Murphy's Law states: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." This is especially true and especially painful when there is an audience involved.

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Don’t Give a Pigeon a Perch to Poop From

spikes Heading out to my car the other day, I noticed pigeon spikes on some of the ledges in the parking garage. These spikes are just about the world’s nastiest looking preventive maintenance device. We’re talking strips of four inch long plastic or metal spikes designed to humanely discourage pigeons perching on, in or around a building. As I was driving out, I got to thinking that it might be useful to keep these spikes in mind while preparing a presentation.

Why? You may need to install the rhetorical equivalent of pigeon spikes in your presentation.

Every time you give a presentation, it’s very possible that you’re going to have someone (or even everyone) in the audience disagreeing with, discounting or criticizing what your are presenting. These folks may be acting very much like a flock of pigeons, swooping in, making a lot of noise and pooping all over. When this happens, things can often go very badly.

(Can you sense that a metaphor is about to beaten to death?)

Pigeons are attracted to certain architectural features of a building. The ledges of parking garages for example. These ledges are necessary, integral parts of the structure. You can’t just get rid of the pigeons by just getting rid of the ledges. The same goes for your presentation. Usually, it’s the most crucial content, the content you can’t do without, that will be the most attractive roosting spot for any pigeons in your audience.

I noticed that the spikes weren’t on every horizontal surface or even on every ledge in the garage. Apparently some places are likely to attract the attention of the pigeons, other aren’t. Either the maintenance staff waited and watched to get a sense of which parts of this particular structure the pigeons liked and installed the spikes as needed, or there are people out there who have learned the fine art of thinking like a pigeon and know where they are likely to roost before they even have a chance to do so.

You need to do the same thing with your presentation. Your words, slides, illustrations, ideas or assumptions are all potential places for the pigeons to land and you need to engage in some careful “roost modification.” This involves thinking carefully about how your presentation was received in the past (even if it’s just in rehearsals). It also might require you to try to think like the audience of an upcoming presentation to try to determine what might cause problems.

I’m not talking major changes here. Spikes like the ones I saw in the garage are designed to be virtually invisible and most people probably never noticed them before. Making your talk unattractive for the pigeons to land on might mean doing something as minor as tweaking your word choices. It might be a matter of setting expectations before you even start in with your actual material.

For instance, to statisticians, the word “significant” has a very specific meaning that’s not the same as the layman’s use of term. In every day usage, it usually means “of a noticeably or measurably large amount.” To a statistician it means “probably caused by something other than mere chance.” If you are talking about research results, and there are statisticians in your audience, you better be sure to use the word the right way. If you don’t, you’ll be hearing the flapping wings and dealing with a significant guano cleanup.

Sarah Lacy’s Mark Zuckerberg interview at SXSW is a great recent example of not thinking like the audience. It’s also attracted one of the largest, noisiest, messiest flocks of pigeons ever. Here are some recaps and analysis: Jeff Jarvis, , RapSpace.tv.

I don’t think I’ll be going out on a limb by suggesting that you wouldn’t want something like that happening to you.

Related Resources

Ian’s Messy Desk: Know Your Audience Before Speaking to a Group — A great list of questions to help you begin to think like your audience.

Lorelle VanFossen makes a similar point only it’s about writing rather than presenting and it involves paper bags at the ballet rather than pigeons in the parking garage: Are You Blogging With Paper Bags and Pinks?

Laura Fitton shares a brief thought about thinking like your audience: Get Inside your Audience’ Heads.

Your Turn

Getting lucky: What did you almost put into a presentation that would, in retrospect, have turned out to be a perfect perch for the pigeons to poop from if you had left it in? Please respond as a comment.

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