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Think of it as an adventure, as in “The Poseidon Adventure”

[A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of the PresentationXpert email newsletter.]

Many people consider the 1970s the golden age of the big Hollywood disaster movie and it’s fair to say that Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are usually the first films that come to mind whenever this genre is mentioned. But disaster movies never go completely out of style and every year we’re offered new opportunities to consider the ways in which things can go completely and terribly wrong.

What is it about these movies that makes them perennially popular?

It’s obvious that people find them entertaining. Let’s face it, there’s something very compelling about watching a disaster unfold (as long as it isn’t unfolding on or around you). These movies also offer lessons or morals that gratify our desire for karmic retribution (“Well that’s what they get for saying the boat would never sink”). And in most cases, no matter how bad things get, in the end there is some sense of triumph over great adversity or some discovery of a previously unsuspected personal strength that lets everyone leave the theater on a typically Hollywood high note.

What does this have to do with giving or supporting presentations?

I’m willing to bet that every person you know who has been in the business for more than a year or so has their own collection of presentation disaster stories.

And these stories share many of the same characteristics that make disaster movies so popular.

If you get two or more of us together you can be sure that stories are going to be told. Many of my favorite memories of being on site working a big event are from the time spend absorbing stories told by old pros who have been around a long time and been through almost everything.

– – – – –

Although these stories share many of the characteristics that make disaster movies entertaining, they also differ from the movies in some important ways that make them even more useful:

Vicarious experience: The lessons learned from presentation disaster stories provide more than just a gratifying a sense of karma. Although they can involve someone getting what they deserve, they are more likely to offer lessons about dealing with situations that might actually be encountered in the day to day working world. You might not need to know how to escape a capsized luxury ocean liner, but who wouldn’t like some ideas about dealing with a projector that decides to not work 15 minutes before show time.

Stories are a great way to vicariously gain an understanding of all the different things that can go wrong and what you might be able to do if any of them should happen to you (especially if you’re new to the business). As you hear and absorb more of these stories, you stand a better chance of avoiding mistakes that others have been unfortunate to have made. You can learn and benefit from painful experience without actually experiencing the pain.

Spark the imagination: From time to time we all have to work with someone whose level of authority is inversely proportional to their understanding of what goes into creating and delivering a successful presentation. I’ve found that a vividly told presentation disaster story can be useful in sparking the imagination of those in authority and often helps them better understand the workings of Murphy’s law in the presentation process. A story that’s usually told mainly for its entertainment value can be adapted to better persuade someone that a particular course of action is for the best or that a particular precaution is absolutely necessary.

The End: Presentation disaster stories are usually funnier, at least in retrospect, than disaster movies, but happy endings are often a lot harder to come by.

– – – – –

An example.

Although this story came to me third hand, it was probably one of the first I heard when I entered the working world and it has stayed with me ever since. It’s definitely one of my favorites . . .

Death by PowerPoint is common. Meetings killed by office supplies, not so much.

Nobody gave much thought to the electrical outlet embedded in the stage floor near the lectern while the crew loaded in and set up that morning. In fact, it largely went unnoticed until the afternoon the CEO was addressing his upper management and a number of his industry colleagues. High visibility. High pressure. Bad time for anything to go wrong. Perfect time for Murphy’s Law to go into effect.

He took a step back and started to come around to the front of the stage because he once heard that it’s considered good form to get out from behind the lectern. More direct, more personal. On that day it was a big mistake. There was loud snap and a fat blue spark just as all the lights went out. The crew was fairly certain the CEO got a good couple of feet off the ground when he jumped back. Not bad for a guy his age considering his apparently sedentary lifestyle.

Turns out a binder clip had been dropped at some point earlier in the day and it happened to end up right on top of the exposed electrical outlet in the floor. The CEO stepped on the clip on his way to the front of the stage and pushed part of it down into the outlet, causing a short and seriously messing up the electrical system. He was fine, but it took a little more than resetting a circuit breaker to get things back to normal after that. The short also took out the computer with the slides on it. The meeting was quickly moved from the auditorium to a much less comfortable, much more crowded conference room and the meeting continued without slides and without a sound system.

Needless to say, the presentation wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been and there were a lot of very unhappy people on the flight home that evening. There were also two or three people escorted to the parking lot the next morning who were even less pleased with the turn of events. Turns out that the cover for the floor outlet was missing and if anyone noticed, no one gave it a second thought.

The first lessons that can taken from this disaster story: Pay attention and try to be aware of things that aren’t the way they should be or that seem broken, especially when it involves the electrical system at a venue you aren’t very familiar with.

Lesson two: Backups should really be a no brainer. I would be willing to bet that none of the people involved in that presentation ever temped fate and Murphy’s Law again by going into a meeting with only one copy of the slide file on one computer. I don’t care how far up the food chain the presenter is, somebody has got to get a copy of the slides from them before the meeting starts.

There are probably other lessons to be extracted here but I think you get the idea. All I know is that this story made such a strong impression on me early in my career that I still make a point of checking all the outlets at any venue I work in even though I wasn’t actually a witness to the events that took place.

– – – – –

The bottom line is that these stories have the potential of being much more than just a way to kill time while waiting for rehearsal to begin. They are an important part of our profession, a crucial way of spreading expertise from person to person. Sharing them should be encouraged as much as possible. A trick, tip, technique, or lesson learned from one of these stories could be crucial to saving a presentation as well as a career.

If you’re ever taking part in a meeting or a presentation that’s crashing down into a huge, flaming, exploding, capsized disaster of epic proportions, take some consolation from the fact that you’re probably getting a really good, really useful story out of it.

Just be sure to pass it on.

1 comment to Think of it as an adventure, as in “The Poseidon Adventure”

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