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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?

Might Have Missed List (02/06/11)

Saturday Night Live — Bachmann’s Second Attempt

(“The presentation you just saw was done on a reduced budget”)

Yahoo! News Network — Bachmann’s response marred by technical problems

But if cable news viewers turned to CNN to take a look at Bachmann’s response, the Minnesota congresswoman wasn’t exactly looking back. Instead, Bachmann faced slightly off to the side throughout.

Scott Berkun — An open letter to conference organizers

But it’s commonly forgotten in your trade, or by your sponsors, that speakers are the center of your event. They are the core of the agenda. They are what you advertise. And it’s what speakers promise to teach that gets people to pay to come. Yet once signed up to speak, they are often an afterthought, neglected behind the other critical tasks organizers have to manage.

There are simple and inexpensive ways to solve this problem.

Joyful Public Speaking — Is your speech ready for takeoff? Are you sure?

Lack of attention to details can cause a speech to crash. Checklists are one good way to avoid catastrophes, like forgetting to bring or do something critical beforehand. Checklists are broader than packing lists that only describe what to bring.

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.

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.

Four Ways Presentation Mishaps Are Like Zombies...

or “Lesson Learned by Watching Shaun of the Dead.”

1) Until the moment they suddenly become mindless, snarling, death-dealing horrors, a zombie (like whatever it was that caused your current presentation mishap) often appears about as threatening as your Mom. A projector with a burned out lamp looks like any other projector. A virus laden thumb drive looks just like a normal, perfectly healthy thumb drive.

2) If you allow yourself to slip into panic mode, the zombie/mishap will either eat you brains or infect you and turn you into a mindless, snarling, death-dealing horror. Stay calm.

3) Zombie/mishaps are a lot easier to deal with one at a time The problem is they tend to travel in packs. And sometimes, dealing with one can attract a whole lot more. Slow and stupid, they can still overwhelm you with numbers.

4) They can be easy to out maneuver, as long as you have left yourself room to maneuver. Make sure your disaster plan leaves your options open. Shaun and his friend are actually doing pretty well until they let themselves get cornered in the pub.

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?