This month’s T-SQL Tuesday is hosted by…ME! I asked everyone to share stories of how they came to love presenting, and I have not one but two tales of my own. They both took place at about the same time: my freshman year at the University of Illinois. I can’t remember which one came first, so you get to read both!
Shortly after classes began, my Physics 111 lecture was visited by Professor Mats Selen, who got everyone’s attention by putting a small amount of liquid nitrogen into a soda bottle. He capped it, threw it into a large plastic garbage can, and fastened the lid. Seconds later the lid touched the 20+ foot ceiling from the force of the explosion. He then explained if we were interested in doing things like this more often, come speak to him about joining the crew of the Physics Van. I was at his office within a day or two.
The Physics Van is an outreach program that brings a free traveling science show to elementary schools and community groups, typically within an hour’s drive of campus. The hour-long program gets kids excited about science by demonstrating basic physics experiments, many with audience participation. Of course no science show would be complete without a few explosions thrown in as well!
Not only did I have an amazing time and meet some wonderful people, but Physics Van taught me a ton about stage presence and engaging an audience. I also learned how to be comfortable speaking in front of large groups, and that making something appear spontaneous takes lots of rehearsing. I’ll admit that getting up and talking in front of hundreds of people is much easier when your audience is in the 4th grade or younger. It’s also nearly impossible to not get kids that age excited about whatever you’re going to be doing. Whether they really enjoyed the show or were just happy to not be in class, we always saw tons of smiles from the audience. In my mind, it was the perfect environment to get comfortable with speaking.
Bonus! You may or may not find yours truly (circa 2003) in this video of a show. Disclaimer: it appears to require Internet Explorer (again, this was 2003.)
Being a Campus Tour Guide
One morning early in the year, my roommate and I were startled awake by the door to our room being unlocked. It opened quickly, we heard an “OHMYGODIMSORRY!”, it closed in an instant and we heard lots of people being shuffled out of the hallway. My dorm room had previously been the “model” room shown to tour groups (I knew this because I saw it when I cam for tours) and apparently some of the tour guides never got the memo.
This really didn’t bother me or my roommate. In fact, I went to the Campus Visitors Center and encouraged them to send tour groups to our room, as we could show them what a real, lived-in dorm room looks like. They liked that idea, so our room became a regular stop on the campus tour. The model room looked so fake anyway, with perfect furnishings all straight from the store. Ours may have been totally cluttered, but at least it was authentic!
Over the course of my freshman year, I made more contacts in the Admissions and Records office, and applied for a job as a tour guide for the following year (they don’t allow freshmen to give tours.) This ended up being my job for the next 4 years, and I loved it. Getting paid to share my love of the University with prospective students and their parents was awesome, and there were never any dull moments. I remember one time in particular where I was walking a tour group down the street and a good friend of mine saw us going by. She came up to me and started hitting on me like crazy in front of them. Told me to come by her place because she needed my help studying for her anatomy exam that night. The look on everyone’s faces was priceless! Another time I was taking my tour group into the dorm to show them my room, and my neighbor was standing at the front desk wearing nothing but a towel. He asked if he could speak to the group for a second, and then explained that his current state was a prime example of why you never forget your keys when going to shower, as his roommate had left and locked the door, leaving him waiting for the front desk to get him a copy!
Tour guides at U of I developed some great skills, like the ability to talk very loudly for an hour or more while walking backwards and not running into people or obstacles. We also had to be good at answering unexpected questions. Before or after each tour there was a formal question/answer session where several tour guides went in front of a room full of people and answered literally any question about the school that the audience could throw at us. As I’m sure you can believe, most questions weren’t simple ones, like “What’s a good place to eat?” The kids would ask questions like “Can we have members of the opposite sex in our dorm room?” Parents would ask “There seem to be a lot of bars near campus – how do I know that my Timmy isn’t going to become a drunkard?” It was an excellent exercise in coming up with appropriate answers with a positive spin, no matter how much we really wanted to say that as long as your roommate is cool with it, resident advisors aren’t going to care if your significant other spends the night or not.
So those are my stories. In both cases I had very positive experiences getting up in front of groups of people and speaking about things I love: science and the University of Illinois. When I think about it that way I guess it’s no surprise that I enjoy giving presentations about SQL Server as well.