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PowerPoint (that's right, PowerPoint) to the Rescue

Lisa Lindgren, a fellow member of the InfoComm Presentations Council was kind enough to share a story about how PowerPoint 2007 recently foiled Murphy’s Law. Lisa reminds us of some important best practices and I have an observation or two of my own (surprise, surprise).

We all know that we should test our slides and equipment in the actual setting prior to when the audience arrives and therefore, before it is too late to correct any problems. Sometimes that isn’t practical, but when you do make the extra effort, it can really be worth it.

I recently participated in a conference and was slated as the final speaker at lunch on the second day of the three-day event. The only time that I would be able to test anything in that room, was the day before after a general session. The timing would be tight before I had to be in another session, and I almost decided against forcing the issue. But I had used animations and some of the theme features from PowerPoint 2007, and the computer I would have to use for my presentation was running a different software version. My fear was that something wouldn’t translate correctly and my carefully timed effects wouldn’t work.

Well it turned out that the animations worked just fine. But what I hadn’t anticipated was that the room that would be used for lunch was very bright. I had chosen a dark background, which was striking on my laptop screen, and would have been effective in a dark room. But all that light simply washed out my visuals and you could barely see the photos or read the captions.

Not only was I able to change the background and save my presentation, I have to say that PowerPoint 2007 made this easier than I had ever expected. I simply chose a different theme from those provided in the standard package. Instantaneously the background was light and the text and accent colors reverted to being a contrasting dark color. . .all literally at the click of a key. In fact, the theme I chose subtly reinforced my message in style and I ended up with a stronger visual presentation than I had before.

So the lesson that I learned was that it really, truly is important to check your presentation on the actual computer in the actual room because unexpected things can and will go wrong. And I have a new appreciation for the positive aspects of the new themes in PowerPoint 2007.

PowerPoint has taken so much abuse the last couple years, isn’t it kind of refreshing when someone has something positive to say about it?

I’d like to stress a couple points made in Lisa’s story. First, if you’re going to present, get there early. Lisa put herself in a position to effectively deal with any problems that might have arisen with her presentation, or the venue, by making it a priority to test things out well in advance of the time her presentation was due to start. I understand that not every speaking opportunity is going to give you a chance to check things out an entire day ahead of time, but the more time you have to confirm everything is the way it needs to be (and to recover if it’s not) the better. Remember, if you’re not early, you’re late.

Second, it’s crucial that, like Lisa, you understand all the capabilities of the software you are using. A lot PowerPoint users only take time to learn the bare minimum necessary to do the typical tasks that come up on a day-to-day basis. This is a mistake. You not going to be able to use the PowerPoint function or feature that’s going to save you butt in an emergency situation if you don’t know it’s there. Take a class. Buy a book. At least take an hour or so on a slow Friday afternoon and methodically go through each item on each menu and find out what it does and how it does it. After all, no one thinks much of a carpenter who doesn’t know that a hammer can also be used to remove nails.

Your turn:

What’s your favorite little known PowerPoint function or feature that you love showing to people? Please feel free to share it with us in a comment to this post.

Question of the Week: Murphy’s Favorite Target

We are all very aware that Murphy’s Law can attack every element of the presentation process. Which of the following areas do you find most vulnerable to problems:

  • Software
  • Equipment
  • Personnel
  • Venue
  • Transportation
  • Communication
  • Administration

Please respond using the poll in the sidebar to the left (you’ll need to visit the site if you’re viewing this in a reader). You’re also welcome to elaborate on you poll response in the comment section of this post.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (5/25/08)

PublicSpeakinghacks.com: Review: Monster Outlets To Go Powerstrip — “In the era of what was supposed to be flying cars and interstellar travel, I spend way too much time on my hands and knees groping in the dark and dust for a free electrical outlet under conference room tables, in presentation halls, and hotel rooms. Now, for less than 20 bucks I’ve got an ingenious compact power strip that is actually designed for the real world.”

