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Burning down the house…

Backstage at BackstageJobs.com has been focusing on a hot topic recently…

Twenty-two years, multiple theatre fires: Fire 1

…so far in my career, I have been present at several theatre fires, and even extinguished one of them.  This series will discuss each fire, and what was done wrong, or right.

Staff were still waiting on the fire department when the show was scheduled to start.  No alarm was pulled when the fire was discovered.  A member of the staff went onstage to make an announcement, but at first only said that the show was holding due to technical difficulties.  However, at this moment, the sirens of the fire trucks could be heard as they pulled up.  The staff member then said that they did have a small fire in the bathroom, but the fire department was taking care of it.

Don’t depend on your patrons or ushers to know what to do during a fire alarm

The Dodge Theatre (now the Comerica Theatre) in Phoenix, AZ had its fire alarm activated in July of 2008. What should have resulted was a full evacuation of patrons from the building. Instead, few patrons exited, none were told to evacuate, and those that exited were asked to return, with the alarms still going off.

It doesn’t matter if you think it is a false alarm, and it doesn’t matter if it is a false alarm: get those people out the door (heck, use it as an opportunity to test your evacuation procedures). Don’t assume they will move on their own. As this video clearly shows (and I have personally witnessed on another occasion) a mass of people will hesitate and wait for specific instructions, especially if no threat is visible.  In this case, theatre staff failed to protect their audience.

I really like the idea of thinking of a false alarm as a chance to test evacuation procedures rather than just a inconvenient waste of time. If you’re not in your own home venue, make a point of knowing where everyone needs to go in case the alarm goes off. Especially if it’s likely that you’ll be at the mic or otherwise in a position to get people moving in the right direction.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (10/31/10)

Fearless Delivery (Lily Iatridis) — Top Ten True Presentation Mishaps

#2- Vehicle in parking lot just outside the building catches fire and burns to a crisp. The room where I was giving my presentation had large windows just a few yards from the burning vehicle, so we were all mesmerized.  Not only that, but the heavy fumes from the burning rubber made us evacuate the room, so my presentation had to be rescheduled.  What took the fire department so long?

Public Words (Nick Morgan) — What to do when a speech goes horribly wrong – 5 tips

I once had to give a speech at a Harvard Business School event in one of its very high-tech auditoriums.  The speeches were back-to-back that day, and so I had to break my rule of always rehearsing in the room beforehand.  The A/V person was nowhere to be found.  So naturally the sound didn’t work on the videos I wanted to play.  I enlisted the help of a couple of really smart biz school students and the audience as a whole waited patiently with me as they tried to figure out what was wrong.

Even the Gecko has technical difficulties

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

Bookmarked: Jackman – Can You Hear Us Now? (TMZ.com)

Jackman – Can You Hear Us Now? (TMZ.com) – “Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig were trying to perform their play “A Steady Rain” Wednesday night in NYC — but some nitwit forgot to turn off his mobile phone. Jackman set the dude straight — staying in character all the while. Minutes later, the ring tone echoed through the theater again and Craig’s response was Tony-worthy. Neither actor seemed shaken or stirred.”

[Great example of keeping focused. It’s much harder to stay on track like that in smaller venues, say a conference room.]

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.

Friday Freebie: “My bosses were frozen in shock”

A recent comment on a Reddit posting:

At my company, we had some guy from another come in to go over some things with the bosses and a few key people. After his presentation, they turned off the projector, and he whipped out a dry-erase marker and started writing notes on the white board for everyone while my bosses were frozen in shock. When one of them could finally speak again, he let the man know he was drawing on our rather expensive projection screen.

The same thread also had a solution to the problem:

You can erase “permanent” marker ink by first coloring over it with ink from a washable marker. The two are essentially the same, but the latter has an extra solvent that makes it possible to remove.

I wish you hadn't said that...

Examples of what you might call “unintentional foreshadowing”:

  • plugWe don’t need to tape down that extension cord, no one’s going to be going over there.
  • It’s a brand new projector, why should we spend that much money on a backup bulb.
  • They had a pipe burst the last time we did a meeting there. There’s no way anything like that can happen again.
  • Don’t worry, this guy is really good, he doesn’t need rehearsal.
  • Of course she’s using the slide template you sent.
  • Does Sharpie make a dry erase marker?
  • Just leave it there, no one is going to mess with it.
  • I’m sure it’s safe to use indoors.
  • Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that…

Phrases like these can create a sense of foreboding and doom for anyones who has been in the business for a while. Have you ever said, or been within earshot of someone else saying, something that turned out to more than a little unfortunate?

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 Weekly Might Have Missed List (12/14/08)

fail owned pwned pictures

Backstage at BackstageJobs.com: Props are important. Screw them up, and someone could die — “An actor at the Vienna National Theatre slit his own throat in front of a packed house when the fake prop knife he was supposed to have was accidentally switched for a real knife.”

Face2face: Teleprompter problems — “I know the new coolio teleprompters that are clear and posed on either side of the speaker are all the rage these days, but at IAEE’s opening session last night I felt kind of bad for the speakers, most of whom looked like they were trying to keep up with a tennis match, their heads sproinging wildly from side to side.”

Pivotal Public Speaking: Video – Guy Kawasaki – The Art of the Start — “How would you have handled the time problem?”

Overnight Sensation: 10 Reasons Why Someone Might Walk Out of Your Presentation — “It’s every speaker’s nightmare: you’re delivering a speech and someone (or more than one person) gets up and walks out.”

My Toastmasters Blog: Public Speaking Trap – Worrying About Bombing — “If you are speaking to groups of people, at some point you are going to bomb. No matter how good you are, sometimes there are situations out of your control that are going to cause you to mess up, not connect, and lose your audience’s attention.”

Payal: Overcome presentation gaffes with panache — “A gaffe is only as bad as you make it to be. The first step is to accept the fact that things can and will go awry – the computer may hang up, the microphone may disconnect or you may become paralysed with fear. Reconciling with this reality and thinking on your feet will stand you in good stead for setting things right again.”

Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint Blog: The danger of gradient fills — “What this presenter did was to fill every shape with a gradient fill that moved from black at the top to white in the middle and back to black at the bottom. Then he put text in the shape. Of course it was impossible to select a text color that had enough contrast with both the black and the white background, so most of the text was almost impossible to see.”

Slide that stick: Preserving custom fonts when presenting away from your own computer — “One problem, custom fonts are a disaster when used on a machine that is not yours. And you discover it when you click through slide 2 of your presentation in front of  a live audience…”

Linda Seid Frembes: Making the case for compelling content — “Yes, the projector could have been brighter, the screen larger, and the audio system more powerful, but his presentation would have been just as compelling if we had suffered a power outage and he needed to present with just a handful of postcards and a flashlight. Why?”

PowerPoint Ninja: Content Staging: Propel Your Slide Content Higher — “When you’re presenting your slide content, the last thing you want to do is overwhelm your audience with too much information on any one slide.”

Execupundit.com: Imagining Disaster — “Some executives and groups have serious difficulty imagining how things can go wrong. They rose, in many cases, by accentuating the positive and by having ‘can do’ attitudes. Caution can be too easily dismissed as fearfulness. What is later regarded as reckless was once disguised as bravery.”

The Technium: Movage — “Digital continuity is a real problem. Digital information is very easy to copy within short periods of time, but very difficult to copy over long periods of time. That is, it is very easy to make lots of copies now, but very difficult to get the data to copy over a century.”

Turkey Days

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


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?