PASS Summit Feedback

December 28, 2010

PASS Feedback came in last week. I also saw my dentist for some fillings…

At the PASS Summit this year, I delivered a couple of regular sessions and a Lightning Talk. People told me they enjoyed it, but when the rankings came out, they showed that I didn’t score particularly well.ClipArt_Scores

Brent Ozar was keen to discuss it with me.

Brent: PASS speaker feedback is out. You did two sessions and a Lightning Talk. How did you go?

Rob: Not so well actually, thanks for asking.

Brent: Ha! Sorry. Of course you know that’s why I wanted to discuss this with you. I was in one of your sessions at SQLBits in the UK a month before PASS, and I thought you rocked. You’ve got a really good and distinctive delivery style.  Then I noticed your talks were ranked in the bottom quarter of the Summit ratings and wanted to discuss it.

Rob: Yeah, I know. You did ask me if we could do this… 

I should explain – my presentation style is not the stereotypical IT conference one. I throw in jokes, and try to engage the audience thoroughly. I find many talks amazingly dry, and I guess I try to buck that trend. I also run training courses, and find that I get a lot of feedback from people thanking me for keeping things interesting. That said, I also get feedback criticising me for my style, and that’s basically what’s happened here. For the rest of this discussion, let’s focus on my talk about the Incredible Shrinking Execution Plan, which I considered to be my main talk.

Brent: I thought that session title was the very best one at the entire Summit, and I had it on my recommended sessions list.  In four words, you managed to sum up the topic and your sense of humor.  I read that and immediately thought, "People need to be in this session," and then it didn’t score well.  Tell me about your scores.

Rob: The questions on the feedback form covered the usefulness of the information, the speaker’s presentation skills, their knowledge of the subject, how well the session was described, the amount of time allocated, and the quality of the presentation materials.

Brent: Presentation materials? But you don’t do slides.  Did they rate your thong?

Rob: No-one saw my flip-flops in this talk, Brent. I created a script in Management Studio, and published that afterwards, but I think people will have scored that question based on the lack of slides. I wasn’t expecting to do particularly well on that one. That was the only section that didn’t have 5/5 as the most popular score.

Brent: See, that sucks, because cookbook-style scripts are often some of my favorites.  Adam Machanic’s Service Broker workbench series helped me immensely when I was prepping for the MCM.  As an attendee, I’d rather have a commented script than a slide deck.  So how did you rank so low?

Rob: When I look at the scores that you got (based on your blog post), you got very few scores below 3 – people that felt strong enough about your talk to post a negative score. In my scores, between 5% and 10% were below 3 (except on the question about whether I knew my stuff – I guess I came as knowledgeable).

Brent: Wow – so quite a few people really didn’t like your talk then?

Rob: Yeah. Mind you, based on the comments, some people really loved it. I’d like to think that there would be a certain portion of the room who may have rated the talk as one of the best of the conference. Some of my comments included “amazing!”, “Best presentation so far!”, “Wow, best session yet”, “fantastic” and “Outstanding!”. I think lots of talks can be “Great”, but not so many talks can be “Outstanding” without the word losing its meaning. One wrote “Pretty amazing presentation, considering it was completely extemporaneous.”

Brent: Extemporaneous, eh?

Rob: Yeah. I guess they don’t realise how much preparation goes into coming across as unprepared. In many ways it’s much easier to give a written speech than to deliver a presentation without slides as a prompt.

Brent: That delivery style, the really relaxed, casual, college-professor approach was one of the things I really liked about your presentation at SQLbits.  As somebody who presents a lot, I "get" it – I know how hard it is to come off as relaxed and comfortable with your own material.  It’s like improv done by jazz players and comedians – if you’ve never tried it, you don’t realize how hard it is.  People also don’t realize how hard it is to make a tough subject fun.

Rob: Yeah well… There will be people writing comments on this post that say I wasn’t trying to make the subject fun, and that I was making it all about me. Sometimes the style works, sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the comments mentioned the fact that I tell jokes, some in a nice way, but some not so much (and it wasn’t just a PASS thing – that’s the mix of feedback I generally get). One comment at PASS was: “great stand up comedian – not what I’m looking for at pass”, and there were certainly a few that said “too many jokes”. I’m not trying to do stand-up – jokes are my way of engaging with the audience while I demonstrate some of the amazing things that the Query Optimizer can do if you write your queries the right way. Some people didn’t think it was technical enough, but I’ve also had some people tell me that the concepts I’m explaining are deep and profound.

Brent: To me, that’s a hallmark of a great explanation – when someone says, "But of course it has to work that way – how could it work any other way?  It seems so simple and logical."  Well, sure it does when it’s explained correctly, but now pick up any number of thick SQL Server books and try to understand the Redundant Joins concept.  I guarantee it’ll take more than 45 minutes.

Rob: Some people in my audiences realise that, but definitely not everyone. There’s only so much you can tell someone that something is profound. Generally it’s something that they either have an epiphany on or not. I like to lull my audience into knowing what’s going on, and do something that surprises them. Gain their trust, build a rapport, and then show them the deeper truth of what just happened.

Brent: So you’ve learned your lesson about presentation scores, right?  From here on out, you’re going to be dry, humorless, and all your presentations will consist of you reading bullet points off the screen.

Rob: No Brent, I’m not. I’m also not going to suggest that most presentations at PASS are like that. No-one tries to present like that. There’s a big space to occupy between what "dry and humourless" and me.

