave and a somewhat below par session for us.

My advice is change nothing just before you present. People who know me in the presenting sphere know this is advice I don’t always heed myself, I’ve been known to be in a talk before mine, quickly polishing my slides. And it is not a good idea.

The “demo that fails to work” is the worst case, but often you will see people present and suddenly say “oh, I thought there was a different slide there”. Or refer to something they had intend to say, but they dropped or re-ordered a slide. And now they are flustered.

Do yourself a favour: by all means review your slides just before you present, I recommend that. But change nothing of substance. You will be a lot calmer. When you change stuff, a chunk of your brain is now tied up going “you changed the slide on mutating monsters, remember you changed the slide on mutating monsters”

Chat to the Audience/friends just before you start

I find this works for me, maybe it will for you. Hopefully, even if you are a new presenter, some friends will be in the audience. I find there are usually a couple of “dead minutes” before you present, especially at larger conferences. Time is left for people to change rooms and swap over laptops.

I use that time to chat with them (from the stage, I don’t mean go sit next to them and ask about the kids). A bit of light banter or just telling them to shut up and sit down. I might take a couple of pictures of the audience or comment on how early it is/close to lunch it is/too late in the day for this lark it is/did anyone see X talk.

I’m not sure why this seems to help me, maybe it is acting to lower the communication barrier or, like if you are going for a run and jogging for the first minute to wake up the system, it eases you into it.

Post Performance Routine

How does what you do after you present help with your presentation? Well, because it is part of the whole experience. Your enjoyment of presenting is to a large degree down to what you got out of it the last few times. Some of my friends will be at the side of the stage before starting, adamant they are never doing this stupid thing again. But they do so as they know that, despite the fact that the Presentation Monster is currently feasting on their liver, over all they get something out of presenting.

I know some people who really want a quite beer after presenting. I tend not to go to another session directly after I have finished one of mine as I’ve realised I struggle to listen as I am too keyed up. I like to chill & chat to people or check social media, usually with a coffee and also some water.

I recently asked around and it seems to be pretty common for people to have a post-presenting routine and it is usually around calming down and letting the adrenaline that comes with a performance ebb away. One person I know has to go pee a couple of times. Maybe it’s the beer before presenting.

Turning Up The Dial

Sometimes you might have the opposite problem. There are no real nerves or you are feeling flat before you present. That is not good as the adrenaline, the nervousness, that helps make you dynamic when you present. In this case I might turn the dial up a little.

I might talk myself into a little bit of anxiety – “What if they ask me about that bit I never looked into properly, is the relevant product manager going to be in the audience”.

I will probably have a coffee but I find the stuff does not do that much to me, but it might for you.

What I usually do is add in a bit of new jeopardy. I’ll swap my intro slides to something new (or at least different) or slot in a new slide which is sort-of relevant. Or decide to try a joke early on that might not work.

 

The bottom line is you want the Presentation Monster in the room, you want it a little hungry. But you don’t want it to be any larger than you can handle with a good stick and a bit of determination.

I Wish All New Presenters Knew This (and it will help you): October 7, 2019

Posted by mwidlake in Presenting.
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All people new to presenting need to know this:

Me presenting to a large number of people. Yes, I am nervous!

It’s OK to be nervous.

Nearly all those excellent presenters you see at conferences still get nervous. Being nervous actually makes you a better presenter. Embrace nervous. Nervous is your presenting best buddy!

The topic of performance nerves came up on a recent twitter chat I was involved in. Several well known presenters (in the Oracle sphere) all made similar comments, on how they have been doing this for years and that, though you get better at handling the butterflies in the stomach, they still bat madly in your insides before the show starts.

I won’t name names, but over half of the best speakers at UKOUG conferences (as measured by feedback scores) have confirmed to me that they still get nervous. And nearly all of them say the nerves help. Yes, help.

The degree to which you get nervous obviously varies from person to person and if, rather than nerves, it is fear so bad that you want to throw up, then presenting is probably not for you. I say probably – I know of a couple of people personally who seriously wonder if they can do it without losing their last meal, each and every time, and yet they still present. But for most of us presenters the nerves are there. Even those who seem totally at peace, smile warmly as they start, and have not a trace of quiver in the voice – they are nervous.

