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Basic Questions Too Often Unasked

(Thanks to Michael Wade for providing the inspiration for this post.)

1) Who will bring the projector?

2) What if the flight is delayed that morning?

3) Where is the presentation backed up to?

4) Are any of the presenters using a Mac?

5) Is that 9 o’clock Eastern or Central time?

6) Are there any protests anticipated at our meeting? In the vicinity of the meeting venue?

7) What time is the hotel going to have the meeting room ready?

8) What if we can’t get online at the meeting venue?

You can’t present…

if you can’t get to the venue.

USA Today: Lost your travel documents? How to avoid being grounded.

Elevator pitch?

Here’s a good example of Principle #2: Any rational response to “What’s the worse that can happen?” is most likely wrong.

I was meeting my prospective client on the 37th floor. The elevator was crowded, but by the time we got close to my floor, I was the last person on. I had a weird feeling. Then the lights went out and the thing started dropping. The elevator stopped after it went down about 10 floors, and the doors opened and I got out.

People were milling around and I was told there was a malfunction. No kidding. Apparently, a fire alarm was triggered, and that was supposed to send the elevators down at a slow pace. This one just happened to drop more quickly.

I got back on the elevator, believe it or not, and went to my appointment to make my presentation. I didn’t tell the prospective client what happened, but he could tell something was wrong. I eventually did get his business. (Full story on NY Times)

Hat tip to Denise Graveline of The Eloquent Woman

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.

Turkey Days

Do you expect to be attending any important business meetings in the United States this coming Thursday or Friday?

©iStockphoto.com/Suzifoo

I didn’t think so. It’s safe to say a that large percentage of my readers are expecting to spend this Thursday (Thanksgiving) through Sunday eating, drinking, shopping and hanging out with family and friends.

However, say you had absolutely no choice but to hold a meeting this Friday due to extremely desperate circumstances. Perhaps there is emergent fallout from a worldwide economic crisis that has to be dealt with immediately. Unfortunately, this situation isn’t as unusual as it once was.

Needless to say, it’s not out of the question that a meeting could take place over the Thanksgiving holiday. BUT, you can be absolutely certain that an experienced meeting planner will take the date into account and will make special plans to ensure things go smoothly. For instance, chartered flights might be used rather than commercial airlines. Special arrangements might need to be made for accommodations due to all local hotels being booked solid. Arrangements that would ordinarily be considered routine and low risk might need to have several levels of backup just to be certain everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there.

What about other dates that are equally disruptive but aren’t as well know as Thanksgiving? For instance local holidays or events.

I was once involved with preparing a presentation for a major meeting mandated by a federal agency that just happened to be slated to take place in early Spring in Washington, DC. Imagine our surprise when we discover that it was virtually impossible to find enough hotel rooms for our entire team. It turns out our meeting was taking place right in the middle of a little local event know as the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

“More than 700,000 people visit Washington each year to admire the blossoming cherry trees that herald the beginning of spring in the nation’s capital.”

We ended up staying in the far suburbs at a non-preferred hotel and had to make special arrangements to be sure we all got to the actual venue on time for the meeting. If I remember correctly, these arrangements included a very early morning departure and a massively unpopular boxed breakfast on the bus. Overall the meeting was a success but I can’t say for sure that we arrived primed to reach peak performance levels.

We saw the cherry blossoms through the bus windows on the way into and out of town and, believe it or not, we found them less than charming.

Just to be on the safe side, if you are planning a big meeting or giving a high-stakes presentation, check well in advance to see if there are any local “turkey days” that might have an impact on you calendar decisions, travel arrangements or the way you prepare to present. This is especially important if you will be depending on local resources to help create presentation materials or if you need a lot of hotel rooms.

Hope you all have a great holiday. I’ll be back on Sunday with this week’s Might Have Missed List. The only venue-related planning I’m going to be doing this week is figuring out how to claim the comfiest chair in my sister’s living room after doing serious damage to a turkey day dinner.

Related resource:

HotelChatter — Stranded at the Airport Over Thanksgiving? Check-In At These Hotels

Your turn:

Are there any local events or holidays where you are located that might have an negative impact on a meeting or on someone’s ability to present that aren’t well know outside of the immeadiate area? Have you ever fell victim to one of these local events or holidays? Have you ever seen the cherry blossoms in DC?

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?

Seven small steps down the path leading to presentation doom

1) You weren’t particularly careful about your pre-presentation meal choices. Washing down the street vendor’s Khlav Kalash with Crab Juice might not have been the best idea you’ve had recently.

2) Your time is too valuable to fly in the night before your presentation. “Leaving early in the morning will be fine. Two hours is plenty of time to get from the airport to the hotel.”

3) “I’m too tired to figure out the alarm clock. I’ll just call down to the front desk for a wake up call.”

4) “I burned my presentation to a CD, I’ll just hand it off to the AV guys as I head for the stage. Yeah, I use (pick one):

  • a Mac.
  • unusual fonts.
  • something other than PowerPoint.

Why would that be a problem?”

5) “Backup copies? If I lose the CD, the office can always email me a copy of the file. There will be plenty of time and all the hotels have good wireless internet access now.”

©iStockphoto.com/TommL

©iStockphoto.com/TommL

6) “I’m flying out right after the meeting so I only need one change of clothes. I like to travel light and what’s the worst that can happen?

7) “I’m sure the hotel will give us exactly the AV equipment we asked for. Of course it will work perfectly.”

But I can't find a Pepsi anywhere...

Flying into Atlanta Tuesday brought it all back. It’s been a long, long time since I traveled anywhere other than North Jersey or Montgomery County, Maryland while on the job. In a previous professional life, I worked these these huge sales training meetings that required flying a team of ten or twenty people into places slightly more glamorous. Places people might consider giving a body part to go to.

As much as I miss the venues, I miss the camaraderie more. AV and graphic techs, meeting planners, project managers, manager-managers, trainer-trainers. We were like an invading army, piling off planes and into vans, setting up camp in the on-site office and taking over the meeting rooms, unpacking box after box of supplies, subduing vast expanses of carpeted, air conditioned ballroom territory and making it serve our purposes. Putting in killer hours and putting out countless fires.

What I don’t miss are the things we needed to do back then to make sure everything went well. Things that technology has since made unnecessary.

©iStockphoto.com/ohdub

©iStockphoto.com/ohdub

For instance, we were still using 35mm slides. They needed to be in fragile glass mounts (plastic mounts tend to warp and jam the projector) and hand numbered with a sharpie. There was no putting a quick backup copy of your slide files on a thumb drive and tossing it into a your bag. You needed to hand-carry two complete sets of slides to the meeting, preferably using different people on different flights.

Why?

All of this was done in observance of the most important of the Ten Commandments of Doing Everything Possible to Avoid Screwing Up a Presentation: If you can’t do without it, make sure you don’t have to.

It’s sort of like this: if you need to have Pepsi, and you’re headed for Atlanta, be sure to bring your own. The hard part is knowing that you’ll need to do so.

Your Turn:

Technology might have made it unnecessary to do things like carrying two brick-like sets of 35mm slides to every meeting but unfortunately, it has made other, new precautions necessary. Which of these new, technology-driven precautions are driving you absolutely crazy. You can use the comment area to vent about it if you need to.

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