As I was listening to Nina Totenberg’s story about the Sotomayor nomination this morning on NPR News, an incidental detail mentioned at the very end caught my attention:
All went incredibly smoothly except for one thing: White House aides scrambled the pages of Sotomayor’s remarks in the book they placed on the lectern for her at the announcement ceremony.
Fortunately, she had memorized her speech.
Many public speaking gurus will tell you that memorizing your speech is a bad idea. In this case it helped speaker recover from a situation that would have gone badly for anyone who had not prepared so thoroughly. It’s also interesting to note that serious presentation problems can even strike at the White House where, from what I understand, the ability to achieve perfection in execution is a fundemental job requirement. Not exactly what I would expect from the West Wing.
“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:
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.
It’s not like I was out there searching or anything but I found a quote that could be the official motto for Breaking Murphy’s Law:
Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.
Pretty good, isn’t it. I came across it on Bob Sutton’s blog Work Matters. The post it’s from contrasts the philosophy that informs Eleanor’s quote with the idea that your own failures are the best teachers. Your failures are the teachers that smack your knuckles really hard with the ruler. Your failures are the teachers that firmly believe in corporal punishment.
I agree that personal failures are very good at teaching important lessons in a way that makes them difficult to forget. The only problem is there’s usually only one person in the classroom.
Learn from your mistakes, but also be generous and share them so others can learn from what you went through.
I know, I know, easier said than done. Just try to remember you could be saving someone else from geting their knuckles rapped.
This is the one hundred and first post on BML. Noticing this milestone gave me an opportunity to take a look back and review what’s happened so far. One thing I noticed is a tendency to focus on the disaster and the aftermath. Makes sense. These posts are usually entertaining to both read and write (as long as whatever happened didn’t happen to me).
Moving into the next one hundred posts, I’m going to try to dig a little deep and deal more with how planning and preparation helped when the fecal matter met the fan blades. In other words, a little less debrief, a little more anticipation.
To start off, I would like to offer this thought-provoking quote (as well as some thoughts the quote provoked).
“There is little peace or comfort in life if we are always anxious as to future events. He that worries himself with the dread of possible contingencies will never be at rest.”
That sounds about right for day-to-day living, but does it make sense for a speaker or the person responsible for making sure that a meeting or presentation is successful?
Since when are we supposed to be peaceful, comfortable or at rest? We get paid in part to think long and hard about those future events and possible contingencies he’s talking about.
You need to be able to develop and apply a certain frame of mind to in order to see around corners and be prepared to deal with issues that no one else is even aware of yet. This frame of mind requires a special kind of focused or contained anxiousness.
If you are too nervous or if you are worried about everything, you can become paralyzed and find yourself unable to take the necessary action to prevent an actual crisis. You can also lose credibility with other team members if you become “Chicken Little” and continually to try find new ways to deal with the remote possibility of the sky falling.
On the other hand, there are those who are too optimistic, who are never anxious. They also tend to also be incapable of working up the frame of mind that will allow them to anticipate how things might go wrong and to understand how truly bad things can get.
Is being able to operate in the sweet spot between these two extremes merely a matter of having enough, but not too much, experience? Enough to know what to worry about but not so much that you are jaded or complacent. Is it an innate trait?
Would you rather work with someone who is too anxious or not anxious enough? Which is most like to do to most damage?
[Thanks to Michael Wade’s Execupundit.com for the quote.]
…writing’s on the wall” (but make sure there are no bullet points and that you have a big dramatic photo you found on Flickr in the background. Why? I don’t know.).
[Editor’s note: Olivia Mitchell has devised an incredibly interesting and ambitious group blogging project. She asked an army of PowerPoint designers, speaking coaches and other presentation professionals to write posts exploring the theme “What I’d like to see in PowerPoint slide design in 2009.” Although Breaking Murphy’s Law has been careful to refrain from dealing with the disasters that can befall those not careful about their PowerPoint design decisions (there are so many others writing about that so much better than I ever could), I thought I would break with this unofficial policy and contribute the following.]