The first time you present is of course special. You don’t know how you are going to do, you worry.  Will you forget something, will someone have a pop at you, will you freeze, are you an idiot impostor who does not know your stuff? Well, actually those thoughts do remain with many of us, even after years of presenting. But actually, they are baseless fears. Let’s just cover them off:

  • No one knows what you are going to say, so if you forget something then 95% of the time no one in the audience will notice. And if they do notice and ask, well say “Wow! Yeah! Thanks for that, I must say something about…” and off you go.
  • You may well hit a point when you freeze. The next slide comes up, you look at it and realise you have no idea what it is about. In fact, you might suspect it is not even your slide… and for an age you stand there like an idiot, people knowing you forgot… Only, what seems an age to you is about 3 seconds – and the audience think you are just pausing to let them catch up. There really is a massive difference between the pause you experience and the pause the audience does. In fact, one thing I have learned over the years is that I *should* pause occasionally. It makes a better presentation.
  • You know your stuff, you picked the topic. If you really do not know your stuff you should not present. But you do not need to know every last detail and gotcha. If you can tell a work colleague about the topic or, better still, describe it to your mum (other relatives will do) you are fine. And part of why many of us continue to present is, we learn things through presenting. If someone raises a point you did not know, acknowledge it, make sure you understand it – and carry on.
  • No one has a pop at you. When did you last see a talk when someone belittled the presenter? And if you have seen this rare event, you know it is the person having a go who you did not like.

Oddly enough, I’m not trying to stop you being nervous here. I want you to be nervous – but at a level of nervous that is not crippling. You see, those nerves are crucial to you. They are energy and you use that energy to give your presentation an edge. If you do not have some emotion, some drive, then your talk will probably be flat. People I know who perform (play in bands or act ) all say the same – without the nerves, their performance loses something.

Those nerves, that mild (OK, maybe not that mild!) anxiety has a measurable, biological, scientifically understood impact on you. Several hormones are released into your body, including adrenaline and oxytocin, and these hormones “turn up the dial”. Your heart pumps faster and harder, your physical strength increases, you become more aware of your surroundings. Your reaction speed improves and, in some ways, you get smarter. You become the best you for dealing with things – like an audience.

Humour is the most challenging aspect of presenting for me. So I use it.

The degree of nerves also varies from talk to talk. I think I suffer from “The SCARY presentation monster” (as my friend Neil Chandler put it) less than many. If it is a technical talk I have done several times I can pretty much jump up on the stage and do it with barely a flutter of insect wings inside. But if I am doing a new talk or, ever so much worse, it is intended to be a humorous talk, then it is bordering on fear for the few moments before I start.

Over the years I have noticed something about my talks. If I am not nervous at all, I tend to do an OK job. It’s fine. I explain the topic, get the information across and everyone is, well, they’re OK with the talk. Sounds bland? That is because it was bland.

If I do a talk and the nerves are there, then I do either a great talk or a poor one. 90% of the time (I like to think!) it is a great talk. The best talks I have done have all been when I am screaming inside “Why in hell am I doing this!”. I did something more like a performance than a talk in Poland 2 years ago. It is probably the closest I have ever been to doing stand-up comedy – and before I started I could have just walked out the venue, it was the worst case of nerves I’ve had in 13 years. I think it was the peak of my presenting career and people said really nice things about it after. I now actually seek out a certain level of anxiety when I present. If there are no nerves before I get up, I will make myself think about what could go wrong, just to turn up that dial a little and make me better prepared to perform.

Nerves before presenting are natural and normal. Handle them, control them, but embrace them. As I said, Nervousness is your presenting best buddy.

