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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This blog was active from April, 2008 to July 2012.
It is no longer being updated but will continue to be maintained for reference purposes.

Promiscuous Sticks

©iStockphoto.com/belknap

Last weekend, veteran AV pro Rick Pillars,  a frequent contributor to BML and owner of It’s a Rap Productions, started a Facebook post with these dreadful words: “So, a bad thing happened yesterday. I plugged my USB drive into the show computer.”

I asked Rick if I could use the brief but instructive story he related. He was kind enough to send me this greatly expand version so I could share it with you here:

Recently I was on showsite as a Video Engineer/Graphics Operator. I put my thumbdrive in what I was going to use as the primary graphics source so that I could load up some powerpoint grid slides. I routinely use those slides to properly align the projectors. It proved very difficult to do. It turned out that my thumbdrive at some point picked up a virus. I plugged in two other thumbdrives I had that had the grid slides on them. All I ended up doing was infecting them as well. At the time, I was unaware that a virus was a problem.

It was about that time that the client came and handed me the thumbdrive with all the presentations on it. Guess what happened. If you guessed that her thumbdrive was infected then you guessed correctly. Here are some of the symptoms. It turns the drive into a folder. Then it won’t open the folder.

Here’s something else the virus does. It installs a trojan virus. Like the Trojan horse in the myth, this particular virus is tailored to get you, the user, to put something into your camp/computer and then insert it’s own commands. A trojan will allow the hacker to access your computer and utilize it for whatever they choose to do. They can access files. If your computer is part of a trusted network they can access and infect the rest of the computers on that network. They can make your computer do stuff. Turn on the video camera without you knowing about it? Sure. What they normally do is fill up your hard drive with illegal programs and music and install an FTP server for others to log into for downloading. Another common practice is to create what is known as a BOT net. Your computer would be one of several thousand BOTs in the net. Then they would use it and the others to attack web sites with the intention of bringing that sites servers. It’s called a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS). The servers get hit so fast and furious that it slows them down until they just grind to a halt. Websites such as Ebay, Amazon, CNN, and others have all been attacked like this. Most of them quite successfully. It is estimated that those companies lost potential tens of millions in revenue. Your trojan infected computer would be just one of many involved in the attack. All without your knowledge.

So, back to the thumbdrive aspect. We use them all the time in the meetings industry. They are everywhere. Every presenter usually has their presentations loaded on one. If their drive is infected, it will infect your computer. If your computer already has the virus, it will infect every drive after that. Thus spreading that particular virus. How can you tell? If you go into folder options and check off the ticks that Hide System Files and Hide normal File Extensions and then look at the drives folder. If you see a file that says autorun.inf and a new additional folder that wasn’t there before, then you are infected more than likely. Mine said autoRUN.inf and the folder labeled cold. Inside the folder was the virus and it was labeled hott. The autorun file tells your computer how and what to do with the virus. If you delete the files off the thumbdrive and even format the drive, the infected computer will automatically re-infect the drive. If you get rid of the virus on your computer, the drive will automatically re-infect it.

One possible solution was that you could go into the group policy and turn off the autoplay feature. This is the feature where as soon as you plug something into a USB port and something in the disk drive, the computer automatically indexes what’s on it and opens it up for you. Then you go thru certain steps to use Windows Explorer to access the drive. Unfortunately, lately the virus writers have caught onto that and have amended the autorun file to also follow the instruction if they are opened that way as well. The security experts at the leading anti-virus companies are still working on a solution. Do a google search for USB viruses like I did and you will find out what I did.

What can we do? Stop dropping our thumbdrive into every computer drive that we see. Email whatever it is we need on the other computer. Why have a thumbdrive anymore you ask? Exactly the question I ask myself everytime I try and cleanse these four thumbdrives. My 32GB, 16GB, and 4GB drive. Plus, the client just told me to keep her brand new 4GB drive since I infected it.

Rick is right when he says thumbdrives are everywhere in our industry. My response to his post on Facebook was, “That’s pretty scary. How often do we do a job that doesn’t involve promiscuous sticks?” Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s all that easy to reduce their use. Many of the clients I’ve worked with were subjected to draconian restrictions on the size of email attachments they could send. And what do you do when the Wi-Fi in the hotel meeting rooms isn’t up to the task. Besides, I’m not sure how comfortable I would be dropping the computer/corporate equivalent of “no glove, no love” on a client.

I plugged my USB drive into the show computer.

