The PASS Summit 2018 schedule has been published, and I’m on it twice! On Monday, November 5, I am giving a full-day pre-con with Melissa Coates on Designing Modern Data and Analytics Solutions in Azure. We’ll have presentations, hand-on labs, and open discussions about architecture options in Azure when building an analytics solution. If you’ve been wondering how your architecture should change when moving from on-premises solutions to PaaS solutions, when to use SSIS versus ADF V2, options for data virtualization, or what kind of data storage technology to use, we would love to have you attend our pre-con.
I also have a general session at PASS Summit: Do Your Data Visualizations Need A Makeover?. I’ll share the signs that your data visualizations aren’t providing a good experience for your users, explain the most common reasons why, and give you tips on how to fix it. Data visualization is a skill that must be learned and that we all should continue to sharpen. We’ll have some fun discussing common mistakes and looking at examples. This session is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7 at 4:45pm.
If you are on the fence about attending PASS Summit, I highly recommend it, especially if you have never been. There are so many benefits for data professionals:
Microsoft product and customer advisory teams have a large presence at the conference, so you can ask them questions and get advice.
The wide array of content allows you to go deeper on topics with which you are already familiar or to get an intro to a topic that is adjacent to your current knowledge that just wasn’t clicking for you by reading blog posts or books.
You get to meet data professionals from all over the world. You can make new professional contacts and friends with whom you can keep in touch afterwards.
If you are looking for a new job, it’s a great place to make connections.
You can talk to the speakers whose blogs you read and conference sessions you attend! If you spot your favorite speaker at PASS Summit, it is a great place to introduce yourself or ask a question.
There are lots of community events, including happy hours, game nights, and more.
There is always something to do for dinner, between receptions, sponsor parties, and friendly groups to tag along with.
SQL Karaoke is happening somewhere pretty much every night.
These benefits are most definitely real, not just over-hyped advertising. I have friends and colleagues of many years that I first met at PASS Summit. I first met Melissa Coates at PASS Summit, and now I work with her and present with her. And I got to help edit the Power BI whitepaper she wrote with Chris Webb (whom I also first met at PASS Summit – I fan-girled a little and asked for his autograph on his Power Query book the year it came out). I got job interviews after letting colleagues at PASS Summit know that I was looking one year. I had a blast singing karaoke with a live band at an evening event last year. I could continue this list for quite a while, but I think you get the picture.
It’s hard to please everyone, especially when everyone means several dozen speakers and thousands of audience members at a tech conference. And especially when it comes to presentations to an international audience. So I get that it can be difficult to make a presentation template that stays on brand and promotes the best presentation of information. But I see a continuing trend that conferences optimize templates for marketing and forget that we are trying to communicate to audiences of varying skills and abilities, many of whom have paid to attend the conference to learn the information in our presentations. I’m not here just to argue aesthetics, although I definitely have opinions on that. I want people to realize that we are unintentionally excluding many of our audience members with our horribly inaccessible slide templates. Accessibility refers to the ability for everyone, regardless of disability or special needs, to access, use, and benefit from everything within their environment. Yes, in many cases use of the conference template is not required, but many speakers will still use it. So the designer of the slide template should be thoughtful about their design more than just staying on brand with colors and conference logos. Basically, we can do better. We should be designing with accessibility in mind.
I’m going to pick on a template that I’m currently working with because it is from a conference that is near and dear to my heart, and it serves as a good example of how we can (and should) improve. Concrete examples seem to have more impact than just providing guidelines. While this year’s PASS Summit template is not the worst conference presentation template I’ve seen, it leaves a lot to be desired in the areas of effectiveness and inclusiveness. I’m writing this publicly to help educate our SQL Family about making better presentations that actually work for our audience. While it is criticism, it is said with love and hope that we can improve for future conferences. The speakers and organizers of PASS Summit are good people who strive to deliver a great conference. I know we can do better.
So what’s wrong with the template?
Let’s start with the title slide.
The title text is 36pt Segoe UI Light, the subheading text is 24pt Segoe UI, and the speaker info text is 14 pt Segoe UI.
Those font sizes alone make it very hard to read from the back of even the smaller rooms at the conference.