Friday Philosophy – Doing DOAG (& a Little, Light, Hem-Touching) November 24, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting.
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This week I’ve been at the annual DOAG conference. DOAG is the German (Deutsch) Oracle User Group annual conference. This was my second time there and I very much enjoyed it, meeting lots of people & seeing some great talks. I also got a request to do more Friday Philosophies, so…

DOAG is now the biggest Oracle User Group conference in Europe, it overtook the UKOUG conference a few years back. Do I see this as “competition”? Well, a little bit of me does because for several years I was involved in organising the UKOUG tech conference – and a part of me would like “my” conference to be the biggest. But that is just misplaced, juvenile pride – really there is no competition between us. DOAG caters to the German Oracle User community (and nearby countries), UKOUG to the British Isles and, to a certain extent, Ireland and the closer parts of mainland Europe. If there is any competition then it is for presenters. I know that sometimes presenters have had to pick between the UKOUG and DOAG as they can only manage so much time doing these things. But I also know many presenters who do both. Also, both conferences are lucky enough to receive many more, very good presentation abstracts than they have presentation slots for. There will always be a great selection of presentations at both conferences.

There are some aspects of DOAG that I really do wish we could replicate for UKOUG. The first is the venue. Not only is the space they have at the Nuremberg conference centre so much larger and and better suited than the ICC in Birmingham, but it costs them “a lot less”. It might be outside of town (and Nuremberg is a nice town) whereas the UKOUG conference is almost in the middle of Birmingham, but at DOAG you get free transport as part of the conference pass. The second is the catering. The food at DOAG is very, very good; coffee is available at all times; you can get real, decent coffee at the venue (in the UK you need to go find a place that will sell you decent coffee); DOAG end the conference with beers and light snacks – the UKOUG conference tends to fizzle out.

But for me, though it is a close-run thing, I do ever so slightly prefer Birmingham and the UKOUG conference. I find it a little more relaxed (certainly there are less suits in evidence) and, on a personal level, I know so many more people there. I like knowing where the pubs & restaurants are and which ones are terrible! And somewhat ironically, our German Christmas Market is not only in full swing during the conference, but it is bigger than Nuremberg’s. But how many wooden toys, Gluhwein and sausage do you need in your life?

I did have a somewhat bizarre time with my presentations at DOAG though. First, I had to cancel a presentation. I was preparing a new one on the philosophy & process of performance tuning but due to some back pain issues (or rather the impact this had on my sleep and the pain medication had on my brain) I was utterly failing to get it done. So with only a week to go I had to ask if they could replace me. I hated doing it so late, I know what it is like organising these conferences and losing talks when you have printed the agenda is a real pain. Plus you now need to find a replacement. But I also know they would not appreciate a poor talk, so I let them choose. They chose to drop the talk.

But I honoured my other two presenting slots. The first was at 11am the first day and I experienced that thing that most presenters secretly like – it was so popular there was only standing room! As a result, the DOAG organisers asked if I would repeat it the next day or last day. Of course! However, as it worked out, they asked me to repeat it later that afternoon as one speaker was lost in transit. There was of course no time to really advertise the change. So I repeated the talk 4 hours later in the largest auditorium I have ever presented in – to 27 people. They of course were scattered around the room like lost souls. I guess it was using a room that would otherwise have been empty, and the session was recorded I think. But it did feel odd.

In between these two talks, I saw a couple of other people present. And in one talk, my phone kept buzzing. That was unusual, especially as it was a German number. I eventually exited (from the front row) and took the call. It was DOAG! They wanted to know why I was not at the interview I had agreed to do. “Because that is on Tuesday!”. Pause. The confused lady on the phone said “Yes. It IS Tuesday…” *sigh* – did I mention the pain meds and my brain? That was embarrassing. I had to go back into the room, to the front, get my stuff and wave an apology to Chris Saxon & Heli Helskyaho before scuttling off to this interview. Which I did very badly.

My final talk was interesting for other reasons. The talk was on calling PL/SQL from SQL and the impact it can have on performance and the point-in-time reliability of the results (if your called PL/SQL function itself runs SQL). I’ve discussed this topic with Bryn Llewellyn, the product manager (distinguished no less) of PL/SQL & EBR, in the past and I was able to catch up with him just before the talk. Then he came to my talk. I’m presenting in front of the Oracle employee who owns the tech I am talking about. No pressure. Then I look around the crowd and it is liberally scattered with other senior Oracle technical people, OakTable members, Oracle ACEs…

This is an unappreciated, small problem with becoming friends with these people. The bas…. good fellows and ladies come to your talk – and heckle.

