Preparing a Technical Session Part 3: Writing an Abstract

So you’ve come up with a great idea for a session and now you have to translate that idea into a thorough abstract that helps both organizers and attendees understand what to expect from your session. This can make the difference between you getting a session at your favorite conference or not so don’t take this step lightly.

In this post I’ll walk you through some tips for writing a session abstract. Now there’s still no guaranteeing your session will get picked because there’s a lot of factors that go into a conference selection but I hope these tips will make your submission somewhat less stressful. Just as a reminder in this blog series on preparing a technical session I’ll cover the following steps:

  1. Picking a Topic
  2. Coming up with a Title
  3. Writing an Abstract
  4. Building the PowerPoint
  5. Building the Demos
  6. Delivering the Presentation

Writing the Abstract

Think of your session abstract as the appetizer to your meal. If you have a bad appetizer then you probably don’t have high hopes for the upcoming meal. The same is true about a session abstract. If an abstract is not put together well then it’s hard for the consumer (event organizers and attendees) to imagine a great session. Having said that let’s look at a few tips to make a great “appetizer” or abstract.

Grab my Attention

How is your session different than everyone else’s?  Why would someone reviewing hundreds of abstracts pick your session?  Do you think your topic is just that original?  In most large conferences you are bound to pick a topic that someone else has also submitted so what sets yours apart from the others?  Don’t let these questions haunt you but genuinely use them as a tool to ensure your session grabs the attention of the abstract reviewer.

Try to hook the reader in with the very first sentence.  This can be done by starting with a bold statement.  For example, you could say, “Stop struggling to tune your nightly data load when you could be running 60% faster”.  With a statement like that you’ve got my attention and I’m curious how you are going to accomplish such a feat.

Make the Audience Clear

It should be very clear who your session’s target audience is.  If you need to be straight forward and call out who the session is for in the abstract then do it!  You will likely have a large audience of unhappy people if the expectation was given that attendees would learn advanced query tuning strategies but your entire presentation is in Excel.  So help your audience understand that your session is for them.

Get to the Point

You don’t have much time to draw the reader in so don’t waste they’re valuable time explaining the details of what page latches are.  That’s what your session will do!  Instead of going through everything you’ll cover in the session do these things instead:

  1. State the problem (ideally in a way that hooks the reader in)
  2. Describe why it’s important or why the attendee should care
  3. Without getting into the details describe how you’re going to solve the problem

Be Specific

Yes, I know I just said don’t get into the details but that’s different than being specific. Giving the details would mean you write a 3 page abstract.  While, being specific means you’re clear on how you’re solving the problem. For example, don’t say you are going to create a BI solution to solve the problem.  Instead, say you’re going to create a BI solution that uses the following tools in this way.  You should also avoid acronyms that aren’t obvious to every attendee at the conference.

Explain the End Goal

Your abstract should tell the attendee what they will have learned after watching your talk.  For example, you may say “By the end of the session you will have learned how to load a Data Warehouse using SSIS”.  This gives attendees a clear idea of what they are getting by attending the session.  If I already know how to load a Data Warehouse then I know this session is not for me and I won’t be disappointed by it.

Read, Reread and Have Someone Else Read it

If you’ve decided to submit a session to a major conference I know you’re very passionate about the topic.  Unfortunately, the most common reason why sessions are not accepted is because despite your passion you don’t save time to review your abstract before submitting it.  Common spelling mistakes and grammar errors can cause what would likely be a great session unusable to a committee in charge on reviewing sessions.  So do yourself a favor and after you write an abstract read it, then reread it, and then have someone else read it because often we read a sentence how we want it to sound rather than what it actually says.

Other Good References

If you have other references please share them and I’ll add them to this list.

Preparing a Technical Session Part 2: Coming up with a Title

Earlier this month I began a blog series on preparing to do a technical talk. In that first post I discussed some strategies for coming up with a topic, which is ultimately the first step in your preparation.

In this post I’ll walk you through some tips for coming up with a title for your presentation. Just as a reminder in this blog series on preparing a technical session I’ll cover the following steps:

  1. Picking a Topic
  2. Coming up with a Title
  3. Writing an Abstract
  4. Building the PowerPoint
  5. Building the Demos
  6. Delivering the Presentation

Coming up with a Title

You may be thinking once you’ve come up with a topic you’ve got the title nailed down too but I actually see these are two different things. The topic is the general idea of what you’ll be talking about.  This gives you a guide one how you’ll work out the details. The title is one of those details. For example, my topic might be “Intro to SSIS” but I make the title “Getting Started with Integration Services”. This title is very clear on what the topic is and what depth the audience can expect.

