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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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.

There is no magic button…

In a recent blog post, Pat Ahaesy used three scenarios to illustrate the idea that a lot of production disasters can be avoided through good communication.

Things that sound so simple, but done on the fly due to poor communication can be costly. Things that sound so simple, and done without communicating  in advance to your producer can either not happen as you envision or not happen at all

Some examples of “simple” that could be a disaster, but can be avoided with good communication:

  1. Planner wants stage set for 4 person panel with all panelists center stage on high stools and moderator at a lectern, stage right.  During chats with another planner, the decision is for the panelists to be seated on two couches on a diagonal. They will omit the lectern and have moderator seated on a chair. The lighting designer and your producer haven’t been told of this change. Of course, the different seating needs to be sourced quickly and the lighting designer has to re-focus his lighting. Much stress and potential errors could occur.

I think we’d all agree completely that good, early communication is crucial to avoid disaster. Why it’s so difficult?

Ahaesy attributes it to budget concerns:

Sometimes management and/or procurement feel that contracting production early in the planning stages can cost more money.

I’m not sure that there’s really that much thought being put into. My guess is that a profound lack of communication is often caused by what I like to think of as the Magic Button Assumption. Professionals that inhabit one area of expertise often assume professionals that inhabit another have a magic button that allows them to make anything that needs to happen happen with no fuss, no muss and no preparation or planning. The funny part is that any they would find any suggestion that they possess a magic button of their own too ridiculous for words.

The reasons a client might be making this assumption are many and it might be interesting to talk about them in future posts. The most obvious is that clients often don’t really understand what it is we do and how the tools we use work.

The more I think about it the more it seems that this phenomenon needs to be part The Principles. It also needs to be explored through the discussion of real life examples. I’ll be tracking some down from my own experience and I would really appreciate it of you would be willing to share your own stories. Feel free to put them in a comment to this post or let me know if you would like to do a guest post.

Or maybe it’s so mundane and ubiquitous it’s not worth discussing at all. One way or the other please weigh in and let us know what you think.

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (11/07/10)

Bonjour Events — Preparing your Speakers for the Stage

One conference I was producing was set to start in three hours when I got a call from the car service that the company president, our second speaker on the printed agenda, was no where to be found at the airport.  I called his cell to hear, “Oh yeah, I’m catching a ride on a friend’s jet. Oh and I invited Jeff to join me. ”  Ah, yes Jeff, our third speaker.  I say, “You know you’re on at 1pm?”  “Yes, we’re taking off in a few minutes, it’s a fast plane.”

A Collection of Nonsense (Tim Washer) — When PowerPoint Attacks: 6 survival tips

If you forced me to rank the places where I would most prefer not to look like an idiot, the Harvard Kennedy School would come in fourth.   Or maybe sixth.  Some of history’s most eminent figures have spoken there, like Jack Donaghy. But even after a successful tech-check before the presentation, things can go terribly wrong.  Especially if you’ve embedded videos into a powerpoint presentation. I was attempting to show two commercials, but another video popped up, and what’s worse, the audio was out of synch with the video.  But here’s what I’ve learned…

Communications from DMN — When a (presentation) disaster strikes

I went blank.

Stage fright. Freezing up. A very pregnant pause. None of those terms really sum up what happened to me during that talk. I went all tabula. As in rasa. It wasn’t pleasant, for me or for my audience.

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.

Bookmarked: All eyes on you — as you choke (Crain’s Chicago Business)

All eyes on you — as you choke (Crain’s Chicago Business) – "But sometimes, getting past a disaster of a presentation can be freeing. One of Mr. Connellan's clients, an executive from a very large company, was asked to update 2,000 people at a conference. She was ready for the performance but froze when she got up to the podium. She fainted with her hands gripping the lectern, pulling it on top of her, and had to be carried offstage."

Bookmarked: The Oops Factor (Two Well Read)

The Oops Factor (Two Well Read) – “It is a fact if you perform live, sooner or later you will meet with a genuine, bona fide onstage disaster. Generally, these seem to fall into two categories. The first is the self-made conflagration where lyrics evaporate into thin air, the high note that was there at sound check mysteriously vanishes in performance, clothing falls apart, and stools move themselves about the stage so that you find yourself in a heap on the floor. I could go on, but being the superstitious type I’ll stop here. The second is the stuff performance legends are made of, those moments where, despite your diligent rehearsal and careful plotting of every moment, elements beyond your control enter in and all hell breaks loose. Sometimes it comes from your fellow musicians onstage, sometimes from the tech booth, and sometimes from that ever unpredictable element, the audience.”

[Great stories in the post as well as in the comments. Artistic presentations oops are as much fun business presentation disasters.]

The Weekly Might Have Missed List (5/25/08)

PublicSpeakinghacks.com: Review: Monster Outlets To Go Powerstrip — “In the era of what was supposed to be flying cars and interstellar travel, I spend way too much time on my hands and knees groping in the dark and dust for a free electrical outlet under conference room tables, in presentation halls, and hotel rooms. Now, for less than 20 bucks I’ve got an ingenious compact power strip that is actually designed for the real world.”

Make Your Point with Pow’R: Living with Gremlins: “You never know what gremlin will creep into your presentation. All that you can do is be prepared to speak-on, sans your slideshow.”

Al Nyveldt: Philly Code Camp Wrap up — “If it were not for this extra time, my session would have been a disaster.”

Zallas Technologies: Don’t Fumble the Kick Off — “During a decades long sales career in the high tech industry as a front line representative, sales manager and vice president of sales Steve Martin participated in more than a hundred sales kick off events. He’s witnessed the good, the bad, and a whole lot in between. In an effort to help sales organizations put their best foot forward during the most important meeting of the year, Martin has come up with the following list of ‘Top Five Sales Kick Off Meeting Mistakes.’”

Overnight Sensation: Public Speaking Success: What to do when they don’t laugh at your jokes — “It’s every speaker’s nightmare: you’ve told that joke that you think is funny (you practically chuckle yourself as you tell it) but the audience doesn’t react.”

Speak Schmeak: Make sure the announcer can pronounce your name.

Brad Montgomery: Speaking Tip: We’re Bored By Your Intro! — “This guy has some killer credits and some amazing stuff on his resume. And he was funny. But his opening sucked. And in spite of his terrific skills, he never really one the crowd over.”

The Extreme Presentation(tm) Method: Don’t ever give an FYI presentation.

ManageSmarter: Five Things Not to Do in Front of an Audience

Create Your Communications Experience: Obama and the Teleprompter — “But why doesn’t he learn to use the teleprompter well?”

Memo to C-Level Speakers: Audience? What Audience? — “Sadly, some speakers behave as if, for all practical purposes, their audience doesn’t exist.”

Great Public Speaking: Public Speaking : OPENING TIPS.

bMighty.com: Strategy Matters: Eight Great PowerPoint Myths — “PowerPoint presentations that flood the audience with glittering graphics, brazen bulleted lists, and endless animations may look great, but they often drown out the message. Just because you can use every PowerPoint feature doesn’t mean you should.”

“The Wheel’s” Toastmasters blog: Speed Kills…