Ian Whitworth: The Worst Presentation of My Life

ianCringing and laughter. Good presentation disaster stories inspire one or the other. Really good presentation disaster stories inspire at least a little of both.

This story, from Ian Whitworth’s blog, Can You Hear Me Up the Back?, ping-pongs back and forth from one to the other so often I lost track and ended up laughing at the same time I was cringing. Usually, when sharing a story that’s already been published online, I post the standard excerpt/link combination. In the case of this particular story, so many things went wrong in so many funny and cringe-worthy ways I had trouble choosing which excerpts to use. Luckily, Ian was kind enough to give me permission to publish it in its entirety. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

The Worst Presentation of My Life

Someone showed me another Steve Ballmer stage moment, in which the big guy cavorts in the sweatiest shirt since Elvis played Hawaii.

Watching it gave me terrible flashbacks to an incident long ago, and prompts the question: what’s the worst presentation you’ve ever done?

We’ve all had them. The speeches where you just want to flee the stage, run to the car park, drive until you’re deep in the forest, and stay there for the rest of your life, living off beetles and wood fungus, safe in the knowledge you’ll never run into anyone who was in the audience that day.

Mine was a speech at an interstate product launch. The day started with preparations for a pre-dawn flight. Stumbling around in the dark I forgot, for the very first time in my business life, to put on deodorant.

Sitting on the plane, I thought: hey, how bad can this be? Maybe deodorant isn’t really necessary, just one of those things that the international hygiene marketing conspiracy has thrust upon us in the last hundred years. After all, the term ‘B.O’ was coined by an ad writer just like me, creating a problem that hadn’t previously existed, to sell more Lifebuoy soap.

Mister Overconfidence Comes To Town

I got to my destination – hmm, warm weather here – and went to the venue for a rehearsal. I’d had a run of good presentations in the previous month, and was full of misplaced, up-and-coming-executive overconfidence. I figured I’d be able to wing it with the new material.

Show time. I stepped up to the lectern with my written notes. The house lights went down to black, for this was the era of weak projectors, and the lectern spotlights arced up. The reading lamp on the lectern? Not there. I couldn’t read a bloody thing.

The armpits went into peak flow. Twin tsunamis of clammy sweat fanned out across my nicely pressed shirt. My mouth filled with some sort of internally-generated tongue anaesthetic. I stared at the audience. They stared at me.

Quick, tell them a story, I thought. I launched into an anecdote. A tried and true, ‘break glass in case of emergency’ story that had never failed to get things off to a good start in other cities.

But I wasn’t in those cities, was I?

You’re Not From Round Here, Are You Boy?

Since then, years of experience has taught me that this is the town where humor goes to die. They hate any attempts at levity. You know the Chinese entombed soldiers that tour the museums of the world? That’s what the audience felt like. Neat rows as far as the eye could see, still, cold, stony. All eyes fixed on a point somewhere on the wall behind you.

Solid gold, guaranteed audience pleasing stories sailed past them untouched and went ‘splat’ against the back wall. I soldiered on, knowing that at least I had a big video finale. A pre-shot interactive thing where I appeared on the screen looking down at the lectern, so I could have a conversation with a less-sweaty version of myself. That would pull the whole show together.

Too Tricky For My Own Good

Or would have, had the under-rehearsed AV guy not started the tape in completely the wrong place, leaving me delivering lines that made no sense whatsoever, like some piece of abstract performance art.

Did I mention that this was a presentation on how to do better presentations?

Any questions? No, just a deep-space vacuum silence.  They’d moved from indifference to outright hatred.

Following me was a presenter from a competitor company, a local guy. He made a few unsubtle jibes about out-of-towners coming in and thinking they could teach the locals a thing or two. Let me assure you, the audience lapped that up.

Internal and External Drowning of Sorrows

Drinking the pain away at a nearby restaurant before the flight home, I heard the sound of sliding shoe leather and ominous clinking. I turned to face the stumbling waitress as she tipped a full tray of beers all over me.

People on the flight home quietly asked to be moved to another seat, rather than sit near the crazy-looking man in the window seat, his suit reeking of BO and beer.

“Mummy, does that man have a mental illness?”

Lessons From All This

  1. You need a major presentation trauma every so often to remind you to be better prepared.
  2. Deodorant is not a consumerism conspiracy, it is a miracle product and we should give thanks for its existence.
  3. No one died. Even when your worst fears become reality, it’ll all blow over and nobody will remember it except you.