Why is it important to have a good title? Well let’s be honest many people attending conferences probably only look at a small version of the schedule that doesn’t include the detail abstract so the title is all they have to go off. If your title is not clear on what you’ll be discussing then why would someone attend.  Let’s go a little deeper and look at some tips you may want to use when naming a session.

Don’t be too Cute

Do you consider yourself a creative person? Do you like to be unique and stand out in a pack? Good, now stop it! I’m kidding to some extent. You want your session to stand out and if the only thing people have to go by is the title than you may want it to be a little more creative or zany with your session title. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it’s still very clear what your session is about. Here’s a couple good examples of being creative with your session title while still being clear and interesting:

  • Help! I’m a new DBA, Where do I start?!
  • DBA Mythbusters
  • Triggers: Born Evil or Misunderstood?

These sessions stand out but are still very clear what the talk will be about. On the opposite end of the spectrum here some session titles that are certainly unique but I have no idea what to expect if I were to attend.

  • SQL Server: We’re not in Kansas Anymore
  • Kill “BI”ll Quentin Tarantino Style

These sessions tried too hard to be cute and went past being unique to just being confusing.

Short and Sweet

I’ve often made the mistake of wanting to be so clear about my session that my title starts to look more like a poorly written paragraph. The intent is to eliminate confusion but what happens is without knowing it you begin talking people out of your session just by them reading the title. Here’s one I wish I could have back:

  • Using SQL Server 2014 to Build Analysis Service Multidimensional Cubes

Good topic, but a poorly written title. Way too long and complicated when it really didn’t need to be. If I could rewrite it I would simply name it “Building Analysis Services Cubes”. All of the other details that I decided to put in the title should have been saved for the abstract section. That way if someone was wondering which version of SQL Server I would be demonstrating then they could read the abstract to find out more.

Use Active Language

Using active language is a good method for making certain that your session topic is clear. This helps your potential audience know in many cases the kind of demos (if any) to expect. Words like “Building” or “Developing” tell your audience that they can expect demos. For example, if I went to a session titled “Developing Reporting Services Reports” I would expect demonstrations not PowerPoint slides that show me how to develop a reports. Here’s some examples of session using active language:

  • Building Dashboards with Your SalesForce Data
  • Overcoming Data Warehouse Design Challenges
  • Getting Started with Indexes

I don’t think it’s mandatory that you use this tip for every session you do but if you’re struggling for a title then this may help.

Preparing a Technical Session Part 1: Picking a Topic

So you’ve decided or perhaps were told to do a technical presentation. If this is something that’s new for you then you may be going through a variety of emotions. You may start excited in anticipation of the event but quickly that changes to anxiety when you realize all the work that’s ahead of you.

Delivering a presentation regardless of the subject matter can be a challenge. Even if you’re a seasoned speaker there’s several steps that lead to you completing a successful presentation.

In this blog series on preparing a technical session I’ll cover the following steps:

  1. Picking a Topic
  2. Coming up with a Title
  3. Writing an Abstract
  4. Building the PowerPoint
  5. Building the Demos
  6. Delivering the Presentation

While discussing these I’ll be sharing not only how I personally go through this process but also feedback I’ve gathered from peers. The good news is with more experience these steps will likely flow more naturally for you and with hopefully less stress.

My goal is to help guide those that are new to presenting through the process, help them understand what to expect and hopefully help grow a larger pool of speakers at events. 

Picking a Topic

When you submit to a major conference deciding the topic to focus on is your first step to getting started. This step is clearly critical because the idea that you come up with will impact the rest of your preparation. If you’re in need of a topic and have the equivalent to “writer’s block” then here are some tips to help you’re brainstorming process.

Talk About Your Passion

Have you ever been assigned a presentation topic that you’re not really passionate about? This may happen more in a corporate environment when you’re given a topic that just has to be covered with co-workers. When you’re not excited about a topic then it can often show in your preparation and delivery of the content.

If you are passionate about a topic then more likely write a more compelling abstract, be more proactive about content development and even deliver the information in a way that connects better with the audience. Now keep in mind some people may not be passionate about the same things you are so try not to be offended when others don’t share your excitement about a topic.