Make Your Point with Pow’R: Living with Gremlins: “You never know what gremlin will creep into your presentation. All that you can do is be prepared to speak-on, sans your slideshow.”

Al Nyveldt: Philly Code Camp Wrap up — “If it were not for this extra time, my session would have been a disaster.”

Zallas Technologies: Don’t Fumble the Kick Off — “During a decades long sales career in the high tech industry as a front line representative, sales manager and vice president of sales Steve Martin participated in more than a hundred sales kick off events. He’s witnessed the good, the bad, and a whole lot in between. In an effort to help sales organizations put their best foot forward during the most important meeting of the year, Martin has come up with the following list of ‘Top Five Sales Kick Off Meeting Mistakes.'”

Overnight Sensation: Public Speaking Success: What to do when they don’t laugh at your jokes — “It’s every speaker’s nightmare: you’ve told that joke that you think is funny (you practically chuckle yourself as you tell it) but the audience doesn’t react.”

Speak Schmeak: Make sure the announcer can pronounce your name.

Brad Montgomery: Speaking Tip: We’re Bored By Your Intro! — “This guy has some killer credits and some amazing stuff on his resume. And he was funny. But his opening sucked. And in spite of his terrific skills, he never really one the crowd over.”

The Extreme Presentation(tm) Method: Don’t ever give an FYI presentation.

ManageSmarter: Five Things Not to Do in Front of an Audience

Create Your Communications Experience: Obama and the Teleprompter — “But why doesn’t he learn to use the teleprompter well?”

Memo to C-Level Speakers: Audience? What Audience? — “Sadly, some speakers behave as if, for all practical purposes, their audience doesn’t exist.”

Great Public Speaking: Public Speaking : OPENING TIPS.

bMighty.com: Strategy Matters: Eight Great PowerPoint Myths — “PowerPoint presentations that flood the audience with glittering graphics, brazen bulleted lists, and endless animations may look great, but they often drown out the message. Just because you can use every PowerPoint feature doesn’t mean you should.”

“The Wheel’s” Toastmasters blog: Speed Kills…

Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!

When you’re the slide guy, once all the presentations have been thoroughly PowerPointed and the meeting has started, they need to find something for you to do so you’re not just hanging around enjoying yourself. At least that was the case at an earlier point in my career. These days I’m also the AV guy and I get to show the slides as well as make them. I’m also the roadie, but that’s a different story.

I’m not even sure what you would have called what they had me doing back then. Production assistant maybe? I was wearing headphones, hanging at the front of the room herding speakers. The technical director and the rest of the crew communicated with the speakers through me once the meeting started. I was also responsible for giving each of them a quick visual check before they took the stage.

Ostensibly, I was making sure they took off their name badges and turned on their lavalier microphones. The badges needed to come off because the spotlights lighting the stage reflected off their badges and the flashing could be distracting for the audience. I was also told to discretely check for a couple other things — making sure flys were up, for instance (I kid you not).

Having someone to do this sort of stuff made things a lot easier for the speakers and let them focus on speaking, not on the necessary last-second minutiae. Unfortunately, not every event can provide this level of luxury. That means if your a presenter, you usually need to fill that role yourself.

Develop and memorize a very brief pre-presentation checklist, something you can quickly rattle off to yourself while you’re waiting to be introduced that captures all those little things that can make presenting difficult if overlooked or forgotten: zipper zipped, badge removed, water bottle, laser pointer, speaking notes, glasses, etc. Remind yourself to smile and make eye contact. Ritualize it. Make it a habit.

You may also want to think about a post-presentation checklist. Two quick suggestions to start the list off: put your badge back on and don’t forget to leave the remote control at the podium for the next speaker.

Related resources:

12 Tips For How to Relax Just Minutes Before You Speak — You might want to add a couple of these to you pre-presentations checklist.

Your turn:

In a comment to this post, let us know what other items would you put on your pre-presentation checklist.