Well, it keeps me honest and the heckling that did inevitably happen was all good-natured, and corrected a couple of slightly weak bits of my talk. So the crowd got a better talk than they otherwise would have.

And the Hem Touching? Well, go back a few years and we did not have the breadth and diversity of information the web now provides for us. In fact, we are talking back in the 1990’s when there was nothing like google and blogs and Oracle Base. What information was out there for Oracle was much more paper-based (you know, actual books & magazines!) or the odd word document that was emailed between people. One name I saw on such things quite often and who taught me an awful lot back then was Craig Shallahammer. Well, Craig was at DOAG, I’d seen him in the crowds once or twice. And after this talk he came up for a quick chat. I might have been presenting now for a good few years and met many of the best known people in our world of Oracle and I’m generally immune from the desire or need to go “Oh! You’re xxx! I’ve read all your papers!!!!”. But I did a little with Craig, as he was from my “Oracle childhood”. And he was very nice about it.

So all in all, an excellent few days. I’ll try and come again next year. Maybe if I finish that talk on the philosophy of performance tuning, they’ll let me do it?

Friday Philosophy – What Makes a Community? November 10, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions, Presenting, UKOUG, User Groups.
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Earlier this week Daniel Westermann asked a question on twitter: “What is community?”

What is a community?

Daniel was not specific about if this was a work/user group community or a wider consideration of society, but my first thoughts were about the Oracle community (or communities) that I have been involved in. By community I mean anything from a national or regional user group; a regular, geographically agnostic conference; a special interest group; even just a bunch of people who meet socially who share a common interest (such as London Oracle Beers which I help run). You could actually think of it as the world-wide collective of all such smaller Oracle communities.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and you can see my answer in the right. Quite obviously an Oracle community needs a shared interest in Oracle, in some aspect of it or a broader view. All tech communities focus on a brand of tech, I don’t think you get a “computers” community as it is just too broad. But the parts that make up the community are, I think, alwyas the same.

1) A large group of people willing to take part
+
2) A medium group of people willing to share
+
3) A small group of people willing to drive the community

Taking a regular conference as an example, the first group are the delegates. If not enough people are willing to pay for it and turn up then your conference will fail. The second group are the speakers and people who will help with organising. The third group are the ones who get the second group involved, manage the effort and sell the idea of the conference.

Community at UKOUG

That third, small group is the key. If you lack that, you have no community. Sometimes, especially for smaller groups, that third group could be very small, even just one person. Delegates and speakers can come and go but it’s not so easy with the drivers of a community.

For several years we had a small but active Oracle user group in the centre of the UK, in Birmingham. It was run by one person, Mike Mckay-dirden. He almost single handedly started it up, organised the venue and corralled some of us speakers into coming over to talk. It ran successfully for several years but then Mike decided he could not keep doing it. He stopped, no one took it over – and the community died.

With larger communities such as UKOUG or DOAG there will be several people driving it all forward and usually, if one drops out you can keep going until another driven person turns up to help. But it is always a very small group of people doing a hell of a lot of work.

Over the years I’ve watched some communities get stronger or weaker and even die off as those key, driving people change. You can tell who they are, they are the ones who look knackered all the time :-). The LOB is in danger of dying as a couple of the driving people are no longer around and I can’t get to London very often now.

The chances are that as you are reading this blog you are part of an Oracle community. If so, I’d encourage you to support the drivers in those communities. If you lose them, it could really badly impact your community. Would I encourage you to become one of those drivers? Well, I would. But you have to want to do it yourself – it’s a lot of hard work and sometimes it feels like none of the first and second group really appreciate what you are doing, which can be very demoralising. And it eats up a lot of time.

I went from being one of the large group willing to take part to a member of the medium group willing to share pretty quickly. After a few years I stepped up to being in the smaller group, for a couple of groups actually. I took those steps up because I wanted to, not with any real expectation of gain (I could see it was going to be me working “for free”!). But I am absolutely sure that I would not be where I am now if I had not. I would not be an OakTable member, I would not be an Oracle ACE Director, and I would not be a known international speaker if I had not at least joined the middle group. Joining the band of drivers introduced me to a lot of really nice, really helpful people too.