Present On What You Know

This seems obvious but you’d be surprised how many new speakers pick topics that are completely out of their comfort zone. If you’re a new presenter then this whole process may be foreign to you already so don’t add any extra pressure on your self to learn a completely new topic. Now, having said that I do see some experienced presenters occasionally pick topics that maybe aren’t necessarily completely new to them but are certainly going to challenge them to learn a few new skills. So in short if you’re new at this pick a topic you know well and if you’ve been doing this for a number of years then do what works for you!

Use Things You’ve Done At Work

Give yourself some credit. You’re smart and pretty good at what you do! I bet you’ve come up with some pretty inventive ways of solving problems while at work. Why not share some of the design patterns you’ve used to help others?

Don’t worry I’m not suggesting that do anything that would hurt your company and potentially cause you to lose your job. I bet any problem you experience at work are the same kind of problems that others are experiencing. Why can’t you take your solution and generalize the details, including the data, so it shouldn’t matter what your place of business is. The other benefit is these topics are often the most popular because they’re based on real world problem solving. My number one goal when I attend a session is to figure out how I can use what I just learned when I get back to the office. What better way to solve that then by showing problems you’ve actually solved at work.

Is Anyone Else Interested?

If you’re debating whether or not a topic would get much interest then ask? Take to social media with a poll of topics you’re thinking about presenting on and see what people like best. Not only are you getting valuable information back but you’re also doing a little early promoting for your session.

Journal Topic Ideas

Ideas can come at any moment. If you’re not prepared than you could have a stroke of brilliance and before you know if you’ve forgotten it. Be prepared and keep a pen and paper handy, or if you’re living in this decade sign up for Evernote or OneNote and log your topic ideas in a digital journal.

PASS Summit 2014 in Review

I’m finally completely recovered from a great week in Seattle last week for PASS Summit.  Now that it’s back to the grind of regular work I thought I’d put together some thoughts and tell you about my experiences from the week. 

You may have read others blogs about their experiences during the conference.  I always love how everyone may do very different things while at this conference but still have a great time!

My week started early as I arrived in Seattle on Saturday to prepare for MVP Summit that was going on at the same time.  There were some mixed opinions about these events going on at the same time but I liked it.  I think this helped many that are from out of the country justify coming to both events in a single trip rather then making two expensive and time consuming trips to Seattle.  MVP Summit started Sunday for SQL Server MVPs and ended a bit early for me, on Monday, because I delivered a Pre-Con on Tuesday.  Once our day in Redmond was done on Monday I went and registered for the PASS Summit in Seattle and called it an early night, knowing that I had a full day of talking during my Pre-Con coming up the next day.

Tuesday

This was a very full day as Brian Knight (Blog | Twitter) and myself taught a full day of SSIS: Problem, Design, Solution in our Pre-Con.  The Pre-Con was well attended with about 140 attendees.  I really enjoyed teaching and even attending sessions like these that focus on solving problems.  There’s many reasons why I attend PASS Summit but one of the biggest is that I want to learn things that I can immediately go use to help me solve problems when I get back to work.  I think we accomplished that with this session.  It’s was very focused on problems and different ways to solve them using SSIS.

Brian and I have done many presentations together over time but we’re always learning still.  One of the things we learned from feedback last year was to provide a PowerPoint deck with a little more substance.  PASS prints these decks for attendees to keep and take notes on.  While a single image slide with verbal discussion comes across great in a presentation it’s not effective when the slides are printed.  By the way, I still like the single image slide for presentations but not when you know the slides are printed for attendees.

Feedback on the session this year seemed to be pretty good but I’ll know for sure when the reviews are released.

Once the Pre-con was done I dropped my things off at the hotel and came back to the conference for the Welcome Reception.

Later that night I went to the Networking Party that was moved to Yard House.  I stayed and talked for a bit and meet some new people.  Unfortunately it looked like they weren’t ready to handle that volume of people at once so I ordered a meal from somewhere else to end my night.

Wednesday

On Wednesday I started my morning after breakfast by attending the Keynote feature T.K. “Ranga” Rengarajan, James Phillips, and Joseph Sirosh from Microsoft.  Definitely some interesting things announced during the this Keynote including Power BI Dashboard Preview coming soon.  You can watch the Keynote still on PASStv

Wednesday I had to deliver my session towards the end of the day so I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions as I would have liked, as I did some practice runs of my session. I did however attend Bradley Balls (Blog | Twitter) session on Using PowerShell to Manage Cloud Integrated Data Platforms. Brad always does a great job and shows his passion for the technology.  He showed many of the capabilities that PowerShell has for integrating into Azure.

