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The Seven Principles of Presentation Disaster Avoidance (Version 0.1 beta)

[UPDATE: “The Principles” is going to be a living document and will be updated and added to on a regular basis. This post is where it all started and the rationale for the project can be found at the end.

The most up-to-date version will be maintained at http://www.breakingmurphyslaw.com/the-principles/.]

If you can’t do without it,
make sure you won’t have to.

Have backups of your slide files, have backup for your critical equipment, have backups for your people. Have backups.

Any rational response to
“What’s the worse that can happen?”
is most likely wrong.

This is mainly due to the fact that the things that can go wrong are not limited by a requirement to be rational. Just ask Wall Street. And don’t forget that the person asking this question usually doesn’t want to know the real answer, they’re just ready to move on.

If you practice like it’s the real thing,
the real thing will seem like a practice.

That’s why they use live ammo in boot camp.

It’s much easier to destroy something by accident
than it is to create something on purpose.

Be very careful around fragile equipment, electricity, icy roads and, perhaps most importantly, the delete key. Especially while pulling an all-nighter. You also want to aggressively seek ways to eliminate as much of the accidental from your process as possible.

The diagram is not the room.

Whether it a conference room, ballroom, or theater — see the space you will be working in for yourself. The diagram provided by the venue will not reveal everything you need to know — no matter how detailed and accurate it is.

f you’re not early, you’re late.

A simple problem that would ordinarily not require anything more than time to fix can become a fatal error when the time isn’t available.

The ways to get it right are few.
The ways to get it wrong, infinite.

It’s always possible that a string of several very small, seemingly unimportant decisions, can lead to a major failure. Be cautious when it appears a choice can be made casually.

– – – – –

Okay, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been caught up in the heat of the moment at one time or another. It usually happens when you’ve been working far too hard for far too long and it’s getting more and more difficult to decide what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. All you want to do is get through the presentation without anything going wrong but there’s some doubt (and usually several competing opinions) about how to make this happen.

The above principles are an attempt to condense the lessons learned from stories I’ve heard and presentation disasters I’ve witnessed down to a useful handful of easy to remember axioms. Think Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanacs focused on the presentation preparation process (light purse, heavy heart;
hunger never saw bad bread; a penny saved is a penny yadda, yadda, yadda).

Ideally, they will be memorable enough to come to mind when they are most needed and true enough to clarify challenging situations. I think “pithy” is a good word to describe what I’m shooting for. The insights embodied in these principles do not need to be particularly original or surprising, they just need to provide the perspective, guidance and the modicum of common sense that can lead to the appropriate course of action.

I need you to tell me whether or not the principles above, will actually be useful in real life. Do they capture your experience of the presentation process? Did I miss anything? Do they need to be called something else (I suspect the current title is a little clunky)? Please use the comments or the contact form to let me know your thoughts, ideas, additions or criticisms.

I’d also like to hear from you where you think I should go with this project. I assume it will be living document. What would you like it to look like? Where should I “park” it? Maybe a wiki? A shared google doc?

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (10/26/08)


My Toastmasters Blog: How Rude: Don’t Be a Content Thief — “The simulated click of the camera captured my attention. Sitting in a conference room, a middle aged man in front of me was snapping pictures of the lecture slides. My attention on the presentation was snapped and I was slack jawed. My thoughts were racing, ‘What is this person doing? Last time I checked, that is not allowed without permission.’”

Write From Home: Sucking the Suck Out of Corporate Presentations (or, Conversations With Monkeys) — “I knew this guy was in a monkeybutt of a mood from the beginning. He was the one guy who didn’t look me in the eye when I walked in the room. He was the one guy who didn’t want to shake my hand. He sat there, hands folded across his Armani chest, and pouted through the first part of my presentation. Then it was like a bug crawled up his ass or something, because right in the middle of everyone’s good time he stood up and took a big monkey dump on the conference table.”

