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.



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It is no longer being updated.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

Suffering from iPad butter fingers?

As more and more  presenters begin to think of  their iPad as an essential  tool, it becomes equally essential to find ways to use it without dropping and destroying it mid-presentation. Grabbit seems like it could go a long way towards curing a bad case of the on-stage whoopsies. (HT to Conference Basics)

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

Ellen Finkelstein — Outstanding Presentations Workshop

Learn from the Top Presentation Experts in the World!
Free 8-week webinar series!

Would you like to ask questions and get answers from top presentation, PowerPoint, and speaking experts?

Join my new Outstanding Presentations Workshop webinars, for free! Learn how to eliminate Death by PowerPoint and make your presentations come to life as you listen to guest experts share their best techniques and answer your questions!

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

Oh no, not again!

I hardly ever get a chance to quote Hitchhiker’s Guide, so whenever and opportunity presents itself, I take it (no matter how tangential it may seem):

bowlofpetuniasThe Book: It is important to note that suddenly, and against all probability, a Sperm Whale had been called into existence, several miles above the surface of an alien planet and since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity. This is what it thought, as it fell:

The Whale: Ahhh! Woooh! What’s happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? Okay okay, calm down calm down get a grip now. Ooh, this is an interesting sensation. What is it? Its a sort of tingling in my… well I suppose I better start finding names for things. Lets call it a… tail! Yeah! Tail! And hey, what’s this roaring sound, whooshing past what I’m suddenly gonna call my head? Wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do. Yeah, this is really exciting. I’m dizzy with anticipation! Or is it the wind? There’s an awful lot of that now isn’t it? And what’s this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like ‘Ow’, ‘Ownge’, ‘Round’, ‘Ground’! That’s it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it’ll be friends with me? Hello Ground!

The Book: Curiously the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias, as it fell, was, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly *why* the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.

“Oh no, not again.”

It’s bad enough crash and burn once, it’s even worse if you let the same exact thing happen all over again. Let’s face it, the problems you’ve already had should be the easiest to avoid. You know, “fool me once…” and all that.

You never, ever want the presenter to be standing at the lectern thinking, “Oh no, not again.”

One of the best ways I’ve found to avoid this situation is to be rigorous about holding a postmortem after each and every presentation (if you prefer a less pejorative term, call it a “debrief”). Autopsy the experience. Carefully pull it apart. Cut deep and really find out what went wrong.

Some random thoughts and suggestions:

  • You should do the postmortem as soon as you’re back in the office but better late than never.
  • Formalize the process. Everybody on your team should come to expect the postmortem meeting to be on their calendar the day every one is back. Better yet, schedule it before the trip. Always allow time for open discussion, but also be sure to address a standard set questions every time.
  • Take some time to go through your calendar, files and emails to jog your memory. I find that just reviewing the email generated by a big  project is almost always good for at least three or four things to discuss at the debrief.
  • Depending on the team you are working with and the environment in which you’re working, it might not be a bad idea to have two debrief meetings — one that includes the big cheeses and one that doesn’t. Believe it or not, the presence of a bunch of bosses, though usually required, can sometimes have a chilling effect on the free and open exchange of information.
  • Always have a mechanism that makes it easy to share additional items after the meeting has ended. Sometimes folks prefer to comment anonymously, and sometimes the best stuff doesn’t come to mind until you’re in the car on the way home.
  • Most importantly: make sure someone is taking good notes and that these notes are tidied up and distributed to everyone involved. Take a few minutes to review the notes from the last few debriefs as part of your preparations for a new presentation project.

Teachers that firmly believe in corporal punishment

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.

~Eleanor Roosevelt

eleanorrooseveltPretty 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.

Breaking Murphy's Leg



“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.

Nick Morgan: “How Sarah Palin Should Prepare… and How You Should, Too”



Seriously, I’m not just trying to cash in on VP debate buzz. This would be a terrific article no matter what the specific context. In it, Nick Morgan makes a point that should be one of the Ten Commandments of Doing Everything Possible to Avoid Screwing Up a Presentation:

Second, rehearse under conditions as close to reality as possible. If you can get into the hall, rehearse there. If not, approximate it. The reason is that surprises at the event itself will throw you, and more than 3 surprises will flummox you. And that will show up in your body language. If the lights are brighter, or the sound is more echo-y, or the stage is bigger than you anticipated, that takes mental energy to deal with – mental energy that you won’t be putting into a sparkling performance.

