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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.

Bedd Gelert:

Just as I was beginning to get a little tired of reading my own stories here on BML, reader Bedd Gelert left a comment on a previous post that was begging to be front page material (BTW, I’m fairly certain that “Bedd Gelert” is a pseudonym):

Okay, technically this isn’t a ‘presentation’ disaster, but because it concerns a PC and a meeting where having it functioning was pretty well essential I will mention it…

I was pretty stressed, as I had to take details, onto a spreadsheet, of the issues on literally dozens of different items we were dealing with, on a Red / Amber / Green basis, with half a dozen people in the room and someone from IT, who had all this information, at the end of a phone line.

The computer wouldn’t work, as I couldn’t ‘sign in’ to it. I got more and more irate, as it kept rejecting my password. In the end I took to it to another room, got on the phone to PC Support and [there is no way I can shy away from this, and I’m not proud, but one has to tell the truth however ashamed I am … ] I went ballistic. ‘Why isn’t this pc working – I am about to go into a 2 hour meeting and I need this to be working NOW – Why isn’t it??’

Cue more weeping, wailing and a temper tantrum with PC support all to no avail. Of course, machines know when you are stressed and unreasonable and responding in the way I did. So I failed to get the PC working and had to resort to somebody else having to take over my role with their PC.

PROBLEM – I had inadvertently pressed a ‘Function’ key on the PC, which converted 9 keys on the right hand side of the keyboard into a ‘number pad’.

When I keyed in my ‘ID’ I used the numbers at the top of the keyboard.

But when I keyed in my ‘password’ I used the letter keys on the keyboard, some of which were being substituted by numbers – and there was no way I would realise this as the password is clearly