RBerteig on Flickr: The Missing VGA Cable
— “The solution to this dilema was a carefully bent collection of
paper clips, connecting the pigtail off Andy’s Mac (female HD15)
directly to the back of the projector (also femail HD15).” Gotta keep
this one in mind.

Great Public Speaking: A Breath of fresh air — “You would think all that wind you are blowing on stage would disperse bad breath, but for some reason after speaking for an hour or so, every foul smelling odor from your stomach wants to leap forth to your audience.”

Patricia Sellers: Power Point: Pay the price — “When Billie Jean King, who runs World TeamTennis with Kloss, is prepping for a speech or appearance, ‘She drives us crazy, absolutely crazy, planning for everything and anything to go wrong,’ Kloss said. ‘She’ll say, ‘What about this? What about that? What if this happens?’ By the time Billie gets on stage or on the court, she’s laid out every possible scenario in her mind. And at that point, she’s totally calm.’

Fleeting Glimpse Images: My First and Last Presentation — “I wax nostalgic today. Partly spurred by the article in Slide:ology this week and partly because I recently stumbled upon a cache of ancient binders containing bits of my larval creative efforts. Humbled, I am walking down memory lane to my first presentation and contrasting it with my most recent.”

SLIDE:OLOGY: Rockstars — “A similar thing happens in conference rooms across America when teams gather to prepare for The Big Presentation. All too often, the presenter will run through the slide show and describe the kinds of things he will say to accompany each slide, rather than rehearse the presentation itself. It’s a strange thing to watch.”

spoiledvids.com: Stage Hand Takes Fall During Live TV — No explanation at all on the site. No assurance that the stagehand was okay or that it was just a gag. You have to wonder, how do you prepare yourself to  react/recover should something like this happen while your presenting.

Better Communications Results (Lee Hopkins): The ‘To help Lee get to America everything and the kitchen sink is for sale at half price’ post — “I’m selling everything I have at 50% off.” (Hurry, offer ends October 30th.)

Blue Room Technical Forums: Best way to connect to AV rig, Looking for campact flexible kit to play back video

Seven small steps down the path leading to presentation doom

1) You weren’t particularly careful about your pre-presentation meal choices. Washing down the street vendor’s Khlav Kalash with Crab Juice might not have been the best idea you’ve had recently.

2) Your time is too valuable to fly in the night before your presentation. “Leaving early in the morning will be fine. Two hours is plenty of time to get from the airport to the hotel.”

3) “I’m too tired to figure out the alarm clock. I’ll just call down to the front desk for a wake up call.”

4) “I burned my presentation to a CD, I’ll just hand it off to the AV guys as I head for the stage. Yeah, I use (pick one):

  • a Mac.
  • unusual fonts.
  • something other than PowerPoint.

Why would that be a problem?”

5) “Backup copies? If I lose the CD, the office can always email me a copy of the file. There will be plenty of time and all the hotels have good wireless internet access now.”



6) “I’m flying out right after the meeting so I only need one change of clothes. I like to travel light and what’s the worst that can happen?

7) “I’m sure the hotel will give us exactly the AV equipment we asked for. Of course it will work perfectly.”

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (10/19/08)

Subjective: The Artful Life: If I Turn This Off Now We Will Go Into Darkness — Snarky description of a presentation that went very wrong (in more ways than one). “Enter PSU IT guy (well, enter his speaking role anyway, as he’d been poking about at the podium for a few minutes at this point). Oh higher educated IT guy, explain to us simple art enthusiasts why things have gone so wrong: ‘Well, the old projector had this button you could push that fixed this problem and this new projector doesn’t have the same buttons.'”



Life in the Corporate Theater: International Shows — “On Thursday I am headed for Prague, so I started pulling out supplies that I will need for working in Europe.” Great ideas for preparing to work overseas including several items you may never have thought of.

Craig Strachan: A lesson in being prepared — “Last night, I spoke at a function in Cape Town, and I was almost in big trouble.”

