How to deliver a great conference tutorial

OSCON 2012

I recently returned from OSCON where I was able to give one of the more popular presentations at the conference. I presented on the morning of the first day and throughout the entire week people kept coming up to me telling me how much they enjoyed my tutorial and how bored they were at the sessions they attended since. Here are the secrets of how I gave such a compelling presentation.

To setup the tutorial a bit more, the objective was for 150 people to write their first MongoDB app. I had three hours to introduce them to MongoDB, write and deploy the code. Three hours isn’t a lot of time and 150 people is a very large group to get to accomplish something in unison. This was even further complicated by the fact that this was an open source conference with attendees having varying experience all in different languages, this posed quite the challenge.

Secret 1. Don’t expect 100% attendee completion

Does that objective sound impossible. It should, it is. There was absolutely no way to accomplish that. I decided that rather than ignore this and proceed in a hopeless fashion to embrace the challenge and assume from the get go that not everyone would be able to finish. It’s not like this is a college class where everyone has taken the prerequisites and is prepared, people are attending from all different walks of life and situations.

Secret 2. Play to the averages

I quickly realized while giving the tutorial that some people would finish much faster than others. Rather than bore the fast people at the expense of the slower people I decided to play the averages. I told the audience that we would move on when about half the attendees were ready to. That also meant that half weren’t so I put the slides up online so that they could follow along at their own pace. This had a dramatic effect on the audience. While I was worried having some people trailing behind might hinder the overall engagement, it turned out to significantly increase as the most engaged people were the faster half and they remained engaged through the entire presentation. Through the next four days of the conference people kept coming up to me thanking them for doing this citing how bored they were at other sessions they attended which catered to the slower half.

Secret 3. Involve the audience

I could have lectured the entire time, but 3 hours is a LONG time to fill and regardless of how entertaining a speaker is, it’s very easy to lose focus over that length of time. While I did lecture some of the time, I interleaved it with asking the audience to teach as well. I would put up a slide with the next block of code and ask them to point out what was interesting or notable about it. With few exceptions they made all the points I tried to make. It allowed the audience to participate and share in the learning and instructing process. Rather than me being the know at all in front, we learned together.

The audience agreed and many tweeted about it.

Saw @spf13 speak about a year ago and it was good, but I have to say he has only gotten better /cc @10gen #oscon #mongodb

— Robert Allen (@zircote) July 16, 2012

Interesting presentation by @spf13 #NoSQL databases and managing big data on @slideshare slideshare.net/spf13/nosql-da…

— NoSQL Roadshow (@nosqlrs) August 9, 2012

@spf13 I really enjoy your question-and-answer style to presentation. This is a great presentation!

— Peter Banka (@psbanka) July 16, 2012

Secret 4. Have fun with it

People aren’t signing up for a in person tutorial to learn. If all they wanted to do was learn, for a lot less money they could buy a book and follow along. They attend conferences to be entertained and participate in a community of similar people. Fulfill that want. Liven up the presentation with humor. Be professional, but don’t take yourself to seriously. Smile and look like you are enjoying yourself. If you give off the aura that you are having a good time, the attendees will too.

This presentation had a lot of significant challenges. Using the above secrets I was able to not only deliver a great presentation but it took on a second life online and became the #1 most viewed presentation in the history of OSCON (according to slideshare) with over 30k views.

Now go and view the presentation.

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