Question of the Week: Sense of impending doom

Sometimes you just have a bad feeling. You can’t quite put you finger on why, but your intuition is telling you things are going to go badly. Very badly. You feel like you have a target on your back but you don’t know where the shot is coming from. Burned out projector bulb? Burst pipe in the meeting room? Unexpectedly hostile audience?

Did you ever know, without knowing how you knew, that some aspect of your presentation was not going to go completely as planned and that you were going to wish you stayed in bed that morning?

Please share your story in a comment to this post.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (5/17/08)

Public Speaking and Presentation Skills Blog Carnival – Edition 1

The Communications Coach: Presentation Skills: Control Your Nervousness

Make Your Point with Pow’R: The worst of the worst. Introductions — “Wow!!. Three slides to say “I am the best, I have worked for 35 years with many clients, and I am fantastic. I love myself. You are lucky to be able to view my client list. I love myself. I verbosely profess to know many buzzwords” And on, and on he goes.”

Overnight Sensation: Public Speaking Success: Hostile Audiences Part 2 – How to Prevent Them

Bill O’Reilly vs. a teleprompter – VIDEO

Zallas Technologies: Pack and Pay — “Going out of town for your next meeting? Better pack light. As of this month two airlines – United Airlines and U S Airways – will now charge customers for a second piece of checked luggage.”

Bronwyn Ritchie’s Pivotal Public Speaking: Concluding Your Presentation: End With A Bang, Not With A Whimper

About Projectors: Quick Guide to Projector Resolutions

Manage Smarter: Presentation Crimes: Speaker Snafus — The Meaningless-Filler Gratuitous-Phrases Vocabulary List

Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint Blog: When stories don’t work in a presentation — “Telling your audience that your illustration comes from over 20 years ago does not inspire confidence.”

PublicSpeakingHacks.com: PowerPoint Fonts – How to Font-Proof Your Next Presentation

Don't Kick the Bucket

[Warning: Although this post is about eating, it might be best if it wasn’t read while eating.]

What do you and your team do the night before the big show? Do you hold a three-course sit down affair at the meeting venue and invite everybody who had anything at all to do with the project (“Will that be the fish or the fillet, sir?”). Maybe it’s just the speakers or the AV crew going out to the Applebee’s across the street for a quick bite.

However simple or complex it turns out to be, getting a bunch of people together the night before the big meeting isn’t unusual and is generally thought to be a good idea. It provides everyone with a chance to relax a little and celebrate the end of all that hard prep work. It eliminates the time and energy spent when everyone needs to come up with and coordinate their own plans. It can also be a good way to subtly encourage everyone to make it an early night.

But even with all these good reasons to continue the practice, I still sometimes wonder if it actually is a good idea. Why? Two words: Food poisoning.

Do you really want all those people crucial to the team’s success eating the same dishes cooked in the same kitchen just hours before show time? That delicious lobster salad could very easily render you and your team incapable of performing on the big day.

I know this sort of thing is pretty rare, but I still think about it because I’ve seen a small sample of what it might be like.

It was the sound technician, poor guy. He was having some major issues. Something disagreed with him in a really awful way. But you had to give him credit, he was a pro and he knew that the show must go on. He managed to stay in the booth long enough to get things rolling through the introductions and to the first speaker. He then crawled off to the men’s room. He knew the timing of the meeting well enough to crawl back in time to handle each speaker-to-speaker transition. It was an amazing example of getting the job done no matter what it took.

One of the other techs told me that what that guy was going through was actually pretty tame. He had once witnessed, and participated in, something worse.

Much worse.

To be honest, his story had a seriously apocryphal vibe going and, to this day, I’m not sure whether or not I believe it. Imagine, if you will, an entire crew — stage hands, light and sound techs, roadies, riggers, the director, everybody — getting sick from eating at a local restaurant the night before they were due to load in and set up. Now consider the fact that there wasn’t anyone else available who could adequately do what needed to get done. They were all pros and they all knew the show had to go on. A number of buckets were placed as discreetly as possible around the ballroom for use while the stage was built and the equipment was set up. The smell was pretty bad he said. The sounds were worse.