If you travel a lot, you might also want to check out One Bag: The Art and Science of Traveling Light.

Signal vs. Noise: Going in Unprepared — “This year I’ve spoken at about a dozen or so conferences and another dozen or so meetings or classes or gatherings. What I’ve started to notice is that I’m better unprepared.”

Blue Room technical forum: Macs, The pick of the current crop is…? — “After a day of trauma with several visiting speakers turning up with presentations prepared on Macs, and them only sort of working on PCs, I’m thinking that the best fix may be to get a Mac myself. Never having used one in anger for this sort of stuff, I thought I’d ask here as well as my friendly Geek forum.”

Great Public Speaking: Keystone Effect — “When a projector is not exactly on a level plain with a projection screen the projected image is not symmetrical.”

The Next Meeting: Making every second count at virtual meetings — “The key to achieving a successful virtual meeting is being prepared for both the expected and the unexpected. That means you must take your personal knowledge of your own virtual team and all the virtual office jobs concerned and use them to anticipate all the things that you might encounter when holding meetings.”

“giving presentations with morning sickness”



As a male, morning sickness is one potential presentation problem I never had to deal with on a personal level (unless you count being vicariously acquainted with it in the way only the father of three can be). As far as I know, none of the speakers I worked with were contending with it while presenting.

It must be a concern for someone out there. My referral logs showed a recent visitor made it to Breaking Murphy’s Law by searching for “giving presentations with morning sickness.” In fact, a BML post from last August is the top result for this search even though pregnancy-related nausea isn’t actually the topic of the post. I checked out the other results for this search and tried a few searches of my own.

There were several pleas to a higher power that went something like this:

Dear Lord – I have to do a presentation for our board tomorrow.  Please don’t let me puke during this presentation.  Please let T  forget to wear her noxious perfume that will instantly make me puke if  I smell it.

I also found these cute designer vomit bags. I know I would feel a whole lot better about losing my brunch in front of the board if I could pull one of these out of my briefcase.



There was lots of general advice on how to lessen morning sickness symptoms, but nothing on what to do when you need to be behind the lectern at the same time you really need to be on your way to eloquently addressing a porcelain bowl.

Does anyone have a story they are willing to share about a time when the need to be a presenter came into direct, hormonal, bacon-odor-fueled conflict with early pregnancy? Any advice? Please use the comment section and help the mothers-to-be out there googling for experience-based information.




Breaking Murphy’s Law was the recipient of a decent flurry of linkage in the last few days. Thought I might return the favor:

Thanks folks, I appreciate it. Glad you like what we’re doing here.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (10/12/08)



Life in the Corporate Theater: Does anything work in Miami? –“So, beyond all the jackhammering that we are hearing through the walls during the meeting, the Internet connection that the hotel is providing is very sketchy.” Things get off to a rough start for Steve in Another day in Miami but seem to improve as the day goes on.

EffectiveMeetings.com: Presentation Disaster Preparation — Lots of great advice including “The Key to a Glitch-free Presentation: Arrive Early. I’ll never forget a major address I gave at a convention many years ago. The program was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. The committee, good hosts that they were, insisted on taking me out for dinner. Naively, I went along. They promised to get me to the auditorium in plenty of time. Needless to say, we arrived just at the stroke of 8 and I was on. Never again! ”

oboeinsight: That’s The Night When The Lights Went Out In Georgia Sydney — “I’ve been at two performances when the lights have gone out. Once, with San Jose Symphony, Richard Stoltzman played —in the dark and by memory!— Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo, while my husband, who was stage manager at the time, quickly set up stand lights so we could continue the full concert. (I guess we had a generator that provided enough power for stand lights.)”



Recognized Expert: Dealing with a Difficult Participant — “Three minutes into your talk someone takes a cell phone call and carries on a conversation as though they were in the room alone. They’re loud and disturbing. What do you do?”

