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Presentation Mishaps A to Z: B is for Bait

Brody: You’re gonna need a bigger boat.
~Jaws (1975)

Sometimes I find it entertaining to think of presentation mishaps as sharks sliding silently, heavily, somewhere beneath a perfectly calm ocean. You may not see  fins break the surface but you know they’re out there somewhere and you are doing everything you can to not give them a reason to swim over and remove any body parts that you use on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, from time to time, we have all worked with a person who might best be thought of as mishap bait.

You’re busy taking every possible precaution to keep the mishap sharks from attacking and this person seems determined to fling bucket after slimy bucket of chum off the back of the boat. Not only do they tend to indulge an unfortunate predilection for swimming out to that really spooky buoy in the middle of the night, they also splash around like a wounded tuna while doing so.

In less metaphoric terms, they are the person that everything bad seems to happen to. They tempt fate. They are disaster baiters.

You might be tempted to put someone like this off the boat onto their own little rubber dinghy where they can dangle their feet in the water to their heart’s content. The sharks will most likely follow them. That might be good for you but it will most likely be bad for them and you’ll be a crew member short.

What’s the best way you’ve found for dealing with the dreaded disaster baiter? Do you throw them overboard or do you force them to watch Shark Week reruns until they get it?

If you only read one thing this week...

make sure it’s “The Last One Percent that Kills You” by Dan Pallotta. A huge percentage of the all the presentation mishaps and disasters written about on this blog in the last three years could have been avoided by adhearance to the principles it outlines.

They assured us that they had a flat screen TV that would accommodate the slide show. I arrived an hour before the party to set up. Sure enough, the TV was there, but the input jacks were inaccessible. They were on the back of the TV, and it was bolted to the wall. I wasn’t until the party was nearly over that we learned that we could access the input jacks through an outlet in the floor.

For example, I’ve seen more charity events than I can count at which expensive banners get produced but no one has thought about the last step — how they’re going to be rigged. People think they’ll figure it out when they get there. But 40 mile-an-hour winds require a little more thought than that. The work of a branding company, a graphic design firm, and a banner production company are all thwarted because the banner can’t be hung.

We could chock it all up to the fact that accidents happen, but I think that does a disservice to accidents. The last 1% gets overlooked because of a lack of rigor in communication. We play fast and loose with language. Here are a few things we can do to prevent our efforts from being upended:

  • Beware the tacit agreement. If someone says something that doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t politely nod, pretend that you understand, and let it go. If you don’t understand what they’re talking about, there’s a damned good chance they don’t either. We’ve all experienced a thousand conversations in which neither of us understood what was just said, but we both just let it go and implicitly hope for the best. Don’t be reticent. Speak up.

He continues with five more suggestions that are even more useful (Develop a Pavlovian reaction to the words “I think”, Have multiple conversations about the same thing, Fill in the blanks, Speak like an air-traffic controller, Visualize disaster).

I can’t say enough about this article. It should be taped to every cubical and office wall in the world.

Things to Think About #2: Warped Signage

The box Kinkos shipped directly to the venue in Orlando just made it to the hotel in time. Good thing that. No one would know how to get from the elevators to the breakfast buffet without directional signage. You pop it open and slide the signs out of the plastic bag. Looking good, plenty big, tastefully designed, mounted on nice heavy foamcore, easel-ready. You lock up and head to the lobby bar for a quick drink before crashing,  feeling confident that everything will be good to go in the morning.

You descend bright and early and begin making sure the speaker ready room is set up, etc, etc. Time to put out those wonderful signs…

Which are now really badly warped!

The short ends stick up in the air three or four inches. In a panic you start pushing down on the ends but it begins to feel like the foamcore is about to crack in the middle. Not good. They are so bent they fall forward right off the easels. You’re doomed.

Depending on the particular circumstances, it’s very possible that shipping mounted signage into a warmer, more humid climate can cause it to warp and bend to the point it becomes useless. It has something to do with differences in the way the foamcore and the paper the signage was printed on before it was mounted to the foamcore react to the weather.