I imagine it to have been something like the infamous Mr. Creosote scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — only with more people, all of whom were much thinner and much busier. Nobody was offering anyone a wafer thin mint.

[I just picked up an interesting and relevant bit of trivia about that scene from Wikipedia: “At the end of the “Mr. Creosote” scene, after he has exploded and everyone is running amok, an extra on the right side of the screen can be seen vomiting. This was not in the script. The extra became so nauseated from the mess and the stench (which was reportedly very foul) that he actually threw up during the filming.”]

Fortunately, none of the speakers had joined the crew for that fateful dinner, and the crew had some time to recover before the actual meeting so things didn’t go as badly as they could have.

Sharing a meal together can be a good idea, if you pick where and what you eat very carefully. You also want to remember to pack the pepto and the imodium. Like they say, imodium keeps you off the commodium and at the podium.

Related resources:

Search results for “hotel” from the Food Poison Blog.

FDA’s Bad Bug Book — ” This handbook provides basic facts regarding foodborne pathogenic microorganisms and natural toxins.”

Your turn:

Has an unfortunate meal or restaurant choice ever affected your team’s ability to successfully present? Please feel free to respond in a comment to this post.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (5/10/08)

meetingsnet.com: U.S. Court: Laptops Can Be Seized Without Cause at Borders — Always have multiple methods for getting your presentation to the show.

Speaker Susie Says: The Presentation Diet: Fill up on the right stuff — “I’ve watched leaders and managers blank out even though in rehearsal they knew exactly what they were doing.” Ideas for preventing this from happening to you.

FORTIFY YOUR OASIS: From the vaults – Flipcharts — Great ideas for avoiding flipchart problems.

speechmastery.com: Colloquialisms — “Just because you know the meaning of a word or phrase because of your background, doesn’t mean your audience does. Some phrases have been discontinued through disuse. Caution is the rule.”

Ellen Finkelstein: Turn off pop-ups when presenting — “Warning: Some of these pop-ups may appear while you’re presenting in slide show view! Not a pretty picture!”

Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint Blog: Coordinate with other speakers so you don’t duplicate content — “At a recent set of presentations by executives from the same organization, the most senior person used some of the exact same slides that the person before him used and some from another presenter.”

PowerPoint without Bullet Points!: Now this is a really really bad PowerPoint presentation — “Would you believe that someone actually put this up as a PowerPoint slide?” Unbelievable, but not unusual.

aspirecommunications.com: Inserting Audio into PowerPoint: Avoid This Problem“Let’s say you insert a sound clip and then try to play it while in slide show mode. Nothing happens! ‘That’s strange’, you think. ‘I just inserted a clip a moment ago, using the exact same procedures, and it played fine. What’s the problem?’”

Public Speaking for Geeks: More Bad Powerpoint

The Public Speaking Blog: What Do You Do When Your Jokes Are NOT Funny… — “Have you experienced the weird atmosphere which comes after a funny story you’ve cracked fell flat on the target audience?”

OhGizmo!: Magnetic LED Light Is Perfect For Cramped Spaces

The Valium Bubble

Valium BubbleI brought a very bad habit with me when I started my first real job. Considering it was the day after I turned 16, I guess it’s not unusual that I still might have had a bad habit or two left. It wasn’t an uncommon habit. Whenever I burned my finger tips, I reflexively touched them to my tongue before shaking them (just like a Polaroid picture). Considering I was employed by the local McDonald’s, my managers were, understandable, not terrible pleased with this. At this particular franchise, the grill faced the front counter and I was in full view of the customers waiting for their Big Macs. This habit was quickly and brutally broken using the two time-tested methods that work best with inexperienced 16 year olds — ridicule and the raised voice.

