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Might Have Missed List (07/17/11)

Gub doo gia bee? (Language Log)

[This post is chock full of all sorts of wonderful things going wrong during a series of presentations at an academic conference. This brief passage represents just a sliver of a very entertaining story]

And the other problem was that, impelled by some irresistible psychological imperative (I saw this later with several other speakers), he instinctively pointed the remote projection controller at the screen, desperately trying to get it to respond. But the computer he should have been pointing the remote at was ten or fifteen yards away on a table in a totally different direction. It was just too counterintuitive to turn 180 degrees away from the screen, so his back was toward it, in order to change the screen image. We humans are simple mammals, and we imagine that what we are focusing on is where the action is. So his clicking away with the remote was not being detected by the computer, and even if it had been detected, he would have had no idea whether anything had happened to the screen as a result.

Presentation Tip: First Impressions Matter (Professionally Speaking…)

Be prepared, with AV equipment checked, handouts sorted and slides ready. If you seem disorganized and rattled over logistics, your audience may assume that your presentation will be equally disorganized.

How to recognize someone for their service to an organization when they can’t be present in person (Conferences That Work)

  • A week before the event, Nancy and I set up a test call with me calling from the laptop I would be using at the conference. It was good we did this, because it took a while to get Nancy’s camera working. We arranged for her to start Skype when she arrived at work, thirty minutes before we would start the recognition ceremony.

  • About twenty minutes before the call, Nancy was not showing up as connected on Skype. I called her from my cell and she assured me Skype was running. I restarted Skype on my machine & this time she appeared. Phew! During the next few minutes, I muted our audio while the audience assembled.

 

Even the Gecko has technical difficulties

Tech rule #1: Keep the boss away from the buttons…

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.

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?

Life in the Corporate Theater

is an AV/IT tech in the corporate presentation business. He gets to travel all over the world staying in some really glamorous places doing some rather unglamorous work. If anyone in the world is intimately acquainted with Murphy’s Law and how to go about breaking it, it’s Steve and the army of pros like him who keep all those meetings moving. And he has the stories to prove it. You can read them on his blog — Life in the Corporate Theater. Here are some excerpts:

Rob hadn’t gotten any of the presentations last night. They didn’t do an official slide review. This morning, they came in with a whole bunch of presentations for him to load up.

The agenda showed about 8 presentations, and they handed Rob about 15. He ended up having to string all these slides together, and things still seemed weird. There was a presentation in there that had a thank you slide at the end of it, and then another 15 slides after the thank you. So, things were pretty unsettling this morning. Continue reading Life in the Corporate Theater

PowerPoint (that's right, PowerPoint) to the Rescue

Lisa Lindgren, a fellow member of the InfoComm Presentations Council was kind enough to share a story about how PowerPoint 2007 recently foiled Murphy’s Law. Lisa reminds us of some important best practices and I have an observation or two of my own (surprise, surprise).

We all know that we should test our slides and equipment in the actual setting prior to when the audience arrives and therefore, before it is too late to correct any problems. Sometimes that isn’t practical, but when you do make the extra effort, it can really be worth it.

I recently participated in a conference and was slated as the final speaker at lunch on the second day of the three-day event. The only time that I would be able to test anything in that room, was the day before after a general session. The timing would be tight before I had to be in another session, and I almost decided against forcing the issue. But I had used animations and some of the theme features from PowerPoint 2007, and the computer I would have to use for my presentation was running a different software version. My fear was that something wouldn’t translate correctly and my carefully timed effects wouldn’t work.

Well it turned out that the animations worked just fine. But what I hadn’t anticipated was that the room that would be used for lunch was very bright. I had chosen a dark background, which was striking on my laptop screen, and would have been effective in a dark room. But all that light simply washed out my visuals and you could barely see the photos or read the captions.

Not only was I able to change the background and save my presentation, I have to say that PowerPoint 2007 made this easier than I had ever expected. I simply chose a different theme from those provided in the standard package. Instantaneously the background was light and the text and accent colors reverted to being a contrasting dark color. . .all literally at the click of a key. In fact, the theme I chose subtly reinforced my message in style and I ended up with a stronger visual presentation than I had before.

So the lesson that I learned was that it really, truly is important to check your presentation on the actual computer in the actual room because unexpected things can and will go wrong. And I have a new appreciation for the positive aspects of the new themes in PowerPoint 2007.

PowerPoint has taken so much abuse the last couple years, isn’t it kind of refreshing when someone has something positive to say about it?