Superstition involves doing something without knowing why you do it (other than it makes you feel better in some way you can’t quite explain). It seems to me like there is more and more of this kind of thinking going into PowerPoint design. In 2009, I would like to see less.
Things I’ve heard recently:
- You should never have any text on your slide with a font size of less that 28 points.
- All presentations should have no more than 10 slides, be no longer than 20 minutes and use fonts no smaller than 30 points.
- Three bullets per slide and they can’t be sentences.
- Bullet points are deadly
Like many superstitious beliefs, design criteria like these usually have a rational, thoughtful beginning. However, over time, they became less and less methods for achieving particular aesthetic or rhetorical goals and end up as thoughtlessly applied dogma.
They might have started as something that someone read in one of the many excellent presentation design books that have come out in recent years. However, what the book suggested became corrupted and misinterpreted as it was passed from person to person, each with less and less understanding of the original research and experience that informed the context the book was working from (kind of like a game of “Whisper Down the Lane”).
They might have grown out of techniques and design decisions that worked once for a particular type of content or audience. Due to that success, they now get blindly applied to each subsequent presentation situation whether they are appropriate or not.
The bottom line is anytime a design “rule” is applied to a slide or a presentation thoughtlessly, without any consideration of the audience or the requirements of the messages being communicated, you have the makings of a massive presentation disaster on par with a projector blowing up.
Through the hard work of many great presentation designers, writers and thinkers (starting with Tufte right on through Reynolds, Abela, Duarte and Atkinson) just about everyone knows that it’s a bad idea to blindly follow the path of least resistance offered by PowerPoint’s design automation. In 2009, let’s work to get out another message that’s just as important:
When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way, yeh, yeh.
~Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”
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!
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.
It’s an NFL playoff game. It’s a win or go home situation. A player limps off the field after getting hurt. In many cases, it’s no big deal and he can walk the injury off before he needs to be back on the field. Sometimes, it’s obvious that he needs to go to the locker room for further evaluation and may be injured so severely that returning to the game is out of the question.
What happens when the injured player is still able to perform at some level but that level isn’t quite what it should be? How does an ill or injured athlete determine if he or she is hurting the team more by staying in the game than by leaving it?
I came across an interesting blog post comment the other day:
I sliced the tip of my finger off while in Architecture school 2 days before my final review, and had to give my presentation while all doped up. I kept pointing with my heavily bandaged finger, cracking ridiculous jokes, and fortunately don’t remember a second of it other than my prof telling me to go home and go to bed after vomitting in the garbage can. … I really wish someone had videotaped this! To this day, I still have no idea if I actually spoke about the building that I designed or not.
Stories like this beg the question: How does an ill or injured presenter determine if presenting while impaired will cause more damage than canceling, postponing or calling in an understudy?
Some presenters are so fragile that they shouldn’t be put in front of an audience when they have the sniffles. They are so distracted they make mistake after mistake and so miserable they threaten to draw down the energy level of the entire room.
On the other hand, I’ve had the privilege of working with speakers with Olympic-level strength and commitment.
One had been fighting a serious respiratory infection for the last couple weeks leading up to a high-stakes presentation. As he progressed through the PowerPoint, I expected each slide to be his last as his voice got rougher and harder to hear. Toward the end, it seemed to almost give out just before each slide transition. He made it through the talk weakly but flawlessly and then went back to his hotel room and slept for 24 hours straight.
Another co-worker was able to perform at the highest level two days after being hospitalized with a burst ovarian cyst. I’m told that this is something like the presenter’s version of a hockey player coming out of the locker room to finish the game after getting 20 or 30 stitches.
Both of these presenters insisted in fulfilling their responsibilities and, fortunately, everything turned out okay in both for both of them.
Would it have been better if they had taken themselves out of the game?
If you’re working in a team situation, is there someone designated to make the call when it seems like an understudy should fill in for an ill or injured presenter? Someone with enough juice in the organization to bench anyone? Someone who can consider each presenter’s health status objectively and who will be willing to take the decision out of the presenter’s hands if necessary?
