I’ve been speaking at FoxPro conferences since 1993, but until the last few years, I didn’t often get the opportunity to practice my sessions in front of a live audience. Since reviving the Philadelphia VFP User Group about four years ago, I’ve learned how helpful it can be to give the session to a real audience before taking it to a conference.

In the past, I’ve generally done user group rehearsals after my materials were complete, just to polish my presentation and get rid of all the fumfering as I move from one idea to the next. This year, because of the way the calendar worked out, I’ve rehearsed both sessions with several weeks before my notes and examples have to be submitted. While getting them both finished in time was a huge struggle, I’m going to end up with improved materials on the conference CD because of it.

Last week, I rehearsed “Top Ten (or more) Reasons to Use the Toolbox” for my user group in Philadelphia. It was a good session and I got some great ideas from the group on how to improve it and on how to cut it down to fit the conference time slot.

However, our remaining schedule in Philly before Southwest was full, so I had to take my second session, “Getting Your Head Around Business Objects” on the road. PAFox, the Washington, DC, area user group, was kind enough to schedule a special meeting for me (to coincide with a planned trip to the area).

This session is a bit of a departure for me. I tend to give “tips and tricks” types of sessions, filled with lots of little items. “Getting Your Head Around Business Objects” is aimed at getting across one big idea (though I certainly hope to include lots of tips along the way). With a “tips and tricks” session, timing doesn’t matter as much; if you don’t get to the end of your material, well, you’ve still provided lots of value. But with a “big idea” session, generally, you need to get to the end to really make your point.

I was a little surprised to find that the session ran quite long. At Southwest Fox, I’ll have 75 minutes. Last night, it took close to two hours, so I need to do some judicious cutting. One audience member gave me a great idea for adding a couple of graphics to a slide that will save me 5-10 minutes of hand-waving. Now that I know the session runs long, I’ll also go back and take a good hard look at what examples I show and which ones I can skip.

The user group members also pointed out to me what they saw as the key insight into the big idea of this session: that the business objects form an “engine” for the application. While I had used the term, now I’ll look at building more of what I say around that idea.

I don’t think I’ll get another chance to practice these sessions in front of an audience before the conference, but there’s no question in my mind that they’ll both be much better because I’ve done so.

You still have the opportunity to help make Southwest Fox better by attending a rehearsal and offering your feedback. Check out the Upcoming Events page of the VFP Wiki for a list. Almost every user group session listed between now and Southwest Fox offers at least one speaker rehearsing.

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