A colleague of mine asked me this on Twitter the other day:
When you started speaking did you know straight away that it was something you loved doing?
My answer: No.
It’s a really good question, and I said I’d go more in depth. We have to go way back in time. In asking the question, I believe my colleague was thinking about speaking in the SQL Server community, but for me it started before I found the SQL Server community.
I don’t think there are many people that love public speaking from the get-go. At the University of Michigan I had to take Communications 101 (a public speaking course) in order to graduate. I dreaded it. Most people did. But I took in in the fall of my sophomore year and got an A. (Yes, I went and checked my college transcript.)
But the first time I really spoke to a group of peers and professors to explain or teach something was my first year of graduate school. We had a day to celebrate the accomplishments within the Kinesiology department, and I had been working on a grant that tested the effects of Botox on children with cerebral palsy. My advisor, Dr. Brown, wanted me to present our initial findings. I had 10 minutes. I created 10 slides and had a one minute video to show. I remember Dr. Brown telling me that she used talk about one slide for 10 minutes, she had no idea how I’d get through all 10. I was terrified I’d finish in 5 minutes.
I have hazy memory of my talk – I remember what I wore, I remember thinking my voice was shaking, I remember feeling nervous, I remember nodding at Dr. Watkins to start the video…and that’s it.
I can’t remember any feedback, but I do remember thinking I didn’t want to do that again.
Flash forward a couple months to Dr. Brown’s idea that I could teach the motor control section of the Movement Science 110 course. Teach to freshman and sophomores. People who were PAYING a lot of money to go to school at Michigan. Again, I was terrified, despite Dr. Brown’s logic: I’d get paid, I would experience teaching, and it gave me a chance to learn the material even better. I didn’t even have to create the content – I could just use what she had already been using. I don’t know if I even tried to argue, I probably knew I wouldn’t win (Dr. Brown was pretty persistent). So in the fall of 1997, I started teaching. On the first day I had student argue with me about theories. THEORIES! I was teaching science. I wanted to quit, but I didn’t. I taught that class for two years, and I probably learned more than my students did.
Fast-forward a couple years to my first job in technology, at a software company, providing technical support. I was soon asked if I was interested in training customers as well, as there was only one other person who handled training at that time. I said yes – voluntarily this time. I learned the software, I learned how to teach other people how to use it, and I got better.
By the time I worked in the Database Services department at Hyland I sought out opportunities to teach. Every year there was a user conference, and during my first year on the team I asked a senior member of management if I could help with his presentation. Now, I don’t remember the impetus, but we started co-presenting, until the year that he looked at me and said: “You can do this without me, I’m about to retire.” I taught that class at multiple conferences over the next few years. I asked to add database classes to the conferences and I developed and delivered those. I provided internal training and recorded material to be viewed by partners and users online. By then, I loved it.
When I discovered the SQL Server community and found out there was a conference every year (the PASS Summit) my initial thought was, “I want to present at that!” And so I worked my way up. I presented to my user group in the winter of 2010, and then at the Cleveland SQLSaturday in February 2011. My first Summit was that same year, with a lot of other SQLSaturday events in between.
I’ve now been “presenting” off and on for about 20 years. And I put presenting in quotes because I don’t think of it that way; I think I’m always teaching. I’ve gotten a lot of experience in those years, and as a result I’ve gotten comfortable in front of a crowd and have developed my own style. And while I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I still work to improve. I tweak every session trying to figure out how to make an explanation even clearer. I change demos all the time, trying to get them *just right* so they easily demonstrate a concept. I continually read an audience and make adjustments on the fly when I can. It doesn’t end, and I’m ok with that. I do enjoy presenting/teaching now, but I didn’t when I started…because it was uncomfortable, because it was hard, because I didn’t know what I doing. Because like everything else, it takes practice to become good, even if you have a knack for it from the start.
The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot
~Macklemore and Ryan Lewis