I’d like to stress a couple points made in Lisa’s story. First, if you’re going to present, get there early. Lisa put herself in a position to effectively deal with any problems that might have arisen with her presentation, or the venue, by making it a priority to test things out well in advance of the time her presentation was due to start. I understand that not every speaking opportunity is going to give you a chance to check things out an entire day ahead of time, but the more time you have to confirm everything is the way it needs to be (and to recover if it’s not) the better. Remember, if you’re not early, you’re late.

Second, it’s crucial that, like Lisa, you understand all the capabilities of the software you are using. A lot PowerPoint users only take time to learn the bare minimum necessary to do the typical tasks that come up on a day-to-day basis. This is a mistake. You not going to be able to use the PowerPoint function or feature that’s going to save you butt in an emergency situation if you don’t know it’s there. Take a class. Buy a book. At least take an hour or so on a slow Friday afternoon and methodically go through each item on each menu and find out what it does and how it does it. After all, no one thinks much of a carpenter who doesn’t know that a hammer can also be used to remove nails.

Your turn:

What’s your favorite little known PowerPoint function or feature that you love showing to people? Please feel free to share it with us in a comment to this post.

Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!

When you’re the slide guy, once all the presentations have been thoroughly PowerPointed and the meeting has started, they need to find something for you to do so you’re not just hanging around enjoying yourself. At least that was the case at an earlier point in my career. These days I’m also the AV guy and I get to show the slides as well as make them. I’m also the roadie, but that’s a different story.

I’m not even sure what you would have called what they had me doing back then. Production assistant maybe? I was wearing headphones, hanging at the front of the room herding speakers. The technical director and the rest of the crew communicated with the speakers through me once the meeting started. I was also responsible for giving each of them a quick visual check before they took the stage.

Ostensibly, I was making sure they took off their name badges and turned on their lavalier microphones. The badges needed to come off because the spotlights lighting the stage reflected off their badges and the flashing could be distracting for the audience. I was also told to discretely check for a couple other things — making sure flys were up, for instance (I kid you not).

Having someone to do this sort of stuff made things a lot easier for the speakers and let them focus on speaking, not on the necessary last-second minutiae. Unfortunately, not every event can provide this level of luxury. That means if your a presenter, you usually need to fill that role yourself.

Develop and memorize a very brief pre-presentation checklist, something you can quickly rattle off to yourself while you’re waiting to be introduced that captures all those little things that can make presenting difficult if overlooked or forgotten: zipper zipped, badge removed, water bottle, laser pointer, speaking notes, glasses, etc. Remind yourself to smile and make eye contact. Ritualize it. Make it a habit.

You may also want to think about a post-presentation checklist. Two quick suggestions to start the list off: put your badge back on and don’t forget to leave the remote control at the podium for the next speaker.

Related resources:

12 Tips For How to Relax Just Minutes Before You Speak — You might want to add a couple of these to you pre-presentations checklist.

Your turn:

In a comment to this post, let us know what other items would you put on your pre-presentation checklist.

Blinded by the Light

Despite what the title leads you to believe, this isn’t part two of last week’s “letting loose with the laser pointer” post. This week I’m going to talk about how a room’s lighting scheme can render your visuals invisible.

I don’t want to overdramatize the way it went that morning. None of the things that went wrong were that big of a deal. It’s just that I was running a little behind. Everything had been going well. Then one of the laptops failed. There’s nothing quite like getting the much dreaded blue screen of death in this situation. Okay, no problem, we had backups. Switch the bad machine out with a good one. Boots up. We’re good, just a small, unwelcome adrenaline jolt. Who needs coffee?

Not so fast. Now the remote control isn’t working. Jiggle connections, check the dip switches, reboot the laptops, change batteries. Okay, one of those things fixed it. Anyway, the speakers have been prepared to deal with a remote failure during their presentation so we’re good. Everything’s working on the back end. Now it’s time to take care of the rest. In other words, the projector and the actual image I’m projecting.

What's wrong with this picture? Whoops, when did that happen? At some point, while I was busy putting out those other fires, someone came in and changed the room lighting. We had spent more than a few minutes earlier that morning making adjustments so the room would be be dark enough for the slides to show well, but also bright enough so the audience could take notes and not fall asleep after the lunch break. Unfortunately, The-One-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed (the client team’s head honcho) thought that the room was now too dark and had ordered that some be adjustments made. Problem is, one of the recessed lights that went around the parameter of the ballroom was now shining directly onto the screen, almost completely drowning out and making unreadable anything being projected. It looked a lot like the screen in the picture up there to the right. This issue is not unusual in a ballroom configured with the screen in one of the corners. Earlier, we made a point of turning all these lights off because it seemed that the chandeliers and the wall sconces would provide sufficient light. And since all of those recessed lights were on the same circuit, I couldn’t turn off one without turning off all the others. This particular ceiling was 12 feet high, there was’t a ladder handy and time was getting short. How the heck was I going to deal with this?