Have you ever given a presentation when not at your best and wished you hadn’t? How did that work out for you?
Yeah, I know it’s kind of crass to whine and complain during the season of joy, but here are a few things I know a lot of meeting professionals wished Santa had managed to slip into his sack before flying south:
- A magic coupon for free, fast, robust, ubiquitous Wi-Fi redeemable at any meeting venue.
- A pamphlet to give to new clients that politely explains everything wrong with this request: “Can you just take a couple minutes to fix up my slides. Nothing fancy, just make them pretty.”
- A laser pointer with built in vibration damping so the audience can’t see when a nervous speaker’s hand is shaking.
- A project that, for some mysterious reason, requires the use of 35mm slides rather than digital files to remind us how much easier things are now.
- Gaffer tape that sticks perfectly to all hotel ballroom carpet but will never stick to itself and get permanently attached to your cables.
- A device that will automatically turn off all Blackberries in the meeting room so the sound system won’t be afflicted by the “Blackberry Buzz.” It might as well switch all the other cellphones to vibrate while it’s at it.
- A special alarm clock that one person can set that guarantees everyone on the crew will wake up on time for call and won’t get screwed over by hotel wake up calls that are requested but never made or by hotel alarm clocks that seem designed to be set incorrectly.
And the one I was really hoping for:
A magic spell powerful enough to counter the “Death by PowerPoint/PowerPoint Sucks” spell that just about everyone seems to be enthralled by these days. It’s not the program folks, it’s the people using it. Even a Stradivarius is going to sound lousy if it’s played by someone who has no business being on stage. Of course PowerPoint makes bad slides when the user lacks even a basic understanding of good graphic design practices. Of course presentations that use PowerPoint are going to be boring if the speaker doesn’t know how to speak. PowerPoint is only culpable for making people who don’t have the requisite presenting and/or design skills think that they do.
I’m sure there are a lot of great gift ideas I didn’t mention. What do you wish Santa left sitting under the tree that would make your professional life a lot easier?
“Break a leg” is a well-known saying in theatre which means “good luck”. It is typically said to actors before they go out onto stage to perform. The expression reflects a theatrical superstition in which wishing a person “good luck” is considered bad luck. The expression is sometimes used outside the theatre as superstitions and customs travel through other professions and then into common use.
At a previous job, we had a roll of toilet paper, affectionately known as “Buttwipe,” that was thrown into the box with the rest of the art department’s supplies and shipped to every meeting we worked. The consequences of not performing this act of raw superstition, though unspecified, were too too horrible to consider.
Over the years, Buttwipe (now there’s a word I never thought I would find myself typing) suffered from severe travel fatigue and required a series of shipping tape grafts in order to continue keeping it all together while performing his crucial on-site duties. As that particular art department is no longer in existence, Buttwipe is now quietly retired and living in a closet, preferring to stay close at home after a being on the road for much of his long, globe-trotting career.
Although they are basically irrational, superstitions can actually serve useful purposes. They can foster a sense of normalcy in chaotic, uncertain situations and can provide the illusion that there is some small modicum of control in an otherwise uncontrollable environment. They can also build team cohesion and esprit de corps. I have in mind something like Gene Kranz’s white vest in Apollo 13.
FIDO Gold: Looks like Mrs. Kranz pulled out the ol’ needle and thread again…
Technician: Last one looked like he bought it off a gypsy.
FIDO Gold: Well I guess you can’t argue with tradition.
Technician: [Gene puts on a flight vest with an Apollo 13 patch on it, everyone begins applauding] Hey Gene, I guess we can go now!
Gene Kranz: Save it for splashdown fellas…
What superstitions do you or your colleagues invoke in order to ensure disaster doesn’t strike your meeting or presentation? Does it involve wearing a specific article of clothing? Do you need to have a particular type of coffee or eat a certain breakfast the morning of the meeting? Is it something a little more bizarre? Please share it with us in a comment.