Book Review for Presenters: The Story-Teller’s Start-Up Book

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 1 Comment

Communicating is the single biggest part of my job. Whether I’m consulting, presenting, or recording training videos, I need to understand what the other person is trying to communicate, and get my own point across in the most effective way.

The Storytellers Start-Up Book

The Storytellers Start-Up Book

The tricky part, though, is that my audience (or clients) have already heard the boring ways of presenting the same information over and over. They’ve grown desensitized to hearing about backups or heaps or security or whatever, and they need to hear the important stuff in a way that really sinks in. I can’t just study my fellow SQL Server – or even IT in general – geeks to get better at communicating. I need to learn from communication professionals.

I had the chance to see a few professional storytellers last year, and I was blown away. I wanted to know how I could bring that kind of captivating magic to my own work.

The Story-Teller’s Start-Up Book ($12 Kindle$13 paperback) by Margaret Read MacDonald is a great place to start. She targets readers who’ve never told a story out loud before, and explains the background and framework for oral storytelling. She focuses on telling stories to children, but at the end of the day, my audiences are just tall children at heart.

Storytelling isn’t about memorizing and repeating words.

Storytelling is memorizing the skeleton of a story, and then using your own skills to put a new set of muscles and skin on those bones. At the end of the day, we can’t just all read Books Online aloud. Books Online is the skeleton, and your telling is what makes the skeleton dance.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Learning a story alone in front of a mirror is rather like practicing dance steps without a partner.” She teaches you how to learn a story’s bones, but when you really want to get into it, you’ve gotta have an audience. Audiences teach you how to pace a story.

“You must tell the tale several times, refining your telling with each experience. To do this, you must arrange storytelling opportunities.” I just spent several days on the road giving my How to Think Like the Engine session, a deck I’ve given maybe 50 times in various settings. It continues to morph and grow, and after this week, I’m excited to get back to my home studio and record a new version.

“Your opening phrase is your bridge between the world of ordinary conversation and the other-world of story. This crossing must be both magical and deliberate.” Before this book, I didn’t understand how hard storytellers work to ease you out of your day-to-day life and into their fantasy world. I have to do the same thing as a presenter – I have to draw a nice clean line between the insane zoo of the conference hallway, and welcome them into a frame of mind where they can learn quickly and question freely.

“Did you know what you wanted to communicate well enough to relax and enjoy the sharing?” She has a whole section on evaluating how you did, and this is just one of the great questions.

“Plan a way to stop every audience response that you start.” In my in-person training classes, I’m starting to give the audience more leeway on things like group exercises. Margaret explains how to plan to end those responses and bring people back into your story – much harder than it looks at first glance.

I already know I’ll be revisiting The Story-Teller’s Start-Up Book over and over through time. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s got a couple of user group or conference presentations under their belt.

Good News About SQL Server Standard Edition’s Limits

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 36 Comments

I got in a lot of trouble when I wrote that SQL Server 2014 Standard Edition Sucks.

That post generated a lot of public discussion, and it also generated a lot of private ill will for me. I heard from several Microsoft folks who were downright angry. How dare I voice an opinion like that? I even heard from MVPs who told me I shouldn’t criticize Microsoft in public, only in private.

I didn’t back down, and I didn’t apologize. I believed in the post, and I never heard anyone arguing that Standard should indeed be capped at $500 of memory. And amazingly, I’m still an MVP.

SQL Server 2014 Standard Edition Limits

SQL Server 2014 Standard Edition Limits

Good news: Microsoft marketing heard our cries, and raised SQL 2014 Standard Edition’s limit to 128GB (or at least, the latest Books Online pages read that way.)

I don’t know if my blog post had anything to do with it, but I do know a lot of folks who have been quietly and politely raising this issue for years – long before SQL 2012 came out – and we haven’t seen any relief.

I like to think of my blog post as an act of civil disobedience – raising awareness of an important issue for DBAs. I’d like to challenge you to do the same. When you believe in something, talk about it. Fight for the things that matter to you. Consumers have a bigger voice than ever before, and what you think matters.