Ian’s story is a great illustration of the first two Principles:

  1. If you can’t do without it, make sure you won’t have to. (This usually applies to things like projectors and PowerPoint files, not personal hygiene products.)
  2. Any rational response to “What’s the worse that can happen?” is most likely wrong.

Bob McClain: Because I never want to feel that humiliated ever again.

Bob_McClainOnline marketing consultant Bob McClain was kind enough to share a story with BML. It describes the sort of experience that most of us would rather not share with the world, the sort of experience most of us would be doing our best to forget. It’s an important story for us to hear because it’s a great reminder that it’s never safe to take the easy way out when it comes to preparing for a presentation. Kudos to Bob for sending it in.

An Idiot Presents…

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to speak before a group of government technical communicators at one of their annual meetings. I had been contacted and asked by the organizer to give a short talk on the differences between writing for print publications and writing for websites.

I was flattered to be asked but disappointed that they couldn’t actually pay me anything. Because I wasn’t getting paid, I decided not to invest much time in preparation and simply use an old presentation I had given in the past. That was the beginning of the downhill slide into a very bad presentation.

Because I was reusing an old presentation, I assumed I could “wing it.” I knew the subject very well and assumed I could simply do a quick review beforehand and I would be prepared. Wrong.

I was in the middle of one of my busiest weeks and waited until the day of the presentation to review the subject. The presentation was actually bigger than I remembered and the PowerPoint slides were very basic. This wasn’t a simple “read the slides” presentation. And I couldn’t find my “tickler” notes. So I simply assumed I could remember all my points and ran out the door with my laptop.

When I walked in the room, there were over 50 people assembled. I started to get very nervous because I knew I wasn’t prepared. I set up my laptop and waited.

A woman entered the room and introduced me. I got up, clicked to my first slide and started my presentation. It actually didn’t start too bad. The information came back to me and since I’m a fairly adept speaker and enjoy it, I was able to cover the few spots I was struggling to remember.

Then I got to the fourth slide on Headlines and their importance. This is one of my strongest arguments in website copywriting because of the importance of headlines and so few websites actually use them. There were four bullet points.

I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I drew a complete blank. What brilliant speaker’s secret did I use to cover for my lack of preparation? I said, “Uh…I can’t remember what the details are of these bullet points but you can go to my website and find out what I have to say about headlines on websites.”

Obviously, I didn’t get a rousing standing ovation for that presentation. And to this day, I can remember that bit of stupidity that came out of my mouth when my mind went blank. Needless to say, I never get up in front of a crowd to make a presentation without giving the preparation my full, undivided attention. Because I never want to feel that humiliated ever again.

I think it’s safe to say the that using the word “idiot” to describe himself is overly harsh. A true idiot would not have realized exactly how badly things had gone wrong during this presentation. Thanks again for sharing Bob.

Principles that apply:

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

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

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

Your turn:

Have you ever been humiliated during a presentation you’ve been involved with?  ‘Fess up in the comments section. Email me if you would prefer to remain anonomous.

Rick Pillars: Crash Into Me

Veteran AV pro Rick Pillars, (It’s a Rap Productions) sent in a great story:

©iStockphoto.com/DivaNir4a

©iStockphoto.com/DivaNir4a

Once upon a time I supplied audio visual labor to clients both locally and from all over the nation. We had some interesting times. This one time we were setting up a pretty large show. The union labor that was supposed to set up the set never showed. So, I was asked to get some labor quickly. I did the best I could and we were successful.

What makes this story take a twist though is what happened during the set-up. During the actual production, the CEO of the company was going to come busting through a styrofoam set off to the side on a rare and vintage Harley, drive up a ramp onto the stage, act like he was using Bond like karate moves on a couple of stuntmen and rescue the fair maiden. Then he was going to get back on the bike and ride out through the audience. Sounds good right?

With a room full of techs of various sorts and set builders and lighting personnel and other folks as well, he decided to have an impromptu rehearsal. No one knew but him and a few other people. Work was not called to a halt in order to give him room. Gear was not picked up and moved out of the way.

I walked out of the room as he began his rehearsal and came back in just as he was about to head down off the stage. I was walking towards my projectionist to tell him something when I heard the roar getting louder. I look to my right and here comes this motorcycle heading straight for me. I had a few seconds to think about what I was going to do. I chose to stand still like a deer caught in the headlights. My thinking was that he wouldn’t know which way I was going to go and we had a 50/50 chance that he was veer into me whichever way I went. I figured once he saw me not moving either forward or backward he would adjust and flow around me either way.