Stagecraft Journal: ‘Da Rules: Meant for Stagehands and shop crews but there’s a lot here of interest to anyone working at any atge of the presentation process.

Speaking About Presenting: 5 strategies to defuse the audience — “Sometimes your audience needs defusing. You may know ahead of time that the audience is likely to be hostile to your ideas, or there may be a big issue looming over them which distracts them from listening to your presentation. Or they may simply not be that interested in listening to you.”

TJ Walker: What do I do if I make a mistake or forget what I am about to say? — “Let’s say you are in the middle of making a point and suddenly your brain freezes and you can’t remember what to say next. The average presenter will have a look of horror shoot across his face, turn bright red, grimace, apologize to the audience…” and If my allotted time is cut, what should I eliminate from my presentation? — Good advice with this fantastic close — “The foolproof presenter realizes there is never an ideal environment for speaking. There will always be distractions in the form of noise from next door, poor lighting, or noisy people in the back of the room. The foolproof presenter simply sizes up the opportunity given what is available in terms of time and resources and then makes the best of it—every time.”

The Accidental Communicator: 5 Ways To Deliver A Disastrous Presentation — “What me worry? Why bother to practice – you know this stuff inside and out, you’ll just go up there and wing it and the crowd will love you because it will seem more natural and less rehearsed than all the other presenters. Yeah right.”

Control Booth: Risk Assessment Sample — “here is an anonymised version of the latest risk assessment done by the theatre technicians.”

Indezine: PowerPoint Version Hell — “All these issues can be placed under a common umbrella that I’ll call Version Hell – and while it’s no fun being under this umbrella, life can be much more uncomplicated if you are aware of these problems, and ready to look at workarounds and best practices. You might have noticed that I never promised any solutions – that’s because very few of them exist – most of the time, you’ll have to look at workarounds for existing content, and plan with best practices for any new slides you create. As goes the famous saying: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Fans Of Reality TV: Quick Fixes For Wardrobe Malfunctions.

But I can't find a Pepsi anywhere...

Flying into Atlanta Tuesday brought it all back. It’s been a long, long time since I traveled anywhere other than North Jersey or Montgomery County, Maryland while on the job. In a previous professional life, I worked these these huge sales training meetings that required flying a team of ten or twenty people into places slightly more glamorous. Places people might consider giving a body part to go to.

As much as I miss the venues, I miss the camaraderie more. AV and graphic techs, meeting planners, project managers, manager-managers, trainer-trainers. We were like an invading army, piling off planes and into vans, setting up camp in the on-site office and taking over the meeting rooms, unpacking box after box of supplies, subduing vast expanses of carpeted, air conditioned ballroom territory and making it serve our purposes. Putting in killer hours and putting out countless fires.

What I don’t miss are the things we needed to do back then to make sure everything went well. Things that technology has since made unnecessary.



For instance, we were still using 35mm slides. They needed to be in fragile glass mounts (plastic mounts tend to warp and jam the projector) and hand numbered with a sharpie. There was no putting a quick backup copy of your slide files on a thumb drive and tossing it into a your bag. You needed to hand-carry two complete sets of slides to the meeting, preferably using different people on different flights.


All of this was done in observance of the most important of the Ten Commandments of Doing Everything Possible to Avoid Screwing Up a Presentation: If you can’t do without it, make sure you don’t have to.

It’s sort of like this: if you need to have Pepsi, and you’re headed for Atlanta, be sure to bring your own. The hard part is knowing that you’ll need to do so.

Your Turn:

Technology might have made it unnecessary to do things like carrying two brick-like sets of 35mm slides to every meeting but unfortunately, it has made other, new precautions necessary. Which of these new, technology-driven precautions are driving you absolutely crazy. You can use the comment area to vent about it if you need to.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (10/05/08)

Maniactive: Top 6 Touchy-Feely Presentation Rehearsal Tips — “2. Wear Your Shoes. Oh, they don’t call it “dress” rehearsal for nothing! Don’t rehearse in your pajamas — unless you intend to give your presentation in your jammies ! Instead, rehearse in the actual clothes you’ll be wearing during your presentation — right down to your shoes. You’ll be amazed at how much better your performance will be just by understanding how your entire body feels in full ‘costume and makeup.'”