If you’re a presenter, or if you’re responsible in any way for the success of a major presentation, you need to do everything you can to make sure that this policy is put into effect. And the more important the presentation, the more exacting you need to be in the replication of the actual presenting environment. Things like podium/screen placement, confidence monitor size/positioning and they type of remote control used for advancing slide are all good examples of things a speaker needs to feel familiar and comfortable with. It will also be helpful, if you’ll be providing AV support during a presentation, to have a chance to set up and put the actual system that will be used through it’s paces. Believe me, as someone who has been there, the best time to find out you need a longer VGA cable or that the projectors time-out function hasn’t been disabled is in rehearsal, not just before the speaker is about to go on.

Remember: If you rehearse like it’s the real thing, the real thing will seem like a rehearsal.

Think of it as an adventure, as in “The Poseidon Adventure”

[A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of the PresentationXpert email newsletter.]

Many people consider the 1970s the golden age of the big Hollywood disaster movie and it’s fair to say that Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are usually the first films that come to mind whenever this genre is mentioned. But disaster movies never go completely out of style and every year we’re offered new opportunities to consider the ways in which things can go completely and terribly wrong.

What is it about these movies that makes them perennially popular?

It’s obvious that people find them entertaining. Let’s face it, there’s something very compelling about watching a disaster unfold (as long as it isn’t unfolding on or around you). These movies also offer lessons or morals that gratify our desire for karmic retribution (“Well that’s what they get for saying the boat would never sink”). And in most cases, no matter how bad things get, in the end there is some sense of triumph over great adversity or some discovery of a previously unsuspected personal strength that lets everyone leave the theater on a typically Hollywood high note.

What does this have to do with giving or supporting presentations?

I’m willing to bet that every person you know who has been in the business for more than a year or so has their own collection of presentation disaster stories.

And these stories share many of the same characteristics that make disaster movies so popular.

If you get two or more of us together you can be sure that stories are going to be told. Many of my favorite memories of being on site working a big event are from the time spend absorbing stories told by old pros who have been around a long time and been through almost everything.

– – – – –

Although these stories share many of the characteristics that make disaster movies entertaining, they also differ from the movies in some important ways that make them even more useful: Continue reading Think of it as an adventure, as in “The Poseidon Adventure”

PowerPoint (that's right, PowerPoint) to the Rescue

Lisa Lindgren, a fellow member of the InfoComm Presentations Council was kind enough to share a story about how PowerPoint 2007 recently foiled Murphy’s Law. Lisa reminds us of some important best practices and I have an observation or two of my own (surprise, surprise).

We all know that we should test our slides and equipment in the actual setting prior to when the audience arrives and therefore, before it is too late to correct any problems. Sometimes that isn’t practical, but when you do make the extra effort, it can really be worth it.

I recently participated in a conference and was slated as the final speaker at lunch on the second day of the three-day event. The only time that I would be able to test anything in that room, was the day before after a general session. The timing would be tight before I had to be in another session, and I almost decided against forcing the issue. But I had used animations and some of the theme features from PowerPoint 2007, and the computer I would have to use for my presentation was running a different software version. My fear was that something wouldn’t translate correctly and my carefully timed effects wouldn’t work.

Well it turned out that the animations worked just fine. But what I hadn’t anticipated was that the room that would be used for lunch was very bright. I had chosen a dark background, which was striking on my laptop screen, and would have been effective in a dark room. But all that light simply washed out my visuals and you could barely see the photos or read the captions.

Not only was I able to change the background and save my presentation, I have to say that PowerPoint 2007 made this easier than I had ever expected. I simply chose a different theme from those provided in the standard package. Instantaneously the background was light and the text and accent colors reverted to being a contrasting dark color. . .all literally at the click of a key. In fact, the theme I chose subtly reinforced my message in style and I ended up with a stronger visual presentation than I had before.

So the lesson that I learned was that it really, truly is important to check your presentation on the actual computer in the actual room because unexpected things can and will go wrong. And I have a new appreciation for the positive aspects of the new themes in PowerPoint 2007.

PowerPoint has taken so much abuse the last couple years, isn’t it kind of refreshing when someone has something positive to say about it?