This blog has been all about Oracle communities but I think the three-group-theory might apply to all communities. I’ll have to think on that a little longer before I voice an opinion. One thing I do know – It’s really nice being part of communities.

Free Webinar – How Oracle Works! September 15, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in Architecture, internals, Knowledge, Presenting.
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Next Tuesday (19th September) I am doing a free webinar for ProHuddle. It lasts under an hour and is an introduction to how some of the core parts of the Oracle RDBMS work, I call it “The Heart of Oracle: How the Core RDBMS Works”. Yes, I try and explain all of the core Oracle RDBMS in under an hour! I’m told I just about manage it. You can see details of the event and register for it here. I’ve done this talk a few times at conferences now and I really like doing it, partly as it seems to go down so well and people give me good feedback about it (and occasionally bad feedback, but I’ll get on to that).

The idea behind the presentation is not to do the usual “Intro” and list what the main Oracle operating systems processes – SMON, PMON, RECO etc – are or what the various components of the shared memory do. I always found those talks a little boring and they do not really help you understand why Oracle works the way it does when you use it. I aim to explain what redo is, why it is so important, what actually happens when you commit, how data is written to and read from storage to the cache – and what is actually put in the buffer cache. I explain the concept of point-in-time view, how Oracle does it and why it is so fantastic. And a few other bits and pieces.

I’m not trying to explain to people the absolute correct details of what goes on with all these activities that the database does for you. I’m attempting to give people an understanding of the principles so that more advanced topics make more sense and fit together. The talk is, of course, aimed at people who are relatively new to Oracle – students, new DBAS or developers who have never had explained to them why Oracle works the way it does. But I have found that even some very experienced DBA-types have learnt the odd little nugget of information from the talk.

Of course, in an hour there is only so much detail I can go into when covering what is a pretty broad set of topics. And I lie about things. I say things that are not strictly true, that do not apply if more advanced features of Oracle are used, or that ignore a whole bucket full of exceptions. But it’s like teaching astrophysics at school. You first learn about how the Sun is at the centre of the solar system, all the planets & moons revolve around each other due to gravity and the sun is hot due to nuclear fusion. No one mentions how the earth’s orbit varies over thousands and millions of years until you have the basics. Or that GPS satellites have to take into account the theory of relativity to be as accurate as they are. Those finer details are great to learn but they do not change the fundamental principles of planets going around suns and rocks falling out of the sky – and you need to know the simpler overall “story” to slot in the more complex information.

I talk about this picture.

I start off the talk explaining this simplification and I do try to indicate where people will need to dig deeper if they, for example, have Exadata – but with a webinar I am sure people will join late, drop in and out and might miss that. I must remember to keep reminding people I’m ignoring details. And amongst the audience will be people who know enough to spot some of these “simplifications” and I think the occasional person might get upset. Remember I mentioned the bad feedback? I got accosted at a conference once after I had done this talk by a couple of experts, who were really angry with me that I had said something that was not accurate. But they had missed the start of the talk and my warnings of simplification and did not seem to be able to understand that I would have needed half an hour to explain the details of that on thing that they knew – but I had only 50 minutes in total for everything!

As I said, this is the first Webinar I will have done. I am sure it will be strange for me to present with “no audience” and I’m sure I’ll trip up with the pointer and the slides at some point. I usually have some humour in my presentations but that might not work with no crowd feedback and a worldwide audience. We will see. But I am excited about doing it and, if it works, I may well offer to do more.

As a taster, I explain the above diagram. A lot. I mostly just talk about pictures, there will be very few “wordy” slides.

I invite you all to register for the talk – as I said, it is free – and please do spread the word.

click here to register for the Webinar

Friday Philosophy – New Conference, Same Sad Old Faces Up Front June 2, 2017

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Friday Philosophy, Presenting.
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I’ve been on the Oracle conference presenting circuit for well over a decade now and I must confess I enjoy it. Part of this is that I see lots of friends at nearly every conference – even in countries I have never been to before. This is because many of those friends are fellow presenters, who have been presenting for well over a decade now…

There he goes again, banging on and on and on…

This is not totally true of course, there are some relatively new presenters, even a couple I can think of that have been presenting for only a year or two (Pieter, Frank…). I’m proud to say that there are some less-experienced presenters I actually helped get going at this lark and even a couple who are better at this than I am.

