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Have you ever given an explanation and the person receiving it didn’t seem to understand what you’re saying? A lot of us have. How do you overcome that situation? Let’s work this through.

Realize that you are the one to fix the situation.

One of the most valuable things I remember from US Air Force ROTC was that the person communicating the message was the one responsible for making sure it came across clearly. This assumes the listener/receiver wants to understand the message. However, if the message is unclear to the listener, there’s little the listener can do about it. The listener can ask questions to try and understand, but ultimately clarity must come from the one giving the message.

Therefore, if you’re the one giving the explanation, it’s up to you to ensure the message comes across clearly. It’s not the listener’s fault if it doesn’t and the listener is earnestly trying to understand.

You must make things plain.

The word ‘explanation’ comes from the idea of making plain, or making clear. – Thomas Swanson, Classical Philosophy for Homeschool Students

Mr. Swanson’s definition for explanation is the one that will help us the most if we’re looking to be understood. If we are explaining, we should try to make things clear. There are some steps to this:

Understand what you are explaining.

First, we must ensure we understand the explanation. I’ve been in the situation where I began to explain something and then realized I didn’t fully understand what it was I was explaining. Likely you’ve been there, too. Before beginning to explain something, ensure you understand it.

Consider the audience.

Second, we need to consider the audience. If I’m dealing with another IT security professional, there is jargon that I’ll use that is common in that career field. These special words often convey ideas that we understand the meaning of. For instance, when I say, “DDoS,” another security professional should know exactly what that means. When I’m talking to my daughter who is in elementary school, simply saying that will be meaningless.

Likewise, if I am talking to a fellow security professional about the Mane character in the My Little Pony card game, I probably will have to explain what My Little Pony is, what the concept behind the game is, etc. When it comes to my daughter, no such explanation is required. We can start right into why she has chosen the Mane character she has in her deck.

Employ KISS, both versions.

Finally, remember what you’re trying to accomplish: you’re trying to make something clear. Most folks don’t need the whole history of what happened. They don’t need to know the auxiliary details. If you’re like me, this kind of stuff fascinates you and you do want to know. Again, remember your audience. Most don’t. Therefore, employ the KISS method, just in two different ways. Not familiar with the KISS method or not familiar with the second way? Here they are:

  • Keep It Simple, Stupid
  • Keep It Short, Stupid

Therefore, keep the explanation as simple as possible. Also, keep it as short as possible. Explain the root issue and what caused it. If you’re audience wants further explanation, you will be asked for it.

A final note:

One final point: if you’re the type who likes to be wordy (guilty as charged), remember that writing an essay when a paragraph will do will cause some folks to not read your explanation. If you’re giving it verbally, they’ll tune it out. And you’ve just defeated your whole purpose.

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Cross-posted from SQLServerCentral.com:

Back on August 15th I did a webinar for the PASS Professional Development virtual chapter on my talk Being the Swiss Army Knife of DB Pros. The recording is good and is now on-line:

LiveMeeting recording for Swiss Army Knife of DB Pros

I know I tend to say “really, really” a lot. Any other suggestions or improvements are welcome. You can send them here: kbriankelley {at} acm {dot} org.

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Vacation Feeling | VakantiegevoelHere were the Table Topics questions I used for our meeting today. If you’re not familiar with Toastmasters, it’s a great professional development organization and most clubs’ meetings are a lot of fun. Ours are. Table topics allow for impromptu speaking opportunities so member are better able to respond and interact to questions they haven’t had time to prepare for.

Question #1:

Because of a lack of funds, your family has planned to do a “staycation” this summer. What will you do in and and around the area for a 2 week vacation?

Question #2:

Your closest friends have called you up with a challenge: to scale Mount Everest in late August. If money and time off are not issues, are you in or out? Why or why not?

Question #3:

Pick a US state you’ve never been to. Why would that state make a good vacation for you and what would you do while you were there?

Question #4:

A long lost uncle you never knew about has died. He has left you US$1 million, but there’s a catch. You must spend it all on a vacation to be taken by June 30. What is your vacation like and how will you spend the whole million?

 

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I remember in the mid 2000s when I wanted to do enough to be recognized as a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) in Microsoft SQL Server. At that time I saw it as the “next level.” Folks I really respected were being named MVPs, folks I wanted to follow in the footsteps of, so naturally, I hoped one day to be an MVP as well.

At the time, though, I didn’t hold out much hope. My job as an infrastructure and security architect meant I had very little time for outside work, even writing a few articles here and there. I wasn’t working with SQL Server day in and day out. And while I was knee deep in Active Directory, I never felt like I had a familiarity enough with the community to dive in.

Then, in 2007-2008 I decided I really wanted to focus on SQL Server. I paid out of pocket for some opportunities to speak, reached out to friends in the community for opportunities to write more and do some training videos and commit to what I love to do: sharing about SQL Server and especially about security related to SQL Server. A friend thought I had done enough to warrant a look, nominated me for MVP, and in January 2009 I was awarded the recognition. And that’s when my journey really started.

