Speaking on the SS Titanic

If you listened to the episode of Deep Fried Bytes that I was interviewed on you’ll recall I was interviewed along side fellow SQL Server MVP Denny Cherry (blog | twitter). He recently wrote a blog post called “When the demo’s don’t work the men and women are separated from the boys and girls.

I know from the perspective of the audience it looks like presenters are calm, rehearsed and have everything under control. Sadly, we are usually freaked out, winging it, and trying to herd a group of cats.

Well OK, it’s not quite that bad, but sometimes it does feel like it, especially when disaster hits in the form of our demos going bad. Denny and several others have been sharing stories about their demo disasters so I thought I’d give you a glimpse into the scary mind that is Arcane Code and share with you too.

Demoing Beta software is a lot like working with kids and animals

The old show business wisdom of “never work with kids or animals” could easily extend to beta software. I was demoing the early beta of PowerPivot. I’d rehearsed and work though my presentation several times all without a hitch. So naturally when I was doing it before the audience, nothing seemed to work right. The data imports crashed, none of the charts would display correctly, and it crashed Excel twice. What to do?

Well, I’m a big believer in Scott Berkun’s advice in “Confessions of a Public Speaker”. Let the audience in on it, don’t try to BS. Heck, a lot of the time there are people in the audience far smarter than I am. I’ve even had PHD’s attend my sessions. Even if an audience member is new at coding they’re still smart enough to smell someone trying to feed them a line.

So I simply admitted what was happening, explained what they should be seeing, and kept going. I skipped ahead to some things that were working, fortunately this group took an intermission about halfway through the meeting for a pizza break. While they chowed down I was able to reboot, and get the demos working again. I even had enough time for a few pieces of pepperoni myself!

When they returned, I brought them up to speed on what I’d done, showing them the now working pivot charts. I finished off the section I was on, then returned to my original flow.

A pretty shade of Blue

On two occasions I’ve been bitten by the “Blue Screen Of Death” The first was trivial, I was presenting at CodeStock last year. (By the way CodeStock is open for registration and speaker call, go check it out.) Just as I advanced to the very last slide in my deck, the “any questions here’s my e-mail/blog again” slide, the audience started laughing. I turned to see the “BSOD” screen on the big projector. Fortunately the session was over and I was able to field questions without needing the computer.

The other time though had a bit more of an impact. It was fairly early in my presentation and I had installed Windows 7 Beta 1 on my PC so I could learn it. A few slides in my laptop screen suddenly went black. I was puzzled then saw a BSOD quickly followed by a reboot. What to do?

Well, I just made a quip about using beta software, then proceeded to talk about what had been on the slide I’d been showing and the next one as well while my machine rebooted and I started launching PowerPoint and my demos. It’s a bit hard to talk and launch, but you can get the hang of it, and I think short pauses are OK, especially if the audience sees what’s up. Remember, they can feel your pain, everyone has experienced that lovely shade of blue at some time or another.

More power Scotty, I need more power!

My worst disaster wasn’t directly demo related, nor did the audience ever see it, but it was still a nightmare. I had traveled 3 hours to attend a SQL Saturday. I got to the hotel about 11 pm, to my horror I found I’d left my laptop power supply at home. To make it worse, I’d been using the laptop on the way over (don’t worry my lovely wife was driving) so there wasn’t a lot of battery power left.

Fortunately my wife had her laptop. I wound up staying up until 4 am downloading the various ISOs I needed to install the software I needed to do demos on her computer. Bleary eyed I showed up the next day and was able to do my presentations, using her laptop plus sucking up the remaining power on my laptop. It was a close call, on my laptop I had about 15 minutes of power left when my session was over.

Pain is funny

If you look at YouTube, you’ll find no shortage of people hurting themselves. Falling off things, getting whacked in inappropriate body parts, and we all laugh. So as you laugh at my pain, I hope you’ll take away some of the lessons I learned, should you speak, or even do a presentation at your office.

1. Never BS. Follow Burken’s advice, if something goes wrong simply acknowledge it and move on.

2. Know your stuff. When your computer crashes, and it will, be prepared to keep talking. Know your slides well enough so you can talk even without them. Be prepared to describe in vivid detail what the audience would see if Visual Studio / SQL Server / your tool of choice was running.

3. Create a list, and check it twice. After the forgotten power supply incident, I created a packing list. I have on it all the things I’ll need to do demos with. I check it, and double check it, before I zipper up my laptop bag and suitcase.

4. Have a backup box. I got home from a trip a few years ago, to find the internal screen on my laptop had quit working. I was lucky that it was when I got home, but it still taught me a lesson. Now when I head out, I have two laptops, my main demo box and my netbook.

As netbooks are relatively inexpensive, it wasn’t a big investment, plus with their long battery life they are great for pulling out and taking notes on all day. True, there are a few things I cannot do on my 2 gig netbook that I can do on my 8 gig laptop, but I can at least still run PowerPoint, show the code, etc, even if I can’t run the main demos.

I also keep an external portable hard drive handy. On it I have all the ISOs I might need to load up a computer with the software I need to do a demo. I also have all my demos backed up on it, along with a nifty piece of freeware called Virtual Clone Drive. It installs easily, and lets you mount an ISO as if it were another CD / DVD drive.

As you can see, public speaking is not all fun and games. But it’s intensely gratifying, and I encourage you to give it a try if you ever get the chance.

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One Response to “Speaking on the SS Titanic”

  1. Jack Corbett Says:

    Awesome post, Robert! I’ve never had a crash during a technical presentation, but I’ve had a couple of scares where my laptop wouldn’t boot (no boot device found), but powering off, disconnecting all external devices, and restarting has rescued me. I always have my presentations and demos on a thumb drive so hopefully I’ll have a laptop I can borrow that has the software I need.

    When I was speaking at churches trying to raise funds for my current position I left my power supply at my brother’s house and then went to speak at a church about 4 hours away. I ended up trying to do the presentation and getting about 1/2 way through before the battery died. I had told them ahead of time it might happen. I continued the presentation without slides. Definitely a learning experience.

    I like the idea of an external drive with ISO’s and presentations. I think I’ll add that to my list of things to do.


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