Believe it or not, there was still a bad habit or two remaining once I became a member of the adult workforce. One of them was no big deal when I was stuck back in the office, but once I went out to work at meeting venues, in front of clients waiting, as it were, for their Big Macs, it became much more of an issue. Let’s just say I tended to get a little too caught up in the moment, a little too passionate when things didn’t go according to plan. Again, nothing uncommon, but definately not behavior you want to exhibit in our line of work. Luckily this bad habit didn’t last much after my first professional road trip, due, in large part, to some very good advice I got from my boss.

I had been in a quiet corner of the rehearsal room working on some slides. If I remember correctly, PowerPoint had just done something stupid and I had just lost an hour’s work (to be honest, it might have been user error). I responded with my usual passion and let loose a word or two that really aren’t meant for polite (or corporate) society. Turns out a couple client types were in discussion nearby and heard my little outburst clearly. My boss also heard me as she was sitting next to me and I was sharing my displeasure with her.

Apparently, one of the clients mentioned this it to her later, more out of amusement than anything else and she took me aside to point out the error of my ways. The way she put it stuck with me, and has served me well, ever since.

She said that as I was leaving my hotel room every morning that I was on site working a meeting, I needed to imagine I was surrounding myself with a “Valium bubble.” No matter what was going on, no matter how badly things were going, no matter what hell was breaking loose around me, the best, the only really useful response was a complete, thoughtful calm. Deal with the situation actively and directly, she advised me, but learn to leave the adrenaline upstairs in your room. Even when it’s the client getting over anxious and excited, it’s your responsibility not to join in, but to stay above it. The client might, at the time feel that you were not as fully engaged in the situation as they might have liked, but when they realize later, after the heat of the moment has passed, that your calm, cool, thoughtful reaction was the most productive, they will thank you.

She went on to say that some of the problem can be traced to anxiety over the possibility of screwing up and that it was crucial to get past that. A person who can get distracted by the possibility of doing something wrong is not going to be providing the best performance and will have a difficult time doing something right during a crisis.

I’m not going to pretend that my transformation was instantaneous. Habits, as we all know, are hard to break. I might have slipped once or twice while I began to put her idea into practice. And I have to admit, I still don’t always sleep soundly the night before the big show. However, putting on my Valium bubble and remaining calm when events are encouraging me to do otherwise has become more and more habitual over the years. It’s a good habit. A useful habit.

And although I don’t have any hard data to back this up, I’m convinced that one person’s calm can spread and help relax the rest of the team, and even perhaps the speakers, just before the presentations are about to begin. Stopping by the speaker’s breakfast buffet with a smile and a cheerful “good morning” can sometimes do a whole lot of good.

In case you’re wondering, I still don’t lick my fingers when I burn them. Thanks McDonald’s.

And thanks Barb, in case you’re reading this, for not only giving me one of the best pieces of professional advice I ever got, but also for giving me my big break to begin with.

Related Resource

The first two lines of Rudyard Kipling’s great (although somewhat sexist) poem If are: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

[Late addition] Krys Slovacek also wrote a post today about dealing with strong emotions when you’re onsite and it offers some excellent suggestions: Chill out!

Your Turn

What’s your method for getting ready to go into battle. How do you put on your game face? Do you have an equivalent to the Valium bubble? Please feel free to respond in a comment to this post.

5/4/08 Might Have Missed List

Douglas Karr talked about the challenges of presenting in an unfamiliar venue at BlogIN.

Earth Times: Finding good projectors for presentations

Speaker Sue Says: 9 Gestures that mean a lot — Don’t let your gestures derail what you’re saying.

Speak Schmeak: Take charge of your event — “In order for you to make your speaking engagement the best it can be, you’re going to have to take charge of your room.”

controlbooth.com: Annoying Projectors — Not only did the projector turn itself off, it was mounted 20 feet off the floor.

Merrell Ligons: This is what happens when you don’t turn off your cell phone at meetings.

Jim Hill Media: M-I-C … as in “I wish that this microphone would work properly” — Even Disney isn’t immune to foul ups.

Neatorama: Robin Williams Hijacked a BBC Debate — You don’t want to have technical difficulties with Robin Williams in the room.