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It is no longer being updated.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.

Civility failure

swiftYou may have noticed that, thanks to the recent outbursts of nastiness inflicted by Kanye West, Joe Wilson, and Serena Williams, more than a little ink has been spilled lamenting the current state of public discourse. Here are some random examples grabbed from my feed reader:

Create Your Communications Experience: Handling Hecklers – Obama does it well

Speak to Lead: Presidential oratory, discourse & disagreement – A look back at a kinder time? What happened to civility?

Laura Bergells’ approach was to pose the question: “How will you handle a hostile audience member who wants to hijack your presentation or special moment on stage?”

I think the best way to handle a situation like this is to begin to handle it long before you get anywhere near the presentation venue. Plan for an unwelcome outburst the same way you would plan for any other occurrence that could lessen your chances of presenting successfully. Just like you need to prepare for a projector failure or a sound system failure, you also need to prepare for a civility failure.

We’re talking basic contingency planning here. Decide how likely it is that a civility failure will take place and characterize the nature of the failure(s) most like to occur. Then decide, for the types of civility failure that might actually happen, whether they are likely to cause your presentation to fail. If they are likely to happen and likely to wreck your presentation, plan for them. If there is some possibility of them happening but it’s absolutely certain that they will destroy your ability to continue presenting, plan for them.

For example, in a meeting with an audience of any more than ten or fifteen people, it’s pretty likely that someone’s cell phone is going to ring. A disruption caused by someone forgetting to be polite enough to put the phone on vibrate. It may be very likely to happen, but it’s effect will be negligible so you most likely don’t even need to take it into serious consideration. On the other hand, we have the example of last Summer’s town hall meetings. The civility failures seemed to surprise almost everyone and the early events went very badly. Careful, thoughtful pre-presentation planning became evident once it was clear that attempts to disrupt proceedings were both very likely to take place and very likely to succeed.

When you are preparing to deal with these situations, it’s crucial to remember our old friend, Principle Number 1:  If you can’t do without it, make sure you won’t have to.  If it look like civility is going to be in short supply at the meeting venue, be sure to bring your own as backup.

And of course, few people know more about civility failure than Dilbert:

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.