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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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/.]


1.
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.


2.
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.


3.
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.


4.
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.


5.
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.


6.
I
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.


7.
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?

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

  • I love the idea of a living document. Technology and fashion are in a constant state of flux — a living document can keep up with the changes. And the presentation fundamentals that don't change? In the heat of the mo, it's great to have a reference.

    Every presenter needs a comprehensive presentation checklist. Might that be a great Google Doc — or Spreadsheet for the condense version? I know I'd use it — prolly even go old school and print it out.

  • Hi Laura, thanks for stopping by. Maybe a laminated wallet card? Or maybe, if it turns out that there needs to be a lot more than just a handful of principles, they would be better as a deck of cards — like Brian Eno's “Oblique Strategies” (http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/).

  • Oooh, playing cards. Could make it into a game!

    Or a tarot spread, portending your presentation future! Think of the graphic possibilities!

  • Lee,

    This is a good list. I went through the greatest presentation disasters I've faced over the years, and I think your list would have prevented pretty much all of them. The only other thing I would suggest – it may fit within one of your seven – is that each presenter should have a detailed checklists unique to his/her own situation, of specific things to pack the night before and then to check during the morning of (mine includes things like: bottle of water and glass on table; check my handout master against actual handouts reproduced by the client company–amazing how many times there are differences; etc.)

  • How about something like this as an additional principle: Once you mess with an established process, nothing is simple.

    Might not be “snappy” enough put that way but it's an important concept. I adapted it from a Toolbox for IT post by Dennis Stevenson — http://it.toolbox.com/blogs/original-thinking/b…. Might do a little wordsmithing and add it to the list

  • Thanks for stopping by and for the great comment Andrew. I'm glad and relieved to hear the principles hold up to your extensive experience.

    Checklists! I can't believe I forgot to explicitly get checklists in there considering I live and die by them. I'll most definately have to come up with one. Just have to figure how how to phrase it in a “pithy” way.

  • Blimey — are you SURE you can't astral travel or remote project or something??? Every single one of those points were my experience on the first of the two days I presented in Sydney last week!

    Your point about working too hard for too long is certainly apt – 3am tiredness and 'wood from tree syndrome' don't make for good bedfellows.

    As for how to 'park' it all — this blog is a damn good parking spot as far as I am concerned; everything is about one theme, the search engine works, and it's all neat and contained. Wikis can get unwieldy and hard to know what is there and what isn't… My 2c

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  • Lee: you know, the most powerful way to combat each of the presentation killer items that you listed is to make sure that you buy yourself enough time. If for no other reason than you won't be surprised when something goes wrong / changes. I can deal with just about any setback as long as I've had a bit of time to figure out what my next step is. Trying to do that on the fly is much harder…!

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental Communicator Blog
    “Learn How To Calm Your Fears, Wow Your Audience, And Get Your Point Across”

  • Hi Lee, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad to hear the rules encompassed your recent experience, but I'm sorry it went so poorly for you. I agree with the lack of sleep being a problem. There was one meeting when we finished up at 4:00am but had a 6:00am call. Rushed back to my room to try to get an hour of sleep. Couldn't figure out why the room key card would work. Then it hit me — right room, wrong floor. I ran back to the elevator and turned the corner just as the room's occupant, most likely not very happy, opened the door. Hope they got back to sleep.

  • Hi Dr. Anderson, I agree that proper time allocation can be important in combatting presentation disaster (“6. If you’re not early, you’re late”). The problem is, we often find ourselves in situations where time isn't for sale at any price. Time control can't be the most powerful because many of us actually have very little control over issues involving time. Consider, for instance, the meetings I support for my employer. I have no control over when they will be held and I have limited influence over when the team begins to prepare not to mention the rest of the project time line. On the day of the meeting, I have absolutely no control over when I'll gain access to the meeting room to begin setting up our equipment. The agency we're presenting to is almost always accommodating but there are no guarantees. I hope that applying all seven (and maybe more) of these principles during the entire presentation process (from kick-off meeting through load out) makes it less necessary to depend solely on time resources which are often out of our control and are sometimes non-existent. Ideally, the application of these principles will make it unnecessary to do anything “on the fly.” I appreciate you taking the time to visit and to comment, and look forward to your contributions as the principles continue to develop further.

  • Lee: you know, the most powerful way to combat each of the presentation killer items that you listed is to make sure that you buy yourself enough time. If for no other reason than you won't be surprised when something goes wrong / changes. I can deal with just about any setback as long as I've had a bit of time to figure out what my next step is. Trying to do that on the fly is much harder…!

    - Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental Communicator Blog
    “Learn How To Calm Your Fears, Wow Your Audience, And Get Your Point Across”

  • Hi Lee, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad to hear the rules encompassed your recent experience, but I'm sorry it went so poorly for you. I agree with the lack of sleep being a problem. There was one meeting when we finished up at 4:00am but had a 6:00am call. Rushed back to my room to try to get an hour of sleep. Couldn't figure out why the room key card would work. Then it hit me — right room, wrong floor. I ran back to the elevator and turned the corner just as the room's occupant, most likely not very happy, opened the door. Hope they got back to sleep.

  • Hi Dr. Anderson, I agree that proper time allocation can be important in combatting presentation disaster (“6. If you’re not early, you’re late”). The problem is, we often find ourselves in situations where time isn't for sale at any price. Time control can't be the most powerful because many of us actually have very little control over issues involving time. Consider, for instance, the meetings I support for my employer. I have no control over when they will be held and I have limited influence over when the team begins to prepare not to mention the rest of the project time line. On the day of the meeting, I have absolutely no control over when I'll gain access to the meeting room to begin setting up our equipment. The agency we're presenting to is almost always accommodating but there are no guarantees. I hope that applying all seven (and maybe more) of these principles during the entire presentation process (from kick-off meeting through load out) makes it less necessary to depend solely on time resources which are often out of our control and are sometimes non-existent. Ideally, the application of these principles will make it unnecessary to do anything “on the fly.” I appreciate you taking the time to visit and to comment, and look forward to your contributions as the principles continue to develop further.

  • Hi Lee
    Worth reading just for:

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

    Well written, entertaining and so so true!

  • This is good guidelines for presenters… =)

    power point templates
    ppt template

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