Murphy's Law states: "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." This is especially true and especially painful when there is an audience involved.

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This blog was active from April, 2008 to July 2012.
It is no longer being updated but will continue to be maintained for reference purposes.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (09/05/10)

Ellen Finkelstein — Outstanding Presentations Workshop

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Phil Presents — Presentation Pitfalls #7: Slide synch (or lack of)

While the speaker was fiddling with his envelope, someone else advanced the slides too quickly, and revealed the winner’s name to all but the speaker before the envelope had even been opened. Doh! Not only did this make the speaker look silly, it made everyone think less of the organization of the event, both for the Powerpoint slip-up and for even using ceremonial envelopes when the winners were already on the slides.

Webinar Crusher — What If I Screw Up A Live Webinar And How Do I Recover?

If you think that your first webinar is going to run perfectly, you’re wrong. If you think that your first 20 webinars are going to run without any problems, you’re also wrong. Things are going to happen. Maybe your Internet connection will die or Go To Webinar will not display your screen correctly. Maybe your PowerPoint won’t show up or you will lose your PowerPoint. You might be all ready to demonstrate a site for your viewers only to find out that the site is down for maintenance.

Instead of crossing your fingers, hoping nothing will ever go wrong, no, that things will go wrong. When these things do go wrong, what do you do? Always have some kind of a backup plan.

No Sweat Presentations! — When You Speak, Don’t Jingle or Deliver Other Distractions!

Other personal distractions could have to do with your appearance

  • A stained shirt or jacket
  • Food on your face or in your teeth (I’m not kidding.)
  • Too flashy jewelry that sparkles too much.
  • Outrageous clothing that ’sends its own message’

There are some preventative measures that can be taken to avoid delivering distractions.

  • Empty your pockets before speaking.  No coins or keys = No Jingle!
  • Have a friend in the audience quietly ’signal’ you if you start swaying or rocking.
  • Put a Post Note on the lectern or on top of your notes or mind map with a reminder
  • Get a good night’s sleep the night before a presentation.
  • Practice – Practice – Practice
    • In front of a mirror.
    • In front of friends and family.
    • In front of a camera.
  • Look in a full length mirror before coming to the lectern.
    • Check:
      • Clothing – zippers, buttons, for lint & hair
      • Self – hair, face

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.

Moore Speakers: Trilogy of Terror

moorespeakersThe Moore Speakers blog has been on a roll lately, posting three great stories that would cause anyone involved in the presentations biz  to wince in sympathy.

I leaned to the side and caught the falling pants with my elbow. And that is the way I remained during the rest of the talk: one hand holding the microphone and the other arm holding up my pants.

*  *  *

I once plugged a fellow presenter’s flash drive into my laptop, while it was connected and projecting on the screen (with folks milling around in the room) and the guy had a bunch of porn on it, which my adobe image indexer program immediately began indexing. Yes, the photos where showing up as thumbnails (very visible ones) on the projection screen behind us.

*  *  *

Once I was inside the building, I looked down to sign in at the lobby security desk and I saw in my reflection that my shirt underneath my blazer is gone and my bra and the girls are just hanging out there. Apparently, the weight of the computer bag I was holding had ripped the straps of my shirt and pulled it down around my butt.

Thanks for the heads up Lisa.

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.”

The world’s worst wet T-shirt contest

Laura Bergells has been active in internet marketing since before most people realized that marketing on the internet was possible. She’s given many presentations and has witnessed many more. Her highly-regarded blog, More than PowerPoint… has been going strong for five years now. She also happens to be a really terrific storyteller and was kind enough to share the following beverage meets business nightmare:

Years ago, my boss nervously entrusted me to give an important presentation. My boss was nervous for two reasons:

1) I would be presenting our project for final approval to the ultimate decision maker — the VP of Investor Relations at our company’s our largest client.

2) I have a flamboyant style and goofy sense of humor.

Now, I hadn’t yet met the VP, but knew her by reputation. She is impeccably poised and polished – a highly sophisticated intellectual.

Of course, I know there’s a time and place for goofy humor — and this wasn’t it. Nonetheless, my anxious boss saw fit to lecture me:

“She doesn’t suffer fools, Laura. So reign in your personality. Dial it down. This is our only chance, so don’t blow it.”

Armed with that oh-so special warning, how could anything go wrong? Jinxed, I tell you!

I drive 2 hours for the meeting. When I arrive, our client is on the phone & tells me she’ll be with me in five. I walk down a narrow hall to find a washroom to refresh myself.

As I do, a man with 2 steaming coffees in his hands walks briskly towards me. However, his head is turned over his shoulder and he’s yelling to someone far behind him.

Twelve ounces of scalding coffee hits the front of my white blouse. I howl in pain and run to the washroom as the man tries to initiate a conversation about how sorry he is.

I could care less about how sorry he is. I have bigger issues — burning skin, ruined shirt, no change of clothes, miles from home, an important presentation to deliver in 5 minutes, a nervous boss, and a VP who doesn’t like fools.

With all of my problems spinning in my head, I spend 5 minutes in the washroom failing to repair the damage to my skin and blouse. I come out looking like a try-out for the world’s worst wet T-shirt contest.

Taking a breath, I march into the VP’s office. I grin idiotically through the pain and cheerfully announce,

“Well, I’m back!”

Her mouth drops. She asks what the hell happened. When I explain, she is filled with nothing but pity for me. She even offers to loan me one of her shirts (She’s 5 foot-nothing, I’m 6-foot-one. I thank her, but explain that it probably wouldn’t work out.)

I go on to give the presentation, looking like a hot, disheveled tramp instead of a polished professional.

I made the sale.

Pity sale! But I deserved it!

And more importantly, the woman and I are still friends to this day.

Turns out that yes, she’s a polished, sophisticated intellectual — but she’s human, too. People tolerate mistakes better than our frazzled imaginations let us believe.

But since then, I’ve learned to ALWAYS travel with a change of clothes…just in case!

Since I’m more involved with the AV-slash-stage-crew type stuff, I tend to focus making sure the presentation files and the equipment is backed up in case something happens. Have to admit I haven’t given much thought to backing up wardrobe. But if my presenters are operating in an environment where there’s no such thing as a “pity sale” I guess I need start thinking about it. Having a wardrobe malfunction of any kind can seriously throw the confidence and perceived credibility of even the most experienced speaker.

Thanks again, Laura, for being brave enough to share this story with us. I’d like to remind the other readers of this site that they are welcomed and encouraged to submit any stories or anecdotes they have relating to presentation disaster or presentation disaster narrowly averted. You can be fully credited or remain safely anonymous, whichever you prefer. Come on folks, we all know you want to tell somebody what happened. Just click on the “Contact” tab above to get in touch.

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.