My difference is to focus on the relationship I have with the crowd, rather than focussing on delivering the perfect session. I want to see people smiling and know they’re relaxed. I think most presenters focus on the material, which is completely reasonable and safe.

I remember once hearing someone talking about product creation. They talked about mediocrity. They said that one of the worst things that people can ever say about your product is that it’s “good”. What you want is for 10% of the world to love it enough to want to buy it. If 10% the world gave me a dollar, I’d have more money than I could ever use (assuming it wasn’t the SAME dollar they were giving me I guess).

Brent: It’s the Raving Fans theory.  It’s better to have a small number of raving customers than a large number of almost-but-not-really customers who don’t care that much about your product or service.  I know exactly how you feel – when I got survey feedback from my Quest video presentation when I was dressed up in a Richard Simmons costume, some of the attendees said I was unprofessional and distracting.  Some of the attendees couldn’t get enough and Photoshopped all kinds of stuff into the screen captures.  On a whole, I probably didn’t score that well, and I’m fine with that.  It sucks to look at the scores though – do those lower scores bother you?

Rob: Of course they do. It hurts deeply. I open myself up and give presentations in a very personal way. All presenters do that, and we all feel the pain of negative feedback. I hate coming 146th & 162nd out of 185, but have to acknowledge that many sessions did worse still.

Plus, once I feel the wounds have healed, I’ll be able to remember that there are people in the world that rave about my presentation style, and figure that people will hopefully talk about me. One day maybe those people that don’t like my presentation style will stay away and I might be able to score better. You don’t pay to hear country music if you prefer western… Lots of people find chili too spicy, but it’s still a popular food.

Brent: But don’t you want to appeal to everyone?

Rob: I do, but I don’t want to be lukewarm as in Revelation 3:16. I’d rather disgust and be discussed. Well, maybe not ‘disgust’, but I don’t want to conform. Conformity just isn’t the same any more. I’m not sure I’ve ever been one to do that. I try not to offend, but definitely like to be different.

Brent: Count me among your raving fans, sir.  Where can we see you next?

Rob: Considering I live in Adelaide in Australia, I’m not about to appear at anyone’s local SQL Saturday. I’m still trying to plan which events I’ll get to in 2011. I’ve submitted abstracts for TechEd North America, but won’t hold my breath. I’m also considering the SQLBits conferences in the UK in April, PASS in October, and I’m sure I’ll do some LiveMeeting presentations for user groups. Online, people download some of my recent SQLBits presentations at and though. And they can download a 5-minute MP3 of my Lightning Talk at, in which I try to explain the idea behind collation, using thongs as an example.

Brent: I was in the audience for That was a great presentation.

Rob: Thanks, Brent. Now where’s my dollar?

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. WIDBA

    I have to say, I was at the presentation and thought it was fun.  I did take away two really great points from the presentation (shrinking plan) that I probably didn’t think of when writing my review.  Your style was welcome and definitely a welcome respite as it was between Conor Cunningham and Bob Ward’s content packed presentations.    

  2. Rob Farley

    No worries, Zach. I’m pleased you got some good points from it. 🙂

  3. andyleonard

    I am a raving fan of Rob and Brent!

  4. Bill Graefe

    How about a caveat/disclaimer to start the presentations?

  5. Rob Farley

    Hi Bill,
    I’d like to think that shouldn’t be necessary.
    In fact, I’ve found that warning people about things only seeds their feedback. I’ve taught basic T-SQL to people, and told people who have actually been writing queries for a year already that they may find the first part of the course slow-going, while I make sure that the beginners have grasped the basics enough and are eased into the whole concept of queries. The more advanced students will repeat my warning on the feedback form almost word for word – I’ve effectively seeded their criticism.
    So… maybe, but I’m not sure that a warning or disclaimer will actually help much.

  6. Alexander Kuznetsov

    I really enjoyed your talk on shrinking plans and such. Of course your style is quite unique, so uploading a trailer of your presentation on youtube would help people decide if they want more of it.

  7. Kendra Little

    I’m a fan. I’d be a raving fan if I could, but I’m from Seattle, and, you know, we’re just not completely capable of that in general. 😉
    My comment is that I think this is the *best* way I’ve seen to talk about feedback from the PASS Summit. I like the format and discussion a lot.
    I also really admire your comments that you don’t want to conform because of getting a difficult spot of ratings, but you’re still seeing what you can learn from the feedback. That’s the approach I want to take, too.

  8. Paul Turley

    Non-conformists rarely please all of the people all the time.  Rob, you are who you are and and many people appreciate your personality and presentation style.  You have knowlege, experience and insights to share.  I enjoyed all of your presentations at PASS and spending time chatting with you at the conference.  We all learn from feedback but that doesn’t mean you have to change who or how you are.  You don’t need a disclaimer or warning.  Just a guess but I’ll bet Buck W and Paul R get their share of comments from people who get their feathers ruffled.  The rest of us think they rock.

  9. Rob Farley

    Thanks for your comments, Andy, Alex, Kendra & Paul.
    I do plan to continue improving as time goes on. For example, I want to make sure that my conversational style doesn’t come across as purely conversational when making points that are actually very significant. I talk about the importance of seeing data in sets (eg Products) rather than a class (eg Product) because it’s far easier to get what’s happening with the Query Optimizer that way – but need to make sure that it doesn’t come across as filler.
    And I don’t want to simply cater for those who like my style. I need to be conscious of those who don’t like it, and make sure that the size of that group is shrinking, not growing.
    I might even reintroduce slides at some point – although it might be more for making sure that audience members who have downloaded it have some background reading rather than it being script for me to follow.

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