Started? Yes, absolutely. Sebastian Marshall (blog | twitter) has a post about how he took himself off the list for those his age as far as what they had accomplished. He was in the top 1%. Instead, he put his name on the list of the greatest men of all time. That meant he was now at the very bottom. It is hard to think high and mighty of yourself when you are comparing yourself to Thomas Jefferson and Tokugawa Ieyasu. When I was awarded an MVP, I looked up and saw a bunch of luminaries whose work I’ve followed for years. While I was receiving the same award as they had, I was at the bottom of a new list. I won’t pretend I was at the top 1% of some previous list. Sebastian had something quantifiable to use as a measuring stick.

How do you measure knowledge in SQL Server? I don’t know. I just know that there are a lot of folks who are MVPs who dwarf my knowledge. Folks I still want to be like. Folks who I still look up to. So while I may be a SQL Server MVP, I still consider myself near the bottom of the list. One of the weakest names. Who do I place below me? No one in particular. I just hope I’ve made some progress on the list these last 3 years. It really doesn’t matter, because the past is past. There is still a long road ahead. I still have a lot to do and a lot to learn to be anywhere near where I want to be. This is what becoming an MVP meant to me: moving to the bottom of the list of some really awesome SQL Server people with the goal to work my way up by knowledge and experience.

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presentation skillsI’ve mentioned before about the Toastmasters organization, which is made up of local clubs and a hierarchy thereof. Toastmasters is all about personal professional development. There are two basic tracks to work on:

  • Becoming a better speaker.
  • Becoming a better leader.

Participating in a club develops both aspects. When you are the Toastmaster of the Day (TMOD), you have to get the meeting together ahead of time, which means coming up with a theme for the meeting, coordinating roles, gathering introductions, and making sure everyone knows what’s going on before the meeting starts. Once the meeting has begun, you run the show. Toastmasters meetings are supposed to have an agenda and time is something that should be carefully watched. This sometimes means having to keep the meeting moving in gentle, but instructive ways. This is just one example of how Toastmasters develops leadership.

Toastmasters is more well known for helping with public speaking. There are plenty of tales of how folks who were terrified of speaking overcame that fear and became accomplished speakers. I’ve seen that example in my own club. I can think of a particular gentleman who had to give a short technical presentation to our customers years ago. He froze up. It was extremely painful to watch. However, after participating in Toastmasters for a couple of years, he came into his own with regards to public speaking. About three years after that first event, he had to give another presentation to the same audience. He opened with a funny joke and proceeded to give an excellent overview of an initiative we were undertaking. That’s what helped me see the value in Toastmasters and it is one of the reasons I ultimately joined.

But Toastmasters isn’t just for those who don’t speak well. It’s also for accomplished speakers. For instance, yesterday I gave a speech from one of the Advanced Communications manuals, Speaking to Inform. Each speech is a project where you work on several things. Here were the objectives I was given for this particular project:

  • Select new and useful information for presentation to the audience.
  • Organize the information for easy understandability and retention.
  • Present the information in a way that will help motivate the audience to learn.

And I was supposed to do this in a speech that was between five and seven minutes in length. Great objectives, a set time limit, but that’s not all. An important aspect of Toastmasters is the evaluation. The evaluation serves two purposes. The first is to give an evaluation of the speech so a speaker can improve. Second, to give another person a chance to speak in public, which an evaluator must do. Here are some of the questions that the evaluator had to answer with respect to this project:

  • How effectively did the speech opening capture and hold your attention?
  • How comfortable and familiar did the speaker appear to be with his/her material?
  • What was the organizational structure of the speech?
  • How did the speaker encourage the audience to learn?
  • What could the speaker have done to make the talk more effective?
  • What would you say is the speaker’s strongest asset in informative speaking?

Now if you’ve seen the blog posts complaining about the lack of information provided in presentation feedback, this is just the opposite. Granted, there is only one evaluator per speaker, but the evaluator has an important job. In addition, Toastmasters provides a mechanism for anyone who attended the meeting to provide feedback to the speaker, even anonymously, through tear-off sheets. Usually such feedback isn’t anonymous, because the members of a Toastmasters club are supposed to be there to help each other grow. Being forthright is part of that process.

Even if you’re an accomplished speaker, consider checking Toastmasters out. There are plenty of clubs around the world. One aspect of Toastmasters I didn’t cover is that clubs are supposed to be fun. For instance, this past meeting’s theme was on April Fool’s jokes. Introductions mentioned them, and the TMOD had plenty of informative and funny facts about April Fool’s Day and memorable April Fool’s Day pranks, like this one by Burger King from 1998.

