When I’m speaking at a conference and the room assignments are published ahead of time, I look at the convention center’s room layouts to figure out how many seats it holds. I want a rough idea of how easy (or hard) the Q&A will be to manage.
At this year’s Summit, Erik & I had room 6B for our pre-con, and I had the exact same room for my general session on Friday. From the capacity list pages, you can’t tell how the rooms will be set up (there’s so many ways to set up a room with chairs/tables/rows), but you can at least get a rough idea of what kind of space you’re in. (The word “ballroom” = “terrifying.”)
Slack worked really well for our pre-con questions.
For our day-long pre-con, we used Slack to handle the Q&A. That worked really, really well – attendees were chatting with each other all day. Between Erik & me, whoever wasn’t presenting was watching Slack, answering questions. Then when a good question came up, the Slack presenter could look up at the real presenter and get their attention at a convenient moment. That was fantastic – instead of scanning 300+ attendees to figure out who’s got a question, we could just look at each other and know if we needed to pause for a break.
I wholeheartedly encourage this technique for 2-person pre-cons – it wouldn’t really make sense for 1-person presentations.
It also doesn’t really make sense for general sessions (even with 2 presenters) because it takes too long for new audience members to register for a Slack invite, sign up, open the web app, figure out how it works, etc. If they’re not there right at the beginning of the session, it simply won’t make sense and they’ll be lost.
I needed a different technique for my general session.
In a room with hundreds of people, it’s hard to scan faces to catch questions. People are also hesitant to raise their hands. Even when they do ask questions, it’s usually hard to hear them, and you spend a lot of time saying, “What? What? Can I repeat your question to make sure I heard it correctly?”
The answer came when my friend @PinalDave, aka SQLauthority.com, emailed me to say that he hadn’t gotten selected for Summit this year. (I was bummed – Pinal’s GroupBy session was one of the best webcasts I’ve had the pleasure to watch, and he’s a naturally gifted presenter.)
I knew right away what I wanted to do.
I wanted Pinal up on stage with me as an audience member.
I asked him to come to the session, and I’d bring him up on stage, introduce him, give him a microphone, and tell him to ask any questions that came to his mind while I was presenting. I didn’t show him the deck or the demos ahead of time – he walked in just knowing the abstract, and that was it, just like any audience member.
This could have been really risky – after all, when you co-present with someone, you normally want to rehearse everything a lot to make sure you get the timing and material just right. This was the exact opposite: I didn’t want Pinal to know anything about my stuff, just like the audience didn’t know. There’s risks in a bad question-asker, too – if you’ve presented before, you know how having the wrong person ask questions can go horribly awry and derail your entire session. There’s a danger in bringing some people up onstage and handing them a microphone.
However, there is no danger in giving Pinal a microphone. The man is gifted.
It was amazing, and we had a great time.
I could see that Pinal was nervous at first – I could see him thinking, “Am I asking too many questions? Am I asking enough? Is this question too basic? Is it too advanced? Should I just be quiet?” (Just like you, dear reader, when you raise your hand at a conference.)
I kept encouraging him, though, because the questions were perfect! I kept saying, “GREAT QUESTION!” when he asked questions because they were exactly the kinds of questions I would ask if I was in the audience. I was so excited.
For example, while I was demoing resource_semaphore problems due to memory pressure, he asked about the low memory available in my VM, and if the problems would go away on a real server. I got so excited because it perfectly led into the session’s flow, allowing me to go spelunking in the execution plan to show that the query would have killed even a monster server.
The audience seemed to love it too – lots of people tweeted & talked to us afterwards gushing about how much fun it was. Many of them thought we’d rehearsed the questions & answers ahead of time because it seemed so natural, hahaha. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing!
I can’t wait to see the recording. I’m proud of that session experience, and I couldn’t have done it without you, Pinal. Great job, sir.