If you can, try to get your signs shipped down and opened to the air early enough to see if warping is going to be a problem. You can carefully weigh then down as they acclimate to the being in the tropics. I’ve been told the best bet is to carefully and preemptively slide the signs under your mattress overnight.

Just watch out for bedbugs.

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

Tag Team

All the recent hubbub surrounding the possible demise of the Delicious social bookmarking service inspired me to get serious and consolidate/organize several years worth of bookmarks scattered across all over the place. The biggest payoff is that I’m discovering a bunch of stuff I never got around to posting. Here’s an oldie but a goody that illustrates an interesting way to deal with a no-show speaker or any other sudden, unexpected lack of content.

The room was already filling up, and the other session slotted that morning wasn’t nearly as popular – virtually everyone was attending that session. The speaker wasn’t going to be able to give the presentation – no problem, I thought, and I told Jennifer to go and get the slides from the sick speaker, and I would volunteer to give the presentation. Now at this time I was still strictly a Notes client developer, and I had done very little Domino development at all. Jennifer contacted the speaker to get the slides, and that’s when the hammer fell – he didn’t have a slide deck for the presentation. Nothing.

Oh crap.

You can read the whole story here.

Lost in translation

Recently seen on Clients from Hell:

During the presentation I kept getting distracted because the partner who didn’t know English would type into a little machine that looked like a labelmaker, then he’d look up,  puzzled, and type again on the machine.

Halfway through the presentation it dawned on me that he was typing the filler into an English to Spanish translation device, and couldn’t get “Lorem ipsum dolor” to translate.  I lost it halfway through the presentation.  Luckily, they had a sense of humor.

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 (09/19/10)

associationTECH — Tech the Mic…Tech 1…Tech 2…Tech Tech Tech

It seems absurd the amount of preparation that goes into a session only to have the session falter at the end because of an AV situation that could easily have been avoided. A great example is a session I went to about using video for associations. Great information and examples were shared there, but the first presenter kept struggling with a slow connection whenever she wanted to play a video. The first couple of times I felt sorry for her, but after that I grew annoyed. Why didn’t she have a backup plan for something as finicky as video? Why didn’t she have some videos stored directly on her laptop, so she didn’t have to rely on the internet? Had she checked her connection and the buffering time before the presentation?

Life in the Corporate Theater — Let the Games Begin (Dispatch from Moscow)

We immediately decided to have the AV Vendor show us all of the equipment so that we wouldn’t have any surprises as 7:00 pm.

To start off, we requested a 16 channel mixer, with a minimum of 10 XLR inputs. They provided a 12 channel mixer with 8 XLR Inputs. We requested a minimum of 4 channels of graphic equalizers, and they provided 1 channel. We asked about the wireless microphones, and fortunately, the 5 microphones we requested were there, all thrown kinda loosely in a case. They informed us that they had  “Madonna” mics and we asked if they had regular Lavalier mics. They said they did, but that the “Madonna” mics worked much better. We told them that we understood that, but that the presenters would never wear a Madonna style headset mic. It turns out that the Lav mics are omni directional, and I am going to have to struggle against feed back for sure.

Next they showed us the video switcher, and while it was a lot closer to being right than the DJ Mixer that they gave us in St Petersburg, it was only a two channel input switcher and we need four channels.

We asked about cables for everything and while they may have brought enough for what they thought we would need, it was clear that they underestimated what we really needed and we had to make a quick inventory on paper of what we wanted.

ReadyTalk — Conference Blunder Contest (The blunder with the most votes winds two round trip airline tickets)

We had just released our the 3.0 version of our product and had a showcase webinar. It was our largest webinar ever with 1023 people on the line. After telling everyone we would begin in just a couple minutes our CTO left his office for some water and locked himself out. He tried looking for a key and attempted to jimmy the door open, but no good. So in his best Starsky and Hutch impersonation he body slammed the door to break it down. We moved to bigger offices a month ago and that door cost us $800 to replace!

