Why I Broke the #SQLpass Rules (And How It Worked)

I like trying new ways of delivering presentations, pushing the boundaries of what’s normal at conferences. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying a few different things:

  • Giving out a stored proc and walking the audience through using it
  • Making webcast attendees run queries on their systems while they watch the session
  • Handing out pieces of paper making attendees fulfill queries

This year at the PASS Summit in Charlotte, I wanted to try another new experiment – simulate what a DBA’s life is really like onstage. I brought them in to learn about performance troubleshooting basics, just like they’d watch a “normal” session at home, but then I interrupted them and took them completely off track. My second presentation slide is always my About-Me slide, and while I explained a little about myself, a little Outlook toast popped up:

Ha ha, that dumb Brent left his Outlook open.

Ha ha, that dumb Brent left his Outlook open.

I pretended not to notice, and it had exactly the effect I wanted. A few chuckles rippled through the audience and people pointed at the screen. “Ha ha, Brent made a rookie mistake and left his Outlook open.” Then, a few seconds later, as I continued to blissfully elaborate on my career, another toast popped up:

Oh, wait - is he pranking us?

Oh, wait – is he pranking us?

I turned around, looked at the screen, and sighed. I talked about what it’s like to be a DBA, to constantly get interrupted by people who want you to stop and fix things. I asked the audience what they do when emails like these arrived, and we built a slide together about how to do performance troubleshooting.

And then I told them they were all wrong, because there was a new sheriff in town – my brand-new sp_AskBrent™, an easier way to answer those emails.

After a few minutes of demos, I switched back into the slide deck to talk about the internals, and wouldn’t you know it, I got another email:

Dang it, they want help in production again?

Dang it, they want help in production again?

I used that incoming email to talk about how to schedule the proc with a SQL Server Agent job, and then query past data with the @AsOf parameter. A few more slides and popups later, I demoed StackExchange’s new open source Opserver, a dashboard for real-time SQL Server performance troubleshooting.

The Rule I Broke and Why

PASS presenters are supposed to upload their slide decks ahead of time for open criticism. (Wait, did I word that right? I’m not too good at wording that kind of thing.) I uploaded a nearly-empty slide deck – a title slide, my bio, and the PASS-required slides. See, if you sit through 15 sessions at PASS, you should see the same slides 15 times explaining that PASS has a bunch of resources, including what appears to be a new pregnancy test:

The Session Recordings tested positive, apparently

The Session Recordings tested positive, apparently

The reviewers pointed out that my slide deck was completely devoid of content. I explained (repeatedly, lying each time) that my session would be all demos, and eventually they bought it. I feel bad for lying to the volunteers, because they’re doing the thankless, Herculean, and admirable task of trying to improve your Summit experience. They don’t want you to see crappy sessions.

I broke that rule because I wanted to surprise you with the Outlook toast popups and the two new goodies. Neither of them would be publicly available ahead of time – I unveiled sp_AskBrent™ onstage at PASS, and the Stack guys unveiled Opserver at the Velocity conference. It was a really fun week to be a SQL Server admin.

How The Evaluation Scores Turned Out

Spoiler: I didn’t make the Top 10 this time around. The rest of this post is not a justification about my lower scores – I really want to give you a peek at what it’s like to craft a presentation, and how I like to study and interpret feedback to keep raising my game.

I knew going in that I was going to surprise people with something slightly different (and hopefully better) than what they expected from the abstract. That can be a real kiss-of-death for your eval scores – particularly for these three questions, and I knew I’d be in trouble on these. (I’m leaving out the comments that were all “BRENT IS A PRESENTING GOD” because you knew that already.)

How would you rate the accuracy of the session title, description, and experience level to the session presented?

  • Really interesting probably one of my top ones of the week
  • Perfect! Although it could’ve been named “get awesome management tools for FREEEEE!”
  • Ronseal – did what it said on the tin
  • Was expecting tips instead of tools, but still quite happy
  • Subject was kind of vague which had me wondering where it would be going, but when we actually saw the presentation, it made sense. The alternative of something like “Logging Filtered Wait Statistics Via Custom Stored Procedure” would be a bit lame so good
  • Should rename to why you should use my free tool.

Totally fair criticisms – I pulled a bait-and-switch, designing an abstract that made it sound like I was going to teach attendees the old, hard way of performance tuning, and instead I gave them an easy button. Some people want the old, hard way, and I totally knew they’d ding me. I’m comfortable with that.

How would you rate the quality of the presentation materials?

  • Outlook popup emails were brilliant. And funny.
  • A little short on slides for showing this back at the office.
  • Not much to rate.. Did show links
  • A little challenging to follow due to speed
  • Brent gave real world example which were applicable
  • Right from the beginning with the fake email popups on the slides and then going into a blank slide to “let’s create this slide together” and typing it up. It was the best session I’ve seen!
  • But would have like to have the slideshow available for download before. Handy to take notes within it so my notes are linked to the slide they refer to.