Uh uh, instead he just laid that beautiful bike down on it’s side and let it skid towards me. At that point I calmly stepped out of the path. He jumped off and with it still in gear he began yelling at me about not moving out of the way. I explained my reasoning and it shut him up, but I still got an angry look as he stalked off.

I asked the bike’s handler about it just to see if I did the right thing, and he said that I had nothing to worry about. I did act correctly. He said that if anything, the CEO should have never managed to get it into 3rd gear in such a crowded room and that he would be paying for the damages. There were big long set screws laying all over the place as well as AV equipment and quite a few people. He could have seriously hurt someone or himself.

You’ve got to give the CEO credit, at least he had enough sense to know he needed to get some rehearsal in. Of course he might have just wanted more time on that sweet vintage bike. Wonder if he would have been as anxious to rehearse if it involved some high-powered PowerPoint rather than the rescue of a fair maiden. In any case the rehearsal he did get would have been a lot more useful if time had been taken to plan things out, to clear the decks, and to make the environment he was working in as much like the actual show conditions as possible (remember Principle #3: If you practice like it’s the real thing, the real thing will seem like a practice). Maybe the spill he took actually made him more cautious during the actual event and saved some lives. Maybe it just made him more nervous and everyone was lucky there wasn’t a repeat performance.

As intense as meetings can get, most of us will never face a situation that threaten us with bodily harm. Did you ever find your self in a situation that had your life flashing before your eyes while in the line of duty?

Rick Pillars: Rehearsal, Rehearsal, Rehearsal

“Rick Pillars, an 18-year AV pro and owner of It’s a Rap Productions sent me the following vignette in response to an earlier BML post:

©iStockphoto.com/abzee

©iStockphoto.com/abzee

This is actually a pretty typical scenario. We just spent two or more days setting up for the General Session. On Day 3 we come in and from 7am-8am we run the equipment and troubleshoot any and all issues. We tape down cables and get it all cleaned up. We were also scheduled to have rehearsals from 8am-11am. At 10:30am we are told to stand-by for Rehearsals. Woohoo. Thanks for waiting until the last 30 minutes of the scheduled rehearsal time.

The show begins at 3pm so we have time to knock out rehearsal and go to lunch and be ready and fresh for the main speakers. 11 and then 11:30 comes an goes. Finally at 1pm the second of three presenters comes in. Then it begins.

Slide 1 is good to go. Slide 2, can we change what that says. No, not like that…yeah, like that. Slide 3 gets changed. And so on and so forth. Our rehearsal is more of a PowerPoint editing session. After that, the TelePrompTer gets edited to fit the new content. We have two more presenters to go including the Main or first speaker.

And the entire crew is sitting there talking about food. Wondering if we are going to get a chance to eat. Wondering why no one seems to ever think about the fact that actual human beings sit behind that equipment and they have needs too. We can’t cut anyone to go and get food. Everyone has a vital function to fulfill. We can’t order in because most delivery drivers have no concept of where to bring such a delivery inside of a hotel. We are stuck. And hungry. And we need to go to the bathroom. Gripe, gripe, gripe.

We finish up rehearsal (such as it was) about 10 minutes before doors. In that time we have to go to the bathroom, get something to drink if we can, and the smokers have to go fulfill their need. Yes, we do make some big bucks to do what we do, but we sure wouldn’t mind if it were remembered that we need sustenance also.

A couple things grab my attention in this story:

  • If you are in a leadership role guiding a team through the presentation preparation process, first make sure everyone has a clear understanding of the differences between a slide review and a rehearsal, then don’t let time that should be devoted to rehearsal become a slide review. A real rehearsal this late in the process has the potential to actually make the presentation better. Doing a last-minute slide review and tweaking session might make the slides better,  but it’s not likely to do the presentation any good. (See Principle 9)
  • For God’s sake, take care of your people. And yes, even if they are contractors, the AV crew is “your people”. You depend on them to perform at the absolute best of their ability. They can’t do that if they are  hungry, thirsty and/or exhausted. It’s perfectly acceptable to expect them to go to heroic lengths in an emergency situation but it’s best to avoid operating in hero mode unless absolutely necessary.