Work•Play•Experience: How not to close a presentation… (A true story) — “I experienced this live and in terrifying Stampede-o-rama last week, exactly as described above. As soon as the word “buffet” was out, jackets were being grabbed, chairs were scraping and conversation had started. What followed was not just drowned out, it was ignored by 100 lizard brains who could already smell the steaming flesh.”

Great Public Speaking: Check Local References — “On the international speaking tour I just returned from I could have made a serious flaw had I not checked out material with the locals after I got in the country. Apparently one country hates a certain kind of animal to the point where some natives actually try to run over the animal when driving on the road. A nearby country loves the same animal.”

Speak Schmeak: Another reason to avoid the lectern — “Did you see how high John McCain had to raise his arms for his gestures to be seen over the top of his lectern? He seemed uncomfortable having to use exaggerated arm movements (which were reenacted in the SNL skit the following night).” and Don’t go on a juice fast before a big appearance — “Don’t try anything new right before a presentation. It might throw you off, just a little.”

SpeakerSue Says: How to pick yourself up after you fall — “I was so bad, so awful, that I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone as I left the stage. (This wasn’t that big a deal really because no one was making eye contact with me either.) We all wanted me to exit the room as quickly as possible.”

The Humble Nailbanger: Life in the dark — “Never before, however, have I done what I did the other day, which was make it all the way to work and halfway through the day before realizing that I was wearing a button-down shirt inside out. The collar was up the way it should have been, but the buttons were on the inside, tags hanging out, the whole gigantic embarassing bit.”

The Charleston Gazette: Behind the curtain with stagehand Joey Ansel — “Stagecraft is taught in colleges, but Ansel says he learned his trade on the job. None of what he does, he says, is extremely complicated. ‘It’s a lot of little things.’ It’s important to be organized and able to remain calm. He says it helps to be open to change. Each show has its own set of concerns and issues. He can’t rely on everything working the way it’s always worked or even people behaving the way they did last time.”

Encore Design Group: Podium or Lectern? — “The word ‘podium’ is one of the most misused terms in the public assembly world. It is common to hear this word misused in church, government, auditoria, and schools. The proper use of terms is one way of separating the professionals from the rest.”

Nick Morgan: “How Sarah Palin Should Prepare… and How You Should, Too”



Seriously, I’m not just trying to cash in on VP debate buzz. This would be a terrific article no matter what the specific context. In it, Nick Morgan makes a point that should be one of the Ten Commandments of Doing Everything Possible to Avoid Screwing Up a Presentation:

Second, rehearse under conditions as close to reality as possible. If you can get into the hall, rehearse there. If not, approximate it. The reason is that surprises at the event itself will throw you, and more than 3 surprises will flummox you. And that will show up in your body language. If the lights are brighter, or the sound is more echo-y, or the stage is bigger than you anticipated, that takes mental energy to deal with – mental energy that you won’t be putting into a sparkling performance.

If you’re a presenter, or if you’re responsible in any way for the success of a major presentation, you need to do everything you can to make sure that this policy is put into effect. And the more important the presentation, the more exacting you need to be in the replication of the actual presenting environment. Things like podium/screen placement, confidence monitor size/positioning and they type of remote control used for advancing slide are all good examples of things a speaker needs to feel familiar and comfortable with. It will also be helpful, if you’ll be providing AV support during a presentation, to have a chance to set up and put the actual system that will be used through it’s paces. Believe me, as someone who has been there, the best time to find out you need a longer VGA cable or that the projectors time-out function hasn’t been disabled is in rehearsal, not just before the speaker is about to go on.

Remember: If you rehearse like it’s the real thing, the real thing will seem like a rehearsal.