Towards the end of the conference day I sat in the session that was prior to mine because I was a bit worried that there would be a lot of cross over with my topic because it was Power View related too.  Luckily there was very little that was the same.  I did my session on Creating and End to End Reporting Solution with Power View.  I think it went pretty well, even with Excel crashing on me.  I always have a back up ready :).  There was a lot of interest in Power View with SharePoint and how Multidimensional cubes interact with Power View so I saved some time towards the end for that discussion.

Immediately after my session I ran down to the Expo Hall for the Exhibitor Party where I was doing a book signing for Pragmatic Works.  We do this every year and it’s always a blast to meet so many people and give away free books!

Here’s a video Jeremy from our team who took showing the line that built up.

After the Exhibitor Party Pragmatic Works hosted our annual karaoke party at the Hard Rock with a live band.  I always have fun here and was able to catch up with friends.

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Thursday

I started my day by attending the Keynote by Dr Rimma Nehme. This was possibly one of the best Keynotes I’ve attended.  Her explanation of cloud computing was done in a way that I think my sales team would be comfortable with.  You can watch the Keynote still on PASStv.

You can watch the Keynote here or read Steve Jones’ (Blog | Twitter) summary here.

In between networking with a few new folks I also attended two session: The BI Power Hour and Top Five Power Query M Functions That You Don’t Know.

The BI Power Hour is always a fun “infotainment” type session with many of the members of the Power BI product team.

I also really enjoyed the Top Five Power Query M Functions session.  I’ve always really liked Power Query but Reza Rad (Blog | Twitter) showed me a few new tricks!

I ended my day by attending the PASS Community Appreciation Party at the EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum.  This place is always fun and of course they had live band lead karaoke.

Friday

This was my day to work the Pragmatic Works booth so my morning was eaten up by that. To end the day I sat in on the Speaker Idol competition. The winner of the last round would be guaranteed a session at PASS Summit 2015. I was curious to watch this because we do a version of this locally for the user group in Jacksonville. Here’s Jason Carter (Blog | Twitter) doing his presentation

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I had a late flight home and actually didn’t end up back in Jacksonville until 11 AM Saturday morning… Long day!

If you’ve never been to a PASS Summit before I highly recommend it.  It is an event run by the community, which makes it unique.  While there are sponsorships and partnerships it’s community run so you hear from and meet a lot of people that are going through the same things you are.  Next years PASS Summit will be Oct 27-30. I hope to see you there!

Upcoming Webinar – Creating Power Map Reporting Solutions

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Come join me for this webinar on 4/17/2014 at 11:00 AM EST

Creating Power Map Reporting Solutions

Excel 2013 with Office 365 brings many new features to the realm of Self-Service BI. There are now new ways to extract, model and present data all within Excel. One of these newest ways to present data is called Power Map. Power Map allows you to create engaging 3D map visualizations to help understand your geographical data better. This session will walk you through the beginning to end process of creating Power Map tours. Register now here.

Upcoming Webinar – Bringing Power BI Q&A to your Organization

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Come join me for this webinar on 4/15/2014 at 11:00 AM EST

Bringing Power BI Q&A to your Organization

Q&A is an amazing new feature of Power BI that allows you to ask you data question. No longer do you have to write complex SQL queries to get results. Simply type traditional English sentences to return interesting results about your data. This session will walk through how to get a Power Pivot data model ready to use and also the end user experience of Q&A from the Power BI site. Register now here.

Introduction to Power BI Recording and Q&A

I hope you were able to attend my free webinar on Understanding Microsoft Self-Service BI on March 13, 2014. If you weren’t you can now download the recording and slides.

I usually like to post follow up questions and answer that I wasn’t able to address during the webinar. Here’s several that may help you!

Q: Can you explain quickly how to use Power View on SharePoint 2010?

To use these together you must have SharePoint 2010 SP1 Enterprise and SQL Server 2012 Enterprise or BI Edition. Unfortunately, there’s not a quick way to describe the rest of the configuration so here’s a post that may help.

http://blogs.msdn.com/b/karang/archive/2012/04/13/step-by-step-guide-of-installing-power-view-with-powerpivot-2012.aspx

Q: What devices are supported by mobile BI

The Mobile BI will be available on Windows 8 and Windows RT devices. There is also a native Mobile BI app for iPad under development.

Q: Are MS planning to remove the dependency on Silverlight for Power View (etc.) thus making it possible to render on iPad?

Yes! There are actually some public betas of Power View working on HTML 5 instead of Silverlight. This will be the major enhancement that allows support for the mobile BI app on IPads

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