Presentation Mishaps A to Z: A is for Anger

Of all the possible responses to an emergent presentation disaster, I think it’s safe to say anger is the most foolish. Yeah, I know, this isn’t a particularly fresh observation —

Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, For anger resides in the bosom of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

— but it does bear repeating.

Given a choice between working with someone likely to curl up into a quivering fetal ball when things are going wrong  and working with someone prone to venting their anger in the same situation, I think I would go with the fetal ball rather than the venter. A fetal ball can be guided to a quiet corner somewhere to whimper quietly while everyone else sorts things out.  The anger of your basic hothead tends to spread and escalate in a reflexive feedback loop that has the potential to drag most of your team into dealing with the emotion (including fight and flight responses) rather than working the problem.

The way to deal with feedback loops is to, wait for it, break the loop. Reduce the amplification by responding quietly to the hothead’s outburst (see “The Valium Bubble“). Absorb, don’t reflect. Sometimes the simplest way to deal with audio feedback is to turn the speakers slightly away from the microphone. Sometimes you just need to simply turn away from someones anger in order and avoid sending it right back.

At least until the crisis has passed.

(Disclaimer: This post should not be read as criticism of a tightly controlled tactical anger used on rare occasions to guide and inspire team performance. I am taking to task the uncontrolled, unthinking anger generated by anxiety arising from unexpected, negative events that could lead to a presentation’s failure.)

One last thought (it’s not my thought, but I can’t remember where I heard this): All anger is actually fear, and all fear is fear of loss. Figuring out,  in the most specific way possible, what the angry person is afraid of losing can often put you in a great position to alleviate the fear and to perhaps find the leverage necessary to dial down the anger.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (09/12/10)

Steve LaRose — Heading to Moscow

The Russian AV Vendor hasn’t given us any level of confidence as of yet, so we all board our planes today with a bit of a feeling of impending doom.

Michael Wade — A Presentations Lesson Reaffirmed

Each participant was to receive a workbook containing some exercises. I had carefully proof-read the material. The person at the training broker had proofed it. The material was then sent off to a print shop. It was at that point when things became interesting.

Despite the pdf format, quite a few pages had been messed up in the electronic transmission. As a result, I learned a couple of hours before the presentation that the workbooks had flaws.

Many flaws.

Lisa Braithwaite — Five things speakers can learn from event planners

4. Be flexible.

“Stuff” happens. Event planners are experts at working around setbacks and figuring out solutions when things don’t go as planned. They don’t panic, they just get busy.

As a speaker, if you have not yet experienced one of these setbacks, it’s only a matter of time before you do. Your technology will fail. Your room will be next to a loud construction site. The speaker before you will go long and your presentation will be cut by fifteen minutes. The trick is to keep going. Sometimes your audience will know there’s a problem, but most of the time, you will be the only one. Keep it to yourself, fix it as quickly and quietly as possible, and move on.

At some point, after all the planning and preparation, you have to let go and accept that whatever happens, happens!

Tod Maffin — Ten Things I Wish I Knew When I Started as a Professional Speaker

Backup, Backup, Backup!

This goes without saying, but it surprises me how few speakers have redundant backups. Just last month, I was keynoting a conference and had to go on stage early because the presenter before me couldn’t boot her computer and she had no accessible backup.

Here are the backup methods I use and recommend:

  • Turn on auto-backups in your presentation software, that way you always have two copies of your slides; in case your computer crashes while saving it, you’ll always have the most recent uncorrupted version.
  • Sign up to Backblaze — it’ll back up everything on your hard disk automatically without you prompting it. It’s only $5 a month. Backblaze is the only system like this I found which can restore a Mac file to a PC and vice versa, if that’s important to you.
  • Before leaving, upload the slides to Dropbox.com or something similar.
  • Finally, if you’re on a Mac, tell Keynote to also save an additional copy as a PowerPoint presentation and upload that to Dropbox.com too.

But backups aren’t just for files — I carry my own backup wireless mic, fresh batteries, and a separate cheap GSM cell phone, so that in the event mine craps out I just have to pop my SIM card into the new phone and I’m back in business again.