I know what you’re thinking, just break out the BB gun. One quick, quiet “plink”, a little discreet sweeping up. Done.

Unfortunately, that’s one of the few pieces of gear I don’t haul to meetings with me. However, having been in this situation before, I knew of a better solution that would be almost as quick and wouldn’t make the hotel staff nearly so angry. It’s a light bulb changing pole and every hotel with high ceilings should have one.

The call went out to the maintanence department. A few minutes later the offending bulb was removed and we were good to go. Like I said, none of this was particularly earthshaking or heroic. It was just a little more stressful than it needed to be because we were so close to show time.

Now that you’ve seen the light, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If you get to participate in a pre-meeting site visit (always a good idea), try to get a sense of what the room’s lighting issues might be and begin thinking about how you might deal with them.
  • Once you’re on site for the actual meeting, take a few minute to have the staff show you how the room’s lighting controls work. Knowing what the system can and can’t do will often save you a lot of grief. Just as important, you won’t need to waste time searching for the appropriate staff member to make adjustments when time is short.
  • Consider getting your hands on your own light bulb changing pole. They are cheap, light and easy to transport. The hotel maintenance staff might not alway be as available for you as they were for me that morning.
  • Finally, don’t consider any part of your setup finalized until you’re sure The-One-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed isn’t going to weigh in with some adjustments.

Remember, of all the things you need to control in order to have a successful presentation, light is one of the most important. Especially if the presentation depends on the visuals as much as on what’s being said.

Related Resources:

  • Control of Ambient Light: “Controlling ambient light is crucial for maximizing the contrast in the video image. Video has a limited contrast range compared to film, and suffers much worse in the presence of ambient light on the screen.” This page has a good mock up of how ambient light can affect slide readability.
  • We usually don’t have much say in what type of screen we will be required to project on. However, picking the appropriate screen for the conditions in a particular meeting space is an art as well as a science. This Wikipedia page will give you a good sense of the many factors involved in this decision.

Jedi Knights With Frickin' Laser Pointers

jediThe last presentation before lunch was just getting started and I’m trying to find my copy of the agenda. Since I was the PowerPoint guy at that meeting, my day was pretty much over and I was hanging out with the crew in the control booth daydreaming about the lunch buffet. The technical director’s whispered, but emphatic, “uh oh!” brought me back. “Cover your eyes,” he said “it looks like we have a Jedi Master on stage.”

Huh?

Oh yeah, the speaker. He was rather, well, enthusiastic about using the laser pointer. Back and forth from one corner of the screen to the other. Waving it under every bullet point to underline its importance. Look out, here’s the dangerous part. He forgets to take his thumb off the button as he turns back to the audience. The little red dot slides across the audience like he’s a nervous hit man looking for his target. It’s lucky he doesn’t burn out a couple retinas. Whoops, he’s turning back to the screen. Good thing he’s not a Jedi Knight. That evil Sith lectern would be toast. I could almost hear the sound effects from that scene when Luke…

(sorry, got carried away)

Anyway, I think you see the point. If you’re going to use a laser pointer, use it correctly. Some suggestions:

  • Many speakers seem to like holding onto the laser pointer to have something to do with their hands. They are using it as a security blanket. These are often the worst offenders. Try putting the pointer within easy reach on the lectern. It will be there when you need it but you’ll be less tempted to use it when you don’t.
  • Make sure the laser light only goes where you want it to. It’s capable of attracting a lot of the audience’s attention, and that attention should be directed only where you need it to be. And never, ever point it toward the audience. (This illustrates another instance of the need for the presenter to control the light. There will be more on that in future posts).
  • Make sure your hand is steady. It might be adrenaline, it might be the coffee, it doesn’t matter. It tends to make the audience uncomfortable when the little red dot won’t stay still and it’s clear that your hand is shaking.
  • If the laser pointer is part of your remote control, try to get in enough practice with it so you’re less likely to hit the laser pointer button when you’re trying to advance the slides.
  • Part of the problem with using the laser pointer is that you usually have to turn, at least partially, away from the audience. This makes it harder to engage them. It can also make it harder for the lectern microphone to pick up what you’re saying. Try to test the stage arrangement out in rehearsal. Can the lectern be turned slightly toward the screen? Can you wear a lavalier to support the lectern microphone?

Related Resources