But the truth of it is, if you were to go to 5 conferences in one year across Europe (or maybe even 5 across the USA, let me know) you will keep seeing the same bunch of mostly older faces up there, sometimes even doing the same talk (or talks) – That is maybe not such a bad thing as the real audience, the local Oracle community members, are mostly from that region, won’t have been to the other conferences and get to see current talks that have been trialled and tested and tweaked elsewhere.

However, if you go to the same conference 5 years in a row – you will STILL see the same bunch of mostly older faces up there (all getting slowly older, greyer, wrinklier – except for those who hit Mid-Life-Crisis and suddenly develop gym-bodies and oddly darker hair…. 🙂 ). Again, maybe not a bad thing as these are the people who like presenting, get selected again based on the fact the audience liked what they said, they did not lie too much and did not get too many things wrong. And most of us try to not do the same presentation 2 years in a row, so the material moves on {I do repeat presentations after a year or two’s break, usually updated and aimed at the newbie audience, but that’s just me}.

So is this “same old faces” a problem? Most of us conference organisers agree that it is as people drop off the presenting circuit or seem to run out of material. So you need a new influx. And you need younger presenters to keep the older ones on their toes (or just help them on and off the platform). And younger or just new people to give another perspective or add their considerable experience to the mix. One of the newer presenters I can think of is actually retirement age and a great addition to the circuit.

But the problem is, how do you encourage new presenters? You lot reading this who do not present are a damned hard bunch to motivate to give it a go! Now, I know that presenting is not for everyone and that some of you would rather stick your arm in a wasps’ nest than present, but some of you can bang on for ages in a social situation and actually know your stuff. So how do we get you to present?

The same ideas come up. One is to say you only need to present for 5 or 10 minutes. Sometimes we will even organise a full session made up of such short session to let people give it a go. It does not seem to work to me, you get one or maybe two new people and then fill the other mini-sessions with experienced people – who then complain about how hard it is to do a decent talk in such short time!

Another is to specifically ask at SIGs and smaller meetings if anyone fancies trying out presenting, in the small and friendly arena that they have just experienced. You know, the one where after presenting the presenter cannot really hide in the crowd and everyone there knows if you did a good or bad job… We do get the occasional new presenter but not really. And I suspect most of them would have submitted papers eventually (and I’m ignoring the issue of new presenters getting papers selected, I’d need a whole post on that).

Another route it to co-present and this is the one I have used a small number of times. You get someone you know, who understands the material, to share a presentation with you. If they stumble or forget what they were saying, you can just nudge things along, and hopefully cope with any tricky questions that might worry the new person. It worked once (and you now see his sad, old face ALL the time), partially worked the second (though I’ve not seen her present for a while) and utterly failed the third.

The UKOUG is trying this at the next UKOUG Tech conference, but in a more formal way. They are getting some of us more experienced presenters to offer ourselves to co-present with new people. I’m not sure how well this will work if we experienced presenters are not finding the inexperienced presenters ourselves. Can you imagine someone who has never presented before wanting to step up to the podium with one of the Oracle Names, unless they also know them? If you said something wrong, would they correct you in front of everyone (no, probably not, we are generally nice people). Anyway, it’s something to try and I am happy to help. The UKOUG have started promoting this a little, but I don’t think everyone is going to find it appealing. In fact, my friend Dawn saw this and thought it sounded…:

Creepy! That made me laugh.

Nevertheless, if you are a potential new presenter or just inexperienced and you want to present on something I also know about, I’d be happy to consider co-presenting with you. Just let me know. And generally speaking, if co-presenting appeals to you but not with me {I would not blame you}, get in touch with the UKOUG.