Rikk Flohr: Lest you lead your flock astray

©iStockphoto.com/Mantonature

©iStockphoto.com/Mantonature

Why is so tempting to focus almost all your precious rehearsal time and energy on what the presenter is doing?

Maybe it’s because what’s happening onstage is the most visible/audible element of the entire production. Maybe it’s because the person who will be behind the lecture is usually the most worried person in the room. Maybe it’s because the speaker, at least in a corporate setting, is often the biggest of the several big cheeses involved in any given event.

I came across the story below in my feed reader a last week and it’s author, Rikk Flohr (his blog, his website) was kind enough to give me permission to reprint it here on BML. It’s a great illustration of an important principle: Everyone knows that it’s essential to rehearse, but not everyone knows how to rehearse what’s essential.

In other words, a successful rehearsal has to be about more than just a speaker getting the words, voice, pacing, stage movement and gestures right. It also has to include, in a meaningful way, the easy to overlook “backstage” elements that need to be performed correctly and in unison with the presenter.

Death and Resurrection by PowerPoint

Have you ever been inside one of those English-dubbed Japanese Monster Movies? I don’t mean being chased by some rubbery monster with curiously man-like proportions. What I am talking about is the experience of, in real life, having the sounds being heard not follow the visual cues of script and mouth shapes. Today, this happened to me.

REHEARSE!  REHEARSE!  REHEARSE!

My recent forays at PowerPoint Live brought me in contact with many people who, primarily or secondarily, were learning the craft of professional presentation for use at their local church. There has been an explosion of multimedia materials used in conjunction with church services. Inspirational pictures are shown, announcements are broadcast and lyrics for the hymns are displayed.  It also keeps the church feeling modern and in-tune to today’s youth.

I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked to find my own church constructing a trio of large screens in the main worship area. Three massive screens with powerful projectors lead us all in the celebration of the mass. Pictures are shown, announcements are made and lyrics displayed-all run from the mixer board at the back center of church. We no longer have hymnals and we no longer have photocopied sheets stuck in the pews cueing us on what to sing. Until today, it was all running so smoothly.

REHEARSE!  REHEARSE! REHEARSE!

Saturday Night Live did a great skit once about St. Mickey’s Knights of Columbus where no one in the crowd new the second line to any of the less common Christmas carols. Life imitated art today.  During the second song of the day, the second verse was upon us and the vocalist leading the song, sang, suddenly alone.  The crowd trailed off into silence. Some mumbled heroically. Some looked around awkwardly for guidance.  The lyrics being displayed on the massive screens were not the same as those being sung. Since it was a second verse, no one was really quite sure who was right: the presenter with the script or the slide that said otherwise.  Eventually, the perplexed singer looked at the screen and joined the subdued crowd in the projected lyrics.

REHEARSE!  REHEARSE!  REHEARSE!

For the rest of the service, every song was tentative-every churchgoer unsure of his or her self.  The projectionist started to become tentative too. The slides didn’t change quite as crisply as before. Some of them appeared too early as compensation for the bewilderment in the crowd.  Mass ended early-perhaps by design-perhaps by confusion.  I surreptitiously grabbed a few cell phone camera captures (see them here) in the uncertain moments, knowing that this was presentation precarious.

Choirs rehearse. Musicians rehearse. Speakers rehearse. Projectionists and those interacting with the presentation-particularly in a multi-presenter environment need to rehearse too. It isn’t enough to know the script (read lyrics) on the sheet on your podium (read music stand), you have to know the visuals too and be certain that they are sympathetic or at least not incompatible.

Lest you lead your flock astray, repeat the refrain (to the notes of “…in this world and the next…”:

REHEARSE!  REHEARSE!  REHEARSE!

A-MEN!

Anyone who receives your presentation is your flock. Do not lead them astray!

Rikk Flohr © 2008


Rikk Flohr teaches and writes about the subtle art and inexact science of imaging-from capture, through editing and finally presentation. In addition he teaches at national conferences like PowerPoint Live and conducts photographic and image editing workshops in multiple countries. His design firm, Fleeting Glimpse Images supplies design for print and screen, presentation consulting, video and still photographic services for a wide range of clients.