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I just recently finished reading Presentation Zen, which talks a lot about slide design in addition to just the art of presenting well. There are a few things I noted that I needed to do a better job of:

  • Put key information in the areas which the eyes naturally fall.
  • Divide the slide into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Where the lines cross, those are the areas that the eyes naturally fall.
  • Try to use images, but if you can, use a whole background that relates to what you’re talking about.
  • Try to minimize the text and use color and font to draw emphasis to what you want the reader to see.
  • Asymmetric layouts can draw focus to your points.
  • Make effective use of white space.

One of the things I learned a long time ago is that learning something new is great. However, learning is not the same as doing. If I want to be able to do what I learned, I have to practice it. Also, the longer the time between when I learned something and the first time I put it into practice, the less well I remember what I learned. So if I want something to stick, I need to try and use it very quickly after I learned it, preferably multiple times to work through it.

I didn’t have a presentation to put together, but I did need to put up an advertisement for my organization’s Toastmasters club. Our meetings are always open to those within the organization but there are a couple of times a year where we do a bit more than a normal meeting to draw folks in so they can see what we’re about. The December meeting is just one such event where we also offer food, since we meet at lunch time. There were a few things I wanted to communicate in the ad:

  • Who we are.
  • When the meeting is.
  • Where the meeting is.
  • Who is invited.
  • The fact that we have fun.
  • We also build relationships.
  • We’re also providing food.

So here’s the finished product. I know I still have a lot of practice to master some of the points mentioned in Presentation Zen, but I wanted to try and use some of them as soon as possible so they would become developed skills, instead of being lost. I still need to do some more practice just to reinforce these lessons in my head. That’s not mastery, it’s just the initial steps of proficiency, but you don’t start as a master.

 

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Let me start off this review by stating Presentation Zen is a very practical book on how to improve one’s presentations. That probably struck me more than anything else as I read through it, because I found something of use in every chapter. At the end of the book, I had quite a few notes. Some are already reflected in the way I build presentations, but quite a few more are not. And since they are practical and based on sound reasoning, I will probably begin to implement a lot of these points in the coming months.

So let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Garr Reynolds (blog | twitter) immediately dives in to why traditional methods of doing slides aren’t very good. When you first start up, say Microsoft PowerPoint, the template guides you to build slide after slide of bullet point lists. This has become the norm in the business world and you stand out as unusual if you don’t do this. In addition, if you don’t build slides this way, some may even think you’re shirking your duty, that you don’t have you act together. But then Garr makes a great point: if everything is in your slides, why do they need you? See, the focus of the presentation should be on the one giving it, not on the props he or she brings along, to include the slides. The person giving the presentation should be the main source of disseminating information, persuading the audience to accept his or her point of view, or otherwise being an essential part of the entire presentation. If you think about why we do presentations in the first place, this makes perfect sense.

But bullet list slide after bullet list slide isn’t just bad because it draws focus off the presenter. Think about how you feel after seeing 30-40 bullet list slides, one after another. Chances are you just want to get done and get out of there. And chances are you’d have been better served if someone took the time to put together a document or white paper discussing what you’re seeing condensed on the slides. So why don’t they? Slides are poor as a documentation resource. That’s what word processing was designed for. So let’s use the tools properly, stop wasting folks’ time, be more interesting, and enjoy ourselves in the process. And once Mr. Reynolds finishes making these points, he then dives in to discuss how to build presentations better.

He doesn’t give you step-by-step this is what you’ve got to do. He doesn’t even “cookbook” it where you can pick and choose different options. You can, based on the way he wrote Presentation Zen, but the author spends a lot of time discussing the hows and whys and what works and what doesn’t. Why does a very busy slide detract from the overall message? Simply, because the eye has to follow all the objects and you may not have your audience end up where you intended. There are key points on a screen the eye will naturally orient t. So why isn’t the central idea or image for a given slide not at one of those points? In other words, Garr Reynolds lays a framework on how to consider doing presentations better. And then he opens up the specifics to see how they fit the framework.

I could go on and on. This isn’t the cookie cutter 1-2-3 book. And it’s not just an encapsulation of commonly known ideas and recommendations for doing presentations better. For instance, here are three notes I took specifically with regards to presentation design:

  • Don’t be afraid of white space. White space brings emphasis to the elements on the slide. Also be aware of placement.
  • Use a mix of symmetric and asymmetric layouts. Symmetric tends to make passive use of white space. A good presentation has both.
  • Use grids to align elements. Divide the space into thirds both vertically and horizontally. Common technique in photography. Where the lines cross are “power points” and are good areas to place main subject.

Even if you’re a “master presenter” there is something to be learned from Presentation Zen. It’s one of those books that probably has to be consumed multiple times to get out all the knowledge that’s packed in. It is, thus far, the best book I’ve seen on how to do presentations better. As a result, I definitely recommend this book if you’re looking to improve your presentations and especially if you’re just getting started. Take the time to understand some of the theory behind what Mr. Reynolds proposes. Pull it apart, mull over it, and then test it in your own slide design. I think you’ll be reasonably impressed.

 

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