Yes, there’s going to be haters who tell you to be quiet and do as you’re told. You have to learn how to handle the haters. Life is too short – get out there and make a difference. Build things. Help people. Someone’s always going to complain about your methods, but you have to stand up for yourself and your beliefs.

Using a HD Camcorder as a Mac Webcam

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | Leave a comment

I do a lot of webcasts and training videos (here’s an example), so I wanted better quality video. Sure, MacBooks come with a built-in webcam, but it’s over the laptop display, and that doesn’t really help much when I’m using a desktop monitor. I’ve tried USB HD webcams like the Mac-friendly Logitech C615, and the results were okay, but not amazing.

My Home Office Setup - 2014

My Home Office Setup – 2014

After a lot of experimenting, here’s what worked well for me:

The UltraStudio Mini Recorder converts an HDMI input to Thunderbolt. If you’d rather take a USB 3.0 approach, try the Blackmagic Design Intensity HDMI-to-USB3 capture device. I preferred the Thunderbolt Mini Recorder because it’s cheaper, smaller, and I have more free Thunderbolt ports on my Mac than I do USB.

The Mini Recorder does not make your camcorder a USB webcam – life is not quite that easy.

Step 1 – Plug everything in.

The UltraStudio is powered by Thunderbolt, but you’ll want to plug your camcorder into an electric outlet if it’ll be running for hours on end.

Step 2 – Turn Off the Canon’s Output Displays.

By default, the camcorder’s HDMI output shows things like the time and the recording status onscreen. That’s ugly. Go into the Canon’s onscreen menus where it says “Output Onscreen Displays” and turn that off:

Canon Menus

Canon Menus

Step 3 – Set the UltraStudio Mini Recorder defaults to HD.

After installing the Mini Recorder’s drivers, it defaults to standard definition video. I know, right? Go into Apple, System Preferences, Blackmagic Design, and change the input to HDMI video:

Changing the default to HDMI input

Changing the default to HDMI input

If you don’t do this, the Mini Recorder just outputs a black video stream.

Step 4 – Fire Up Your Webcam App.

In Google Hangouts, for example, when I go to choose a camcorder, Blackmagic is listed as one of the input sources. You have to know the exact resolution, frame rate, and color depth of your input device (camcorder), and choose that from the list:

Google Hangouts resolution list

Google Hangouts resolution list

The Canon Vixia HF R400 outputs 1080i 59.94 in 8 bit color, so when I choose that from the dropdown list of capture devices, I see my camcorder’s output. Same thing with WebEx:

WebEx support for Blackmagic

WebEx support for Blackmagic

Unfortunately, not all apps offer native support for video capture devices.

Skype Camera List

Skype Camera List

Skype’s camera list just shows “Blackmagic” as an input device, with no resolutions or color depths, and it just displays a useless black screen. It appears to be application-dependent – for example, earlier versions of Skype worked, but the current (6.14 as of March 2014) version doesn’t, as shown at right.

Here’s the apps I’ve tested the UltraStudio with on OS X 10.9:

  • Google Hangouts – works.
  • GoToMeeting v6.1.2 – doesn’t work.
  • GoToWebinar – doesn’t work.
  • Screenflow v4.5 – works.
  • Skype v6.14 – doesn’t work.
  • WebEx – works.

If you want to spend even more money (around $500), and you’re willing to put up with high CPU usage, check out Telestream Wirecast. It takes takes the Blackmagic UltraStudio’s input and acts like a USB webcam for most software. It’ll even let you add additional effects live, like removing backgrounds or overlaying text. Unfortunately, during my testing, it constantly used 100% CPU of one core, and I don’t like having my laptop fan going while I webcast.

I’ve also tried a few other software products that purport to do the same thing, like Camtwist and Manycam, but I’ve had really bad stability results. The software has been buggy and crashtastic – the one thing I can’t have when clients are paying me for webcasts.

For now, I still end up with two cameras – my Logitech C615 for GoToWebinar, and the Canon/Blackmagic combo for everything else.