About the only way I know of really getting new presenters is… to get people drunk and make them agree to it. Then remind them about it endlessly until they feel obliged to do it. It does work, but it ends up being a self-selecting set of new presenters, i.e. people I drink with, which rather annoyingly tends to be sad, old men. I’ve tried drinking with young, vivacious women but I usually get asked to leave the club, as I am coming over as creepy.

So, if you are someone who has considered presenting or would consider it – what would help you give it a go? Tell me, I’ll see if I can arrange it.

Top and Tailing Bulgaria. November 9, 2016

Posted by mwidlake in conference, Meeting notes, Presenting.
Tags: , ,
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Tomorrow I head off to Bulgaria for the BGOUG Autumn Conference 2016. I’ve only been to the Bulgarian user group once before, having heard from so many people what a fantastic user group conference it was – and they were right. Milena Gerova and her team do an amazing job of organising it and make everyone feel really welcome. So I am really looking forward to my return.

Bryn always gets a good crowd but this was typical for  Bulgaria (sorry it's blurry)

Bryn always gets a good crowd but this was typical for Bulgaria (sorry it’s blurry)

In one of those strange quirks of fate, I’m “opening” the conference and also “closing” it. I.e. my first session is in the first slot on the first day and my last is, well, the last slot on the last day. In between I’ll be enjoying the other talks, doing a third session myself and trying to avoid repeating the “6am with the crazy Ukrainians” experience of last time!

Having the first slot on the first day is just perfect for the session I am doing “The heart of Oracle – How the Core RDBMS Works”. A while back I realised that there are a lot of experienced and highly capable Oracle practitioners who do not actually know some of the basics of how the database software works {if I look in the mirror I see one of them}. That is, why redo is so important, what goes into the redo stream, that all table and index data is accessed via blocks (until you get to that fancy engineered systems stuff) and it is blocks that go into the SGA buffer ache, what a consistent get is or how Oracle finds a block of data in memory. That last one I had no clue about until about 6 years ago, I had made some stupid assumptions.

When you discover these things or tell someone about them, a common response is “Oh! That makes so many things make more sense! I wish I had known that from the start…”. So this talk tells people about these things and, though it understandable by anyone who has only got as far as writing their first SELECT statement and was originally aimed at those new to Oracle, most experienced people take something new from it that helps make all those more detailed talks make sense. It really suits all levels. Thus having it at the start of the conference will hopefully help give them a better understanding of the core framework of the Oracle RDBMS into which knowledge of specific areas can slot into.

The location in Pravets is lovely

The location in Pravets is lovely

The final session is equally suitable for everyone. Which is good as it is the only session available at that time! It is a “Discussion Over Beers About Oracle Database” – beers are available to all. It’s a fun and relaxed way to round off the event, with questions coming from the audience. I loved the session last year and this time I’m up on the panel. Bryn Llewellyn was sniping from the audience last year (as only Bryn can) so they are doing what you should do with any troublemaker, which is to put them in charge :-). So Bryn is also on the panel, along with Joze Senegacnik and Tim Hall.

Sometime in between those two bookends I’ll do my talk on clustering data for better SQL and overall database performance but more importantly I’ll be listening to many of the other great talks. I’ve looked over the agenda and I know I will have the complaint common in any conference with good contents – more than one talk I want to see at most points in the day. Thankfully, having been a bit of a conference tart this last few months, I have seen some of them already which makes my decision making easier.

Traditional Dancing is a Traditional Entertainment (and my shot is traditionally blurry!)

Traditional Dancing is a Traditional Entertainment (and my shot is traditionally blurry!)

Another thing I am looking forward to is enjoying the hospitality & entertainment that BGOUG is so famous for. The conference is in a hotel that is not that near many other things, which could be a problem. But the organisers make sure that we are entertained in the evening and the food last year was great. This made even better by spending time talking with the delegates and other speakers in the evening. Last year I was struck by how engaged the audience was during sessions and how enthusiastic they were to learn & share outside of them.

Just like The Polish user group conference I went to in October, BGOUG has the three things a great conference needs: Excellent presentations; good organisation; an engaged audience. For some people there, this will be their 10th or 20th time (or even more) at the BGOUG conference. Nothing says more than that.