Last week, I spoke at Microsoft Ignite in Chicago:
I had an awesome time, and evidently the attendees did too – as I write this, I’m in the top 10 of 1000+ sessions overall.
Microsoft does a couple of things different than other conferences I’ve attended, and if you go in knowing these, you can build a better session.
Ignite session registration numbers are available in real time.
Both my registration numbers and my room capacity were in the speaker portal leading up to the event. Room size influences my session delivery, so knowing that I had >500 registrants and a 250-person room, I took a couple of steps to prepare.
First, I knew I probably wasn’t going to get attendees to ask their questions out loud. (Big rooms are intimidating for attendees who speak quietly.) Therefore, I checked with the schedule to see if there was another session immediately after mine in the same room. There wasn’t, so before the session started, I took a few moments to explain that I’d be available for unlimited Q&A after the session finished. (Had there been a session, I would have taken unlimited Q&A out in the hall.)
Microsoft was gently pushing Yammer as a second screen option – attendees could follow along with the presentation in real time on their laptop, plus they could ask questions online. The demo videos weren’t good, though, and attendees didn’t seem to be buying into it – I didn’t see any sessions where attendees actually asked questions online.
I thought it might be an issue of awareness, so about before my session started, I showed a slide explaining how attendees could access the Yammer second screen option. As it turned out, they still didn’t use it. The room was completely packed, and it’s not fun to use a laptop when you’re elbow-to-elbow with other attendees.
All surveys for all sessions are visible to all presenters, in real time.
Sounds kind of creepy to look at other presenters’ feedback, but it actually helps me take the pulse of the attendees before they get into my session. I can look at what they’re happy with in other sessions, what they didn’t like, and then adjust my delivery to match the crowd. (And of course, I was kinda lucky that my session wasn’t up first!)
Based on what attendees said about other sessions, I made a few tweaks:
Some attendees were frustrated that they weren’t getting enough real-world actionable information about their 2012 and 2014 servers. I decided to spend more time on 2012/2014, but to still give them the necessary info on SQL 2016, I gave them a take-home slide deck with a recap of the new SQL Server 2016 information.
Attendees didn’t seem happy with scripted attempts at humor. It’s really hard to be funny, but when you rehearse something a couple of times, it can get even worse. I’d scripted a few jokes at various points of my session, but I decided to scrap them all and just wing it. (That comes with its own risks, especially at a vendor conference, and I’ve made that mistake before.)
And as crazy as it sounds, I even read the venue feedback. Attendees were wildly unhappy with food quality, and I read a lot of Yammer threads about folks making plans to go elsewhere for lunch. To top it off, the morning of my session, the venue ran out of breakfast food. (sigh) I figured I’d better cut a demo from my session in order to finish early – that way my attendees could be first in the lengthy food lines, or get enough time to grab better food.
Data builds a better product. Duh.
Result: great feedback and comments.
“His humor and love for his job make him a very useful speaker. I got the sense that most of the Microsoft presenters were tasked to speak but Brent wanted to be here.”
“based on this and the first session I went to on monday. I would suggest that MS invite more of these dynamic 3rd party speakers to future events. it’s great to talk / listen to the people who worked on the product, but I would have likes more sessions like this”
Well, that’s true. It’s the pros-and-cons of a vendor-run conference. You want to hear from the developers who build the products you use, but they’re not necessarily passionate about public speaking. When I’m listening to a Microsoft developer or architect speak, I don’t rate them on delivery – only on content. (It even gets a little tricky with content because they’re dealing with marketing people who decide what’s allowed to be said at the conference.)
Ignite had a mix of Microsoft staff and indies like me, plus vendor sessions too, which brings me to:
“By far the best presentation yet at Ignite. All tech, no sales. Loved it.”
I sat through a couple of sessions that had vendor co-presenters, and the sales pitches were of varying quality. I understand why attendees would get frustrated with those. I do use our free scripts as part of our session, but I also make it clear that they’re not the only tool you can use, and I also pitch other free tools like Adam Machanic’s excellent sp_WhoIsActive.
“Please offer one more session”
I would love to do multiple sessions – hell, I’d present every day if I could – but I’m honored to even get one slot at a conference like Ignite. I bet if Microsoft gave me multiple slots, other presenters would complain that they didn’t get one, wah wah waaaah.
“Best session of the conference. Can’t believe the room size.”
“Brent was amazing as usual. Best session at ignite. Thanks Microsoft for cramming everyone into a room that was way to small!”
“Brent’s presentation was excellent and extremely helpful. he was really approachable and was great with questions after the session. Next time get him a bigger room!”
As I guessed would happen based on the registrations, the room filled up about 20 minutes before the start time, and from what I heard, the overflow room nearly filled up too. The work in prepping for questions paid off.
“Great speaker! We where having fun and learning at the same time.”
“Best session yet! Perfect combination of information and humor.”
“as always Brent does an awesome presentation. gets people to laugh and enjoy the topic at hand”
Throwing away the scripted jokes and winging it worked out. I prepped by having four espressos the morning of the session, so by the time the lights were up, my mind was going a million miles an hour and it was easy to riff. I can hear the nerves going for the first couple of minutes of the recording, and not all of the jokes worked, but the ones that worked, worked really well. I’m pretty proud of the end result, and hopefully all this work gets me back in again next year.