In addition to being too small, the gray text for the speaker info doesn’t have enough contrast from the white background. We want to get a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 (but 7:1 would be better). The contrast ratio for these colors is 4.0.
While sans serif fonts are generally thought to be easier to read in presentations, it’s better to use fonts with a stroke width that is not too thin – not necessarily wider characters, but thicker lines that make up each letter. So Segoe UI Light would not be my first choice for a title font, but Segoe UI or Segoe UI Bold might be ok.
Also, the red used on the right half of the slide is VERY bright for an element that is purely decorative, to the point that it might be distracting for some people. And the reason we need to squish our title into two lines of too-small text is because that giant red shape takes up half the page. What is more important: a “pretty” red shape to make our slide look snazzy or being able to clearly read the title of the presentation?
Here is the speaker bio slide.
This slide also suffers from the font being way too small.
Speaker name: 32pt (Segoe UI Light)
Title/Company: 20 pt (Segoe UI)
Social media handles: 11pt (Segoe UI)
Biography Point One: 14pt (Segoe UI)
Biography Point body text: 10.5pt (Segoe UI)
Again, there are issues with color contrast, which make the slide difficult to read – especially when shown on a projector that will probably wash out some of the color. The blue font on white background has a contrast ratio of 2.2. The red font on white background has a contrast ratio of 3.67. The dark font color on light gray background is actually ok from a color contrast perspective.
Here is a standard content slide.
What I appreciate about this slide is that it is free from unnecessary decorative shapes/backgrounds and doesn’t use needless bullet points everywhere. And the PASS logo is small in the lower right hand corner, not taking up too much room or being super distracting. But again, font sizes are way too small and the color contrast from the background is not high enough.
The difference in heading styles is a bit distracting. While they should probably differ in size, they don’t need to also differ in capitalization and font and color and boldness. One or two properties would be fine to denote difference, and having so many differences is a bit distracting.
More important than that, if you have three layers of headings on your slide, you probably have too much text. It would have been better not to even suggest that we would need to do such a thing. Putting it in the template passively gives presenters permission or encouragement to do just that.
What’s wrong and why should you care?
Conferences need to consider that some attendees may have varying abilities to see, hear, and understand the presentations. But those attendees paid to attend the conference and shall we say… connect, share, and learn? How can they learn when they can’t read the slide? How can they connect when the speaker contact information is tiny and hard to distinguish from the background? When we use slide templates that don’t work for those attendees, we are basically saying that they don’t matter and aren’t our “real” audience. Do we really want to be just another conference that discriminates against these people and makes them feel unwelcome? No one is purposefully doing this, but our ignorance/thoughtlessness about accessibility still creates that experience for them, whether or not we meant to do so.
Attendees don’t have to have a diagnosed “official” disability to benefit from slides that present information clearly. How many of us just have aging eyes? We can all appreciate when we end up seated at the back of a large conference room and can actually read the slides. Non-native English speakers may appreciate being able to clearly and quickly read slide content as they have to take more time/effort to process information written in English. We all get distracted by our phone/laptop/tablet/watch/neighbor during conference sessions, and it’s nice to be able to refocus on the presentation by focusing on the visual content while we listen to the speaker. But we can’t do that when the speaker’s slides are distracting us from the good information or are just plain hard to read. Slide templates are just one part of the presentation, but they can help set a standard that provides a good, inclusive experience for all attendees.
And what’s going to be better marketing for a conference: slide templates that are hard to read but use the right colors and logos, or attendees that have a great experience and learn a ton and tell their friends and coworkers all about it?
How do we fix it?
There are several basic things we can do to fix our templates to make them more accessible and more engaging (and still on brand for the conference). Here is a (non-comprehensive) list that organizations that create conference slide templates could start with to create accessible templates.
Even better, don’t require/request use of a slide template. Just give speakers a few intro/exit slides with necessary information and let them do what is best to communicate their intended information. It would then be the speaker’s responsibility to create accessible content, but hopefully they care enough about their presentations to do that. PASS Summit requires the use of the title and speaker bio slides (and a few other conference-related slides), but it allows speakers to design their own slides for the rest of the content.
If you have tips or opinions about creating accessible presentation content for conferences, please leave them in the comments.
