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.



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It is no longer being updated.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

Sticker Shock

Pack a backup? What for? I can always by one when we get there. It’s not like we’re going into the wilderness. I mean, how much can they jack up the price. It’s not going to cost so much that if impacts the budget.

Offered without comment…

One-time college newspaper colleague, Oliver Mackson, now an investigator for the Dutchess County Public Defender, recently tweeted:

Nancy the senior investigator, after I fumbled a phone conference: “I’d say you need to master the three-way, but you might take it wrong.”

Bookmarked: When presentations go wrong and how to recover afterwards (OfficeRocker!)

When presentations go wrong and how to recover afterwards (OfficeRocker!) – “If any of you were at the Nottingham Technet event last week, you were a witness to probably the worst crash and burn I have ever suffered during a live presentation. I had put quite a lot of work into the presentation, believe it or not, and I had planned some 50 minutes of demo during my 75 minute session. As a bookend to my death by powerpoint tips post, I thought I might share the horror of the experience with you and how I picked myself up after it.”

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.

Oh no, not again!

I hardly ever get a chance to quote Hitchhiker’s Guide, so whenever and opportunity presents itself, I take it (no matter how tangential it may seem):

bowlofpetuniasThe Book: It is important to note that suddenly, and against all probability, a Sperm Whale had been called into existence, several miles above the surface of an alien planet and since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity. This is what it thought, as it fell:

The Whale: Ahhh! Woooh! What’s happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? Okay okay, calm down calm down get a grip now. Ooh, this is an interesting sensation. What is it? Its a sort of tingling in my… well I suppose I better start finding names for things. Lets call it a… tail! Yeah! Tail! And hey, what’s this roaring sound, whooshing past what I’m suddenly gonna call my head? Wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do. Yeah, this is really exciting. I’m dizzy with anticipation! Or is it the wind? There’s an awful lot of that now isn’t it? And what’s this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like ‘Ow’, ‘Ownge’, ‘Round’, ‘Ground’! That’s it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it’ll be friends with me? Hello Ground!

The Book: Curiously the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias, as it fell, was, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly *why* the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.

“Oh no, not again.”

It’s bad enough crash and burn once, it’s even worse if you let the same exact thing happen all over again. Let’s face it, the problems you’ve already had should be the easiest to avoid. You know, “fool me once…” and all that.

You never, ever want the presenter to be standing at the lectern thinking, “Oh no, not again.”

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid this situation is to be rigorous about holding a postmortem after each and every presentation (if you prefer a less pejorative term, call it a “debrief”). Autopsy the experience. Carefully pull it apart. Cut deep and really find out what went wrong.

Some random thoughts and suggestions:

  • You should do the postmortem as soon as you’re back in the office but better late than never.
  • Formalize the process. Everybody on your team should come to expect the postmortem meeting to be on their calendar the day every one is back. Better yet, schedule it before the trip. Always allow time for open discussion, but also be sure to address a standard set questions every time.
  • Take some time to go through your calendar, files and emails to jog your memory. I find that just reviewing the email generated by a big  project is almost always good for at least three or four things to discuss at the debrief.
  • Depending on the team you are working with and the environment in which you’re working, it might not be a bad idea to have two debrief meetings — one that includes the big cheeses and one that doesn’t. Believe it or not, the presence of a bunch of bosses, though usually required, can sometimes have a chilling effect on the free and open exchange of information.
  • Always have a mechanism that makes it easy to share additional items after the meeting has ended. Sometimes folks prefer to comment anonymously, and sometimes the best stuff doesn’t come to mind until you’re in the car on the way home.
  • Most importantly: make sure someone is taking good notes and that these notes are tidied up and distributed to everyone involved. Take a few minutes to review the notes from the last few debriefs as part of your preparations for a new presentation project.

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]

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?

Sticky Situation

In the Hyatt pool circa 1992The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is one of my all-time favorite meeting venues. The first time I ever traveled for business was to attend a huge annual sales convention being held there. My wife and infant daughter (that’s her in the photo) were able to accompany me. I was fresh out of college and found the place seriously impressive. Since that memorable first business trip, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a bunch of meetings at world-class venues and I may have become a little jaded, but I still consider it one of the best hotels anywhere; bar none (the coconut shrimp they serve at Hemingway’s would be enough to get my vote. It seems like it was the only thing we ate the last time I did a meeting there).

As you can probably tell, I have many great memories of this hotel both as an attendee and a meetings professional. This post will not be about any of them.

– – – –

The hotel’s conference sales manager made sure to point out the perfectly tasteful carpet that had just been put down throughout the entire meetings area. Trying to distract myself from imagining what it would be like to be sitting by the pool, I guesstimated just how much the rug had set them back. It was a lot of square footage. Given the sizable investment involved, as well as the wear and tear these carpets are exposed to, it’s no wonder they aggressively protected them with some sort of heavy duty stain repellent. I believe they said Teflon.

TapeSince nothing sticks to Teflon, it makes a great stain repellent. Unfortunately, there is something that gets used at just about every meeting, conference and seminar that really needs to stick to the hotel carpet for it to do what it’s supposed to do. Something we all cherish and hold dear to our hearts — gaffer tape.

There were fifteen breakout rooms at that meeting. Each one was stuffed with round 10-top tables. Each room had a projector and a small sound system. Each room saw a ton of traffic as the attendees rotated through from room to room and back and forth, to and from plenary sessions in the main ballroom. Thousands of chances for folks to get tripped up by VGA cables, extension cords, microphone lines. Ordinarily not a problem if the gaffer tape is doing what it meant to do. Major problem when it’s not.

Several mic stands were toppled. At least one projector almost got pulled off its cart. More than one person tripped and ended up flat on the floor. We kept going back and adding on layers of tape. In some places, the tape spread out a foot on either side of whatever wire it was attempting to keep down. We rerouted the cables around the perimeter each room whenever possible. We spent way more time that week dealing with that stupid tape than we really should have needed to. It took time and resources from other things we needed to take care of and everything else ran much less smoothly than it should have. Something we rarely need to think about became a major problem.

The biggest hassle came while we were breaking down and packing up. The tape that didn’t stick to the carpets stuck very, very well to itself as it got accidentally pulled up, rolled up and tripped over during the course of the week. It was the same exact mess you get when some rookie pulls up a cable without pulling the tape off first — sticky side to sticky side, just about impossible to pull apart. Only in this case, there wasn’t a rookie to sit in a corner to fix the mess with scissors and a knife. We ended up just shipping it all home and dealing with it back at the office.

No matter how much experience you have and stories you’ve heard, it’s important to remember that not everything can be anticipated, known about and prepared for. And sometimes it’s the simplest, most basic element of your setup that can cause the biggest problems.

Related resources:

Your turn:

Have you ever been completely blindsided by a tool, technology, methodology or process that was so simple and basic you never expected to have a serious problem with it? If so, please share what happened as a comment to this post so we can all benefit from your experience.