Bedd Gelert:

Just as I was beginning to get a little tired of reading my own stories here on BML, reader Bedd Gelert left a comment on a previous post that was begging to be front page material (BTW, I’m fairly certain that “Bedd Gelert” is a pseudonym):

Okay, technically this isn’t a ‘presentation’ disaster, but because it concerns a PC and a meeting where having it functioning was pretty well essential I will mention it…

I was pretty stressed, as I had to take details, onto a spreadsheet, of the issues on literally dozens of different items we were dealing with, on a Red / Amber / Green basis, with half a dozen people in the room and someone from IT, who had all this information, at the end of a phone line.

The computer wouldn’t work, as I couldn’t ‘sign in’ to it. I got more and more irate, as it kept rejecting my password. In the end I took to it to another room, got on the phone to PC Support and [there is no way I can shy away from this, and I’m not proud, but one has to tell the truth however ashamed I am … ] I went ballistic. ‘Why isn’t this pc working – I am about to go into a 2 hour meeting and I need this to be working NOW – Why isn’t it??’

Cue more weeping, wailing and a temper tantrum with PC support all to no avail. Of course, machines know when you are stressed and unreasonable and responding in the way I did. So I failed to get the PC working and had to resort to somebody else having to take over my role with their PC.

PROBLEM – I had inadvertently pressed a ‘Function’ key on the PC, which converted 9 keys on the right hand side of the keyboard into a ‘number pad’.

When I keyed in my ‘ID’ I used the numbers at the top of the keyboard.

But when I keyed in my ‘password’ I used the letter keys on the keyboard, some of which were being substituted by numbers – and there was no way I would realise this as the password is clearly only shown as dots when keyed.

MORAL – I could have been there for hours and not figured this out – but I had a fighting chance to do it quickly if I hadn’t lost my rag. And PC support would have had a small chance of sorting this out in a couple of minutes if I’d been courteous with them. But because this was a 1-in-a-100 problem, as soon as I got flustered and panicked I was done for.

Easy to say in hindsight, and in ‘cold blood’, but as we are always told ‘It’s nice to be important, but even more important to be nice..’ We live and we learn..

A long time ago, but still able to give me nightmares..

Bedd’s experience echos my earlier post about the staying in the Valium bubble. No matter how badly things are going, anything other than a calm, measured response is going to make the situation more difficult to resolve. Any losing of one’s rag needs to be saved for after the presentation is over.

Seems like something that will need to be added to The Principles. Just need to come up with a pithy phrase to describe it. How’s this sound: “Letting it loose might mean losing it all”? Yeah, I thought so. That’s just off the top of my head. It might be better to keep thinking about it.

Thanks Bedd, I really appreciate you taking the time to share this obviously painful memory. It serves as a great reminder to all of us who are dropped into these sorts of situations on a daily basis.

Your Turn:

Do you have a better idea than “Letting it loose might mean losing it all”? Have things ever gone from bad to much worse due to your losing it during a presentation or while preparing for one?

Ellen Finkelstein:

Okay, so you’re a PowerPoint Guru. You’ve been using it so long, you remember when everyone still thought it was a pretty nifty piece of programming. You remember a time when it wasn’t being blamed for all of the ills currently plaguing our civilization.  Every year you score major points with the new interns by showing them how to create custom toolbars. Everyone comes to you when they can’t remember that trick for jumping right to a slide when you’re in show mode. You’re either very happy to be at PowerPoint Live 2008 right now or you’re seriously bummed to be sitting at home missing it.

©iStockphoto.com/vm

©iStockphoto.com/vm

Unfortunately, as this story from PowerPoint expert and author Ellen Finkelstein reminds us, having guru-level knowledge of a particular piece of software doesn’t always help with an uncooperative piece of hardware.

A professor at the local university asked me to give a session to 37 MBA/Accounting students on presenting data clearly. I created the presentation. As I usually do, I created a web page on my site for the students and wrote up a handout for them, so they could download it after the class. I do this so people don’t have to take notes while I present and can focus on listening.

I took home the projector and tested it on my laptop. It didn’t work, and I assumed it was my laptop, because I’ve had problems before using this laptop with a projector. So I borrowed someone else’s computer, borrowed the key to the classroom and came 15 minutes early to test everything out. I set up the projector and it worked fine. As the class came in, I had the first slide up on the screen in Slide Show view. The projector was on a table in front of one of the student desks.

I have to explain that my talk was based around showing the students techniques for making data and concepts clear and visual. So, I was going to spend most of my time in Normal view and let them see how I added an image, formatted a chart, and so on. For this purpose, a handout was useless; they needed to look at the screen to see which tabs I used, and which buttons I clicked. The handout was just so that they could later follow the steps on their own.

