A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.

Big screen blue screen of death

NIN BSoD

Don’t you hate when you see something like this happen. You know someone, somewhere had a really bad night.

You can imagine the band’s management yelling into their cell phone as techs scramble to get systems rebooted or rolled over to backup while simultaneously updating their resume in their heads. There are hundreds of  hands reaching for hundreds of phones to send pictures to roommates who decided to bail and stay back at the bar.

How many people in the audience are shouting, “Did you try control, alt, delete?!” Imagine the quiet thrill of the the elite handful who could actually knew what went wrong based on the error message. Disappointment soon followed for the elite of the elite who actually had dates as it slowly dawned on them that demonstrating this particular level of alpha nerdiness wasn’t getting them any action that night.

As much fun as it was to imagine all that, it’s not even close to what’s really happening. The big screen blue screen of death (BSoD) shown here was intentional. It’s actually part of the act and not a real OS error message. Turns out Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is a serious Mac fanboy.

Does this picture bring back bad memories? Have you ever been unfortunate enough to see a BSoD on the screen you were supposed to be projecting something rather important on? Whether you’re the AV tech or a presenter showing your own slides, it can be a unforgettably unpleasant moment. Changes to Windows have (supposedly) pretty much eliminated the BSoD.  I don’t know if that’s true but I’ll admit can’t remember the last time I saw one.

*   *   *

Sometimes I think we take for granted how much easier it is to recover from badly timed computer failures now than it used to be.

Remember what it was like during the time of transition as 35mm slides were fading away? We had this great, new technology that saved us all a huge amount of time, money and effort, but sometimes it seemed like this great, new technology wasn’t always so great. It often failed, often in ways we never experienced before. To make matters worse, we didn’t yet have the tools necessary to easily recover from these failures.

For example, there were no USB flash drives. How many times would our bacon have been saved if there had been a storage media with enough capacity to easily transports multiple presentation files. One that also worked seamlessly and immediately with any computer you connected it to.

Remember floppy disks? Remember only having 1.44 MB of space to work with? How about ZIP drives? More storage space, but they needed to have software installed before you could use them. They also weren’t completely reliable (I still find myself waking up in a cold sweat from a vivid “Click of Death” flashback nightmare).

It was also very unlikely that the ballroom where you were presenting had Wifi and many hotels didn’t have any kind of internet capabilities at all.

So not only was it more difficult to move content between computers, this was also before it was common for just about everyone in an organization to have a laptop with them at the meeting venue. If you got the BSoD, you couldn’t just grab someone’s machine and throw the presentation on it, or run it right from a USB drive, or download it from the corporate servers, etc.

Remember, and be grateful, as you’re planning for your next life-or-death presentation: you have tremendous advantages that weren’t available just a few years ago.

Just make sure you take advantage of them.

Bookmarked: 10 Things I taught my interns (The Hopkinson Report)

10 Things I taught my interns (The Hopkinson Report) – “If you’re doing a presentation, something will go wrong. … Even with modern advances, getting everything to work right is still very difficult. Every laptop has a different set of key commands to change from the laptop screen to the overhead monitor. There’s never the right dongle to connect to a projector. The speakers are always too loud or non-existent. The internet connection doesn’t work or is too slow. I once did a presentation in front of 250 people involving a laptop hooked to a miniature camera on a tripod that was focusing on the beta version of live features on a prototype cell phone being held in vice grips. I was there an hour ahead of time, and checked everything over 5 times, and believe it or not, I was good to go. That was, of course, until 5 minutes before I went on, when the setup went dead. The unknown cause? The lamp on the projector overheated. … How can you overcome a nightmare presentation? Preparation and alternatives.” [Follows up with good suggestions]

Bookmarked: Conference nightmares. The many faces of scientific presentations (LabLit.com)

Conference nightmares. The many faces of scientific presentations (LabLit.com) – “Prof “Defeated by technology” provides good entertainment. … I remember well giving a talk at the Hammersmith Hospital in the early days of PowerPoint when, after loading the talk onto their computer, a message came up on the screen saying your talk is being modified by the MRC system. All my demure bullet point diamonds were changed to cheeky TV screens, thereby sweeping aside any gravitas I might have had. My favourite technology nightmare, however, comes from pre-PowerPoint days, back when slides were being used in a carousel projector. One presenter could not get the carousel to work and she was told to turn the carousel over and look underneath. She did this but forgot there was no lid on the carousel. She spent the next ten minutes reassembling her talk from the random pile of slides on the floor while the audience shuffled nervously and some escaped to the bar.”

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.”

Bookmarked: My Apologies – Worst Presentation Ever – Elumenotion Blog

My Apologies – Worst Presentation Ever – Elumenotion Blog – “I just got done with a Live Learning Web cast for AppDev on User Profiles and My Sites and it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly have been worse. … Thoroughly flustered and ashamed I managed to limp through the rest of the presentation on a machine with left over vestiges of a previous presentation with only one minor, but strange, security issue.” [Illustrates some of the problems you can have while demonstrating software via webcast. Includes a useful post-mortem.]

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.

Check your spellling…

if you can read the picture you'll see a pretty awesome spell... on TwitpicA tad more embarrassing than your run-of-the-mill error and spell check never would have picked it up (you’ll need to click on the thumbnail to see the larger original on Twitpic — click on “View full size” once you get there).

PowerPoint Design in 2009:

wonder…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”

What we wish Santa had left under the tree...

santaYeah, 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.

Your turn:

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?

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?