Exactly what I expected – I knew that the kinds of attendees who want to take the slides home and re-present my material weren’t going to like the session. It’s really hard to mimic what I do, and my slide decks have always had that challenge. I’m comfortable with that feedback too. This session was more of a performance than book reading, and the presentation materials weren’t the point of this session.

This is the tough part about working with a single set of eval questions that are standardized across an entire conference – when you want to break the rules, you’re going to pay the price on eval scores. I really wanted to make the top 10 again this year, but I was afraid I wouldn’t because of these two above questions. Sure enough, I didn’t – I’m somewhere in the 30s-40s depending on how they filter out low response count surveys. As a presenter, I judged my success on this session via the comments, and they were all good, so I’m happy there. Last question, and I knew the bait-and-switch would be particularly challenging here:

Did you learn what you expected from this session?

  • Lots more than expected and lots to take home. Can’t wait to try what you demoed.
  • I came in expecting to learn more about sp_blitz…and came away with a totally new toolset to use. Fantastic surprise!
  • No, I learnt a lot more than I expected. Cool stuff!
  • I want to start using this script today!!!
  • Brilliant! Thanks for generously sharing this tool.
  • I love the fact that I can take home ready to use scripts that we can apply right away.
  • There needs to be a radio button for “heck no, my brain almost exploded from learning so much more than I thought I would learn!”
  • You keep coming up with great tools for us to put to immediate use on the job.
  • Great presentation, slightly different than expected

Attendees should have answered this, “Hell no,” but they were kind to me. I appreciated that, because really, the answer should have been no. This session was a real bait-and-switch to show them a shortcut to the old way. Here’s a couple of examples of how satisfied attendees can end up giving lower scores on those types of questions:

Eval 1

Eval 1

Eval 2

Eval 2

Note that the “Did you learn what you expected” is a 1-3 scale, with 1 being the best. Both attendees dinged me (rightfully) on the session title and description, and the second attendee gave me the worst possible score on “did you learn what you expected”. That’s absolutely and completely fair, and that’s how I’d rate me too.

Would I Change Anything About the Session?

I talked to a few attendees privately afterwards and grilled them in detail about the session. I learned that I should mimic a handful of real-world troubleshooting scenarios – have a few of the emails pop up, and for each scenario, troubleshoot it down to a runaway query, outdated statistics, underpowered TempDB drives, etc – so people understand even more about how to use sp_AskBrent™. Genius – so I’ve adapted the session to use those additional scenarios.

I wouldn’t have changed the bait-and-switch and the Outlook-popup-surprise at all though – I know it penalized my eval scores, but the total effect was completely worth it.

I can’t always use that technique, though, just like I can’t always build all-new scripts for each presentation season, nor can I hand out paper demos every time. I’ve gotta know what works best for my style, the room size, and the subject matter I’m conquering. For example, at this week’s SQLRally pre-cons on hardware, storage, and virtualization, my slides are 100% bullet-fests because I want the attendees to take the ~500 slides home and use them for reference material. But the very next morning, for a 1-hour session on performance troubleshooting, I’m doing the sp_AskBrent™ surprise session with email popups again.

And besides, people who loved this session will be exactly the kind of people who love our training.

21 Comments. Leave new

Would you mind sharing how you managed to make those email popups happen at the right time? That’s an incredibly clever idea that I would absolutely like to steal in my next presentation.


Oh sure. I can’t rely on emails to come in mid-presentation, and actually, I don’t even run Outlook. I went old-school – I set up Outlook ahead of time with a dummy email account, sent myself the messages I wanted, and took screenshots as they came in. I clipped out the toast part of the screenshot, and then put it into the presentation with an animation effect rising up from the bottom of the screen just like the Outlook toast does. Plus, that way I could control the size – I wanted the toast to be bigger-than-normal so that attendees could see it easier.

Brian Kallion
November 7, 2013 8:26 am

It’s possible in Outlook to delay email deliveries, so that’s one way it could be done. Also, a SQLAgent job (or even a script with a WAITFOR) that sends an email could also be used.

Even then the timing is still tricky, Brent’s trick of putting it in the presentation itself is probably safer.


Brian – yeah, demos are risky enough as it is, and I wouldn’t want to chance having Outlook up. The instant someone knows you have email popups on during a presentation, they’ll start sending you inappropriate emails, and you’ll get the wrong demo, heh.


Ah-ha! That makes a lot of sense. Also WAY simpler (and safer) than trying to get Jes or Kendra to email you something appropriate at the right time. You might have gotten, “RE: That strange rash”

Genius! Such a unique and clever concept for a session. I wasn’t there to see it, unfortunately, but consider this my positive feedback.


Thanks Tracy!


Hi Brent,

I love the Continuous Improvement approach you use in presenting. You are an inspiration, sir. I think the presentation scores this year were skewed by the lack of meat – specifically bacon (we were in the South forgoodnesssakes!) – served at breakfast. I’m kidding. Sort of.

Excellent post!



Andy – thanks sir! Boy, I really noticed the lack of meat this go-round too. I appreciate that the vegan folks need good breakfast options (as do the gluten-free folks) but wow, us meat eaters got the shaft. The tofu shaft.