I’m happy to announce that we will be holding pre-cons at SQLSaturday Denver 2018. Our SQLSaturday will be held on September 15, and full-day pre-cons will be the day before on Friday, September 14. It took us a bit longer to organize because we had to find separate space for the pre-cons. They will be held at the Parker Library (20105 Mainstreet, Parker, CO 80138) in Event Halls A & B from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Lunch will not be provided, but there are several restaurants within a couple miles of the venue. You can also use Grubhub, Postmates, or Uber Eats to have food delivered. Pre-con registration will be $125.
If you would like to be considered to deliver a pre-con at SQLSaturday Denver, please complete this form by July 15.
Many traditional data warehousing professionals as well as other data engineers are taking on analytics projects in Azure. There are more (and ever-changing) options available in Azure that extend our capabilities beyond what we had on premises. And there are several different ways to create an analytics solution in Azure, to the point that it can be difficult or overwhelming to have to make those technology decisions up front. We want to help you get started in Azure, provide design patterns and reference architectures, and share our lessons learned from solutions we have implemented. We’ll talk through technologies such as Azure SQL DB, Azure SQL DW, Azure Data Lake, Azure Data Factory, Azure Databricks, HDInsight, Analysis Services, Azure Machine Learning, Power BI, Virtual Machines, and more.
Approximately 30% of the day will be hands-on labs, 50% presentation, and 20% open discussion and questions.
Attendees of our session will gain a broad understanding of the fundamentals for designing data solutions in Azure, techniques for navigating the wide variety of platform choices in Azure, and suggestions for developing sound architectural systems.
I’m honored to join the great group of people at SpeakingMentors.com as a mentor. I think it’s a wonderful effort to help new speakers improve their skills and confidence. Speaking at conferences and user groups has brought me a lot of new knowledge, friends, job opportunities, and travel opportunities. I’m so grateful to the people who provided feedback and encouragement to me over the last 5+ years since I started speaking. If you’d like to know more about how Speaking Mentors came to fruition, you can read about it here.
It can be scary to put yourself out there, but it is well worth it. And you have a host of mentors from which you can choose to support you and cheer you on. If you’ve been thinking about trying your hand at presenting and would like some free one-on-one guidance, this is your chance. If you are feeling unsure about presenting, I have a couple of thoughts for you:
There is room for you as a speaker. Don’t be too concerned about having an absolutely special/unique/creative topic or take on a subject. If you have knowledge that other people would find interesting or useful, that is a great place to start. Your point of view and way of explaining things is valuable. Sometimes a speaker covers a topic that has been done a million times but says something in just the right way that it finally clicks for someone. Or someone brand new to the topic attends your talk and gets excited to learn more.
While you should practice your presentations before delivering them and make sure you have good knowledge on your topic, it’s perfectly ok to not know all the answers to all the questions anyone could possibly ask. Also, even great presenters have shaky sessions every once in a while. Give it a good effort, but don’t be worried about being absolutely perfect.
On a related note, the Denver SQL User Group is currently looking for speakers for our April through November meetings. We meet on the third Thursday of the month, and we have a 30-minute presentation and a 60-minute presentation in each meeting. A 30-minute presentation at a user group is a great way give speaking a try. If you learned something interesting about the Microsoft Data Platform or you solved a cool tech problem at work, volunteer to present about it. Contact me on twitter or send an email to Events (at) DenverSQL (dot) org to chat about speaking at a future meeting. We’re friendly and there’s free food.
We’ll be taking questions on Slack in the #visualization of sqlcommunity.slack.com. So if you need advice or have been curious about some aspect of data viz, join us in room 2AB and send us your question via Slack.
This year I had the pleasure of contributing a chapter to a book along with some very special and talented people. That book has now been released and is available on Amazon! Both a digital and print version are available. My chapter is about data viz in Power BI, combining platform agnostic concepts with practical applications in Power BI.
For more information, check out the website (kindly provided by SentryOne, who sponsored the book).
It’s tough to write a book chapter about a technology that changes every month, but I think the content holds up fairly well a few months after writing it. A few things changed on me (e.g., the Office Store for custom visuals is now App Source, and drillthrough actions exist now), but my approach to data viz in Power BI is still relevant and in use today with several clients. I hope you’ll give it a read and let me know what you think.