The first issue was that the borrowed computer had PowerPoint 2007 while I had written my notes for PowerPoint 2003. Luckily, I know both well enough that I was able to adjust as I went along. I asked how many students had 2007 and how many 2003, and 75% had 2007 (they were new students and had just bought computers) and 25% 2003. So, I adjusted my steps to 2007 as I went along.

I made a short introduction and went into Normal view. At about slide 3, the student sitting nearest the projector decided that the image on the screen was a little askew. He was right. So he moved the projector a little. The image disappeared. He fiddled. He fiddled some more. No image.

I improvised and started talking about general principles. I couldn’t use the whiteboard because the screen was covering it, so I just talked.

The student fiddled some more. Other students came over and tried to help. After about 5 minutes, I didn’t have any more principles and there was still no image on the screen, so I told him to give up. What I did was I held up the laptop and showed it to the students the way a kindergarten teacher reads a page in a picture book and then turns it around to the children to show them the picture. I put the laptop down and did a few operations, explaining what I was doing, and then showed them the result. I expect most of them couldn’t see anything, but they were polite and listened. By the end of the session, which was 2 hours long, my arms were aching from holding up the laptop!

At the end, I promised them that I’d add the actual presentation to my web page so they could download it and asked them to give me a couple of hours after class to get that done. I told them that the combination of listening to me, reading the handout, and using the presentation would give them the information they needed, and I think that was true. But it certainly wasn’t the best option!

Later, we discovered that the projector cable had a bent pin and that was the cause for the problem.

Ellen did all the things you should do when you’re trying to prevent Murphy’s Law from messing up a presentation. She tested the equipment in advance of the meeting. She had backup equipment and it appeared to be doing what backup equipment was supposed to do. She was also great at thinking on her feet and finding ways to work around the obstacles that were presented to her in this particular situation. Being prepared to do that can sometimes be as important as any other precaution you can take. And sometimes it’s all you can do.

Your Turn

Were you ever in a bad presentation situation that was rectified more by your ability to improvise than by any preparation you you did or precautions that you took? Please take a moment to share you experiences in the a comment.

Nicholas Bate: Get there early

Nicholas Bate is, among other things, a successful author and business consultantA recent post on his blog not only offered a useful and refreshingly pragmatic pre-meeting checklist, it also dovetailed nicely with a recent post of my own. Nicolas and I both strongly feel that it’s crucial to arrive at the presentation venue early enough to make sure every part of the environment you are about to preform in is in an optimal state. If the first time you step into the meeting room is two minutes before you step up to the lectern, you better be prepared for any number of things to go wrong. The story Nicholas was kind enough to share illustrates how showing up the day before made it possible to get a little extra sleep:

As you will know from Lee’s posts if there is one thing which enhances your chances of a great presentation, it’s preparation. And that’s certainly something I am committed to when I am delivering a work-shop or key-note. The preparation has two parts, ideally. Part 1: a quick ‘recce’ of the room the previous day/evening just to identify any surprises/challenges and get those resolved. Part 2 is getting into the room prior to the delegates to set up and get all perfect for them. This ritual has become tried and tested for me and hasn’t let me down, identifying many problems with enough time for them to be resolved.

Several years ago I was doing a lot of international travel and had just flown back from Boston, USA to the UK (my home). Poor diary management on my part meant I arrived back in the UK the day before my next work-shop. I arrived late at the location, gave the room a once-over and with the hotel staff sorted a lot of issues. Then went to bed exhausted, knowing we started at 0900. I awoke at 0840 having slept through two alarms! I jumped up, showered and grabbed my materials, ran down the corridor and arrived in the room at 0855. We started on time at 0900. The work-shop went brilliantly.

The lessons?

  1. The prior-day check up saved my skin. It’s worth doing if you can.
  2. Jet-lag can cause extreme exhaustion: set plenty of alarms!
  3. Manage your diary to avoid back-to-back big events: your mind/body needs some down-time.
  4. BUT here’s the real lesson. I had no time to do my normal prep on that morning, run through my notes etc., but it went went really well, anyway-which was a real lesson to me that we can over-prepare. That is, if we basically know our stuff (which we should do, of course!) a ‘flow’ state can be reached where by people get an ‘even better’ experience: more real, more connected. Athletes call this being ‘in the zone’ of course.