I’d like to stress a couple points made in Lisa’s story. First, if you’re going to present, get there early. Lisa put herself in a position to effectively deal with any problems that might have arisen with her presentation, or the venue, by making it a priority to test things out well in advance of the time her presentation was due to start. I understand that not every speaking opportunity is going to give you a chance to check things out an entire day ahead of time, but the more time you have to confirm everything is the way it needs to be (and to recover if it’s not) the better. Remember, if you’re not early, you’re late.

Second, it’s crucial that, like Lisa, you understand all the capabilities of the software you are using. A lot PowerPoint users only take time to learn the bare minimum necessary to do the typical tasks that come up on a day-to-day basis. This is a mistake. You not going to be able to use the PowerPoint function or feature that’s going to save you butt in an emergency situation if you don’t know it’s there. Take a class. Buy a book. At least take an hour or so on a slow Friday afternoon and methodically go through each item on each menu and find out what it does and how it does it. After all, no one thinks much of a carpenter who doesn’t know that a hammer can also be used to remove nails.

Your turn:

What’s your favorite little known PowerPoint function or feature that you love showing to people? Please feel free to share it with us in a comment to this post.

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.

Don't Kick the Bucket

[Warning: Although this post is about eating, it might be best if it wasn’t read while eating.]

What do you and your team do the night before the big show? Do you hold a three-course sit down affair at the meeting venue and invite everybody who had anything at all to do with the project (“Will that be the fish or the fillet, sir?”). Maybe it’s just the speakers or the AV crew going out to the Applebee’s across the street for a quick bite.

However simple or complex it turns out to be, getting a bunch of people together the night before the big meeting isn’t unusual and is generally thought to be a good idea. It provides everyone with a chance to relax a little and celebrate the end of all that hard prep work. It eliminates the time and energy spent when everyone needs to come up with and coordinate their own plans. It can also be a good way to subtly encourage everyone to make it an early night.

But even with all these good reasons to continue the practice, I still sometimes wonder if it actually is a good idea. Why? Two words: Food poisoning.

Do you really want all those people crucial to the team’s success eating the same dishes cooked in the same kitchen just hours before show time? That delicious lobster salad could very easily render you and your team incapable of performing on the big day.

I know this sort of thing is pretty rare, but I still think about it because I’ve seen a small sample of what it might be like.

It was the sound technician, poor guy. He was having some major issues. Something disagreed with him in a really awful way. But you had to give him credit, he was a pro and he knew that the show must go on. He managed to stay in the booth long enough to get things rolling through the introductions and to the first speaker. He then crawled off to the men’s room. He knew the timing of the meeting well enough to crawl back in time to handle each speaker-to-speaker transition. It was an amazing example of getting the job done no matter what it took.

One of the other techs told me that what that guy was going through was actually pretty tame. He had once witnessed, and participated in, something worse.

Much worse.

To be honest, his story had a seriously apocryphal vibe going and, to this day, I’m not sure whether or not I believe it. Imagine, if you will, an entire crew — stage hands, light and sound techs, roadies, riggers, the director, everybody — getting sick from eating at a local restaurant the night before they were due to load in and set up. Now consider the fact that there wasn’t anyone else available who could adequately do what needed to get done. They were all pros and they all knew the show had to go on. A number of buckets were placed as discreetly as possible around the ballroom for use while the stage was built and the equipment was set up. The smell was pretty bad he said. The sounds were worse.

I imagine it to have been something like the infamous Mr. Creosote scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life — only with more people, all of whom were much thinner and much busier. Nobody was offering anyone a wafer thin mint.

[I just picked up an interesting and relevant bit of trivia about that scene from Wikipedia: “At the end of the “Mr. Creosote” scene, after he has exploded and everyone is running amok, an extra on the right side of the screen can be seen vomiting. This was not in the script. The extra became so nauseated from the mess and the stench (which was reportedly very foul) that he actually threw up during the filming.”]

Fortunately, none of the speakers had joined the crew for that fateful dinner, and the crew had some time to recover before the actual meeting so things didn’t go as badly as they could have.

Sharing a meal together can be a good idea, if you pick where and what you eat very carefully. You also want to remember to pack the pepto and the imodium. Like they say, imodium keeps you off the commodium and at the podium.

Related resources:

Search results for “hotel” from the Food Poison Blog.

FDA’s Bad Bug Book — ” This handbook provides basic facts regarding foodborne pathogenic microorganisms and natural toxins.”

Your turn:

Has an unfortunate meal or restaurant choice ever affected your team’s ability to successfully present? Please feel free to respond in a comment to this post.