I’m starting to think that our brains are on the same wavelength when it comes to presentations (of course, I’m positively sure that you are WAAAYYY smarter than me.)

I did the same thing for my Lightning Talk. I wasn’t even going to use slides because they were optional. However, the Sunday before the event, somebody approached me and told me that they remembered my Lightning Talk from the previous year. I took that compliment and started working on my slides. While preparing, I chanced upon this TED Talk about using Twitter as a platform for story-telling and experimented on using it as a presentation strategy.


And since I already have a storyline for my Lightning Talk, I scheduled Twitter updates during my talk, using the #LifeOfaDBA hashtag on Twitter so the attendees can follow. The timings on the Twitter posts were challenging because I need to time them exactly when I need them to appear during the presentation.

I did pay the price on my evaluation scores, mainly because it’s a Lightning Talk. I think attendees still expect Lightning Talks to be demo-driven for the most part, especially when most speakers during the batch are doing demos. But when dealing with clustering, Availability Groups, and the effects of AD on high availability and disaster recovery, 10 minutes is not enough for a presentation with demos. I timed it during rehearsals and the most I could do with it is 15 minutes so I dropped the demo. I did make sure that the presentation is still consistent with the abstract. The comments on my Lightning Talk were more important, for me, than the scores.

I’ve been breaking rules on presentations since 2008 (I still maintain two sets of slide decks – one for the conference and one for me to use during my presentation). I can’t say that I’ve been successful all the time. Heck, I’ve even been chastised during my very first presentation here in North America because of my style. But I’m sure I am getting the effects that I want. Do I care about the evaluation scores? Absolutely. Every speaker does. But what’s important for me is the impact that my presentations make. It’s the reason I give presentations – to educate, entertain and encourage :-)

As always, thanks for the inspiration, Brent.


Edwin – ah, thanks sir! That’s funny about the lightning talks and demos – I would never do a demo during a lightning talk. The instant it goes awry, you don’t have enough time to recover. I’d only do picture-based demos during those. I think attendees are more forgiving of pictures than they are of demo fails during a lightning talk. It’s easier to get away with some demo troubleshooting time during a full session.


Absolutely agreed. The change I was aiming for with this one is to get people to run sp_AskBrent when their servers are slow, and going by the hits the page is getting, that succeeded wildly. (whew)


First I attended the presentation, I take notes on all my presentations and write down things I would suggest for the presenter (This is what I would want other presenters do for me) I only had one tip and that was for myself to use pop ups in a future presentation. Wonderful idea loved it.

Second, Every presentation I go into i seek to learn something. That’s the goal of attending. With your presentation I wasn’t so worried about learning about performance tuning. I attended your session primarily to learn from how you present. This was no disappointment and I learned a lot and it was very helpful. Thank you!

Lastly, Thank you for continuing to come up with ideas to change presentations and to keep pushing for new ideas. :) I look forward to seeing more in the future. :)



Awww, thanks Pat! I’m honored. That’s actually the same reason I go to most sessions too. It’s not that I’ve given up on learning SQL Server (and definitely not that I know enough yet), but I just really enjoy seeing how other people do it.


One of the nice things about being part of the ‘the old guard’ is knowing what rules you can break and get away with.

Of course the downside to being established is the temptation to just ‘put on the show.’ I’m guessing you personally hate that your scores took a hit, but that you knew they would and enjoyed even more surprising folks and entertaining them. And maybe they learned something too?


Yeah, I knew it’d be a huge risk on the scores. I’m glad with how things turned out, but of course it could have always been better. But hey, that’s why I keep iterating – trying to find The Next Big Thing with edutainment, heh.

I’m curious about what The Man will do next year to patrol things. Several parts of the rules were broken by various folks this year, and everybody got better training for it. Now they’re in a tough spot – what do you enforce?


The Outlook gag was…well, as everyone else has said, a very clever and engaging little ruse to wake us up a bit, at 8am. Almost had me fooled for a split second.

Shame about how the scores work…getting scored on the degree of slavishness with which the presentation adheres to the abstract is not nearly so important as what attendees actually get from the session, how much they enjoy it, etc. It’d be like asking, did this session meet your expectations according to the abstract exactly? Well, no, it didn’t…my expectations were a bit more mundane (amusing and well presented session on performance troubleshooting, portions of which I’ve probably caught before on Tuesday webcasts or during the precon) and the actual presentation and content exceeded said expectations. So instead of “5” it should be like, 7, or something.

Ah well, keep up the good work, it is well appreciated. As are the free scripts! :)


[…] a few things we can do to pinpoint a problem and told us about a few free tools that can help us. Go check what Brent has to say about his […]


[…] that virtual or not) so that there are no distractions what so ever during your demonstrations(of course there are exceptions to that rule)! I am sick of seeing presentations that for one reason or another end up with screensaver which […]


[…] that virtual or not) so that there are no distractions what so ever during your demonstrations(of course there are exceptions to that rule)! I am sick of seeing presentations that for one reason or another end up with screensaver which […]


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