Something to think about!
Thanks to Lee for inviting me to post

I usually make a point of trying to take a some time to chat with the people who work for the venue when I’m on site. I like to hear their stories about the unusual things they’ve seen happen in the meeting rooms. It never ceases to amaze me how often their stories are about speakers that come bustling into the meeting room minutes before they are scheduled to go on (which I guess means it actually isn’t all that unusual). They hand off their slides to the AV crew on a thumb drive hoping against hope that they will project correctly. They stop for a second so the sound guy can slap on a lavalier (sound check, who has time for a sound check?). They have no time to familiarize themselves with the remote control, the stage, the podium. At this point it’s far too late to change or fix anything that might detract from the audience’s experience. This is the situation Nicholas would have inadvertently been in if he hadn’t taken time to check things out the night before.

Your turn:

Has there ever been a time that you wished there was more time devoted to on-site, pre-presentation preparation? Were you ever really, really glad you had a chance to spend extra preparing? Please share you experiences in a comment to this post.

Morning Sickness

Rusty: You scared?
Linus: You suicidal?
Rusty: Only in the morning.

(Ocean’s Eleven)

Sometimes, the thing that is going to go wrong with your presentation actually starts going wrong long before you step up to the lectern. Sometimes, a disaster is sneaking up on you while your sleeping the night away in tranquil ignorance. If you’re lucky, you have some time to fully wake up, shower, eat and get yourself to the venue before the day begins go south. If you’re less lucky, you’ll wake up, ready to face the day, and it will suddenly and dreadfully become apparent that your recent unconsciousness was a blessing. And even though your still in bed, it’s already too late to do anything about it.

Public speaking presentation skills coach Lisa Braithwaite has over fifteen years professional public speaking experience and is fortunate enough to only have had one of so I’m willing to assume she’s no stranger to this sort of mornings.  In the story she has kindly shared with us today, she describes how it went for her and why it’s so important for us to gut it out when we would rather just give in.

For six years I worked for a domestic violence organization. Part of my job was to speak to high school students about healthy and unhealthy relationships. I usually gave 3-4 presentations a day and made the rounds to all the schools in the district each semester.

One day, I was scheduled to give several presentations in a row. I woke up with terrible flu symptoms: I was weak, I had a fever, my head was pounding, and I was seriously debilitated. I called the school to cancel my engagement.

They called the teacher to the phone — the substitute teacher, that is. The substitute teacher who had no lesson plan because she had been expecting me. Even worse, the students — who normally sat at computers in their business class — were displaced for the day and had to meet in the cafeteria. I faced a teacher with no lesson plan, and students with no computers. The teacher begged and pleaded with me to show up, and I had no backup speaker. So I did.

I filled a water bottle with herbal tinctures and headed over to the school. My energy level was nowhere near my normal capacity, but I dug deep and gave them everything I had. I powered echinacea during the breaks and held it together until the classes were over.

Now, I don’t recommend infecting people with viruses. This was a special instance, a difficult decision, a case of “the show must go on.”

You may be having a bad hair day. You may not feel your best. You may have stubbed your toe, hammered your thumb and squirted mustard down your shirt. Guess what: the audience doesn’t care!

Your job is always to put the audience first. No matter what. If you show up with a frown and a slouch, you will not be successful in connecting with your audience. You will not be successful in getting your message across. You will not be successful, period. Furthermore, you won’t be invited back, you won’t be referred to other organizations, and you won’t get that positive word of mouth that’s so critical for a speaker.

So suck it up. Be passionate even if you don’t feel passionate. Engage your audience even if you want to curl up in bed with a box of tissues. It’s your responsibility to give everything you’ve got. You’ll feel so much better if you put yourself out there. Maybe not at that moment, but later for sure.

I want to point out that Lisa’s wake up call doesn’t just apply to the folks behind the lectern. It’s also crucial that everyone who makes it possible for the presenter to present needs to be there and as ready to roll as much as possible. Even if you’re fighting the flu, food poisoning, a difficult client or plain, old fashioned, run-of-the-mill, early morning ennui. Sometimes you just need to fake it until you make it.

Don’t forget to visit Lisa’s blog, Speak Schmeak.

Related Resources:

One of the few good reasons for not coming in and giving your all — That Brain-Eating Virus.

Your Turn:

I just installed the shiny new Disqus 2.0 comment system on BML. Why don’t you help break it in by leaving a comment describing a time when you, or someone you know, had to force themselves to not just turn around and go back to bed because of illness or other serious presentation problem.