My Home Office Setup - 2014

My Home Office Setup – 2014

About My Office Video Setup

If you read this far, you’re probably interested in the other gear I use:

Blue Yeti USB Microphone – big, heavy $100 microphone with great audio quality. Don’t bother with the Pro version unless you’re hooking it up to a mixer. Appears as just a regular USB audio device to the computer with no drivers required. On the back side of the microphone, set the pattern so that it focuses on the audio coming from in front of the microphone, not behind it.

Cowboy Studio lighting kit – just $60 for 3 lights, tripods, and umbrellas. They’re not spectacularly robust, but I don’t take them out of the house, so it’s not a big deal. I put one on either side of my desk, and then when I’m doing green-screen techniques, I use one to light up the wall and reduce shadows.

LimoStudio 85W CFL bulbs – the bulbs included with the Cowboy Studio kit are alright, but in my new condo, I’ve got one wall of windows in my office. Despite thick blinds, I couldn’t light my office evenly, and these monster bulbs make all the difference. They don’t get hot when they’re on, either.

Rosco DigiComp Blue paint – I used to hassle with a green screen curtain, but taking it up and down was a huge hassle, and it was ugly as hell. When we moved into a new condo, we just painted my entire office wall with this chroma key blue paint instead. The blue is way more attractive than chroma key green, and it works just as well for casual training use like mine. The best way to explain the paint is that it’s incredibly non-reflective; it makes the entire wall look like a very deep sponge, as if you could push it in with your fingers. When I add a chroma-key filter with Screenflow, the wall simply disappears, no tweaking required. (Despite lots of tweaking with the green screen curtains, I had a really tough time getting it to disappear.)

Dolica tripod – gotta set the camcorder on something. This one has easy-to-crank height adjustment so I can quickly switch back and forth between standing and sitting. When I do demos, I sit in front of the keyboard, but the rest of the time I like to stand.

Why go to all this trouble? Well, here’s an example end result, and you can learn more about our training videos. Coupon code UPDATEDVIDEO gets you 25% off the Virtualization, SANs, and Hardware for SQL Server class for this week only – I just added another hour of videos covering storage tiering, snapshots, and replication, plus virtualization backups and hardware sizing.

Blogging is like Surfing.

Posted on by Brent Posted in Blog Posts | 7 Comments

Other people will share the same wave, and that’s okay. There’s plenty of room for people to share the same topics.

Watch what other surfers are doing, but don’t be ruled by that. You want to learn from what they do right, but develop your own style.

Know when to stay out of the water. No matter how skilled of a blogger you think you are, some topics are going to hurt you.

You’re going to fall down. Repeatedly. In public. On camera. Don’t delete your bad blog posts, just explain your logic later and keep moving forward.

Tie your board to you. Own your blog – use your own name as your domain name, use an open source blog platform like WordPress, and host it yourself on a site like WP Engine.

Good bloggers make it look easy. Bad bloggers make it look hard.

Some beaches are better than others, and make it easier to ply your craft.

Live near the beach but keep your expenses low.

Have a day job to pay the bills. While you might be able to do this full time someday, it’s not going to happen for years. Don’t do it for the money.

Good equipment is important, but you can’t buy your way to success. If you can’t bang out interesting content in a text editor, a beautiful WordPress theme isn’t going to win people over.

Nobody makes their own boards and wetsuits. Don’t focus on building boards and blogging tools unless you’re going to make a living doing that. Spend the bare minimum of time possible on the tools, and focus on your technique instead.

You have to paddle out. It’s going to take work.

There’s a lot of other people doing it, but it’s a solitary sport. You can talk about it with your friends before and after, but while you’re in the thick of it, you’re working alone.

There’s no winners. Yes, there’s competitions, but those aren’t why you surf. Those are something else.

If you enjoy it, it’s relaxing. If you hate it, it’s going to drive you up the wall – and you’re never going to be great at it. Don’t bother. Find something else you truly enjoy.

And when you stop blogging for a month to recharge, don’t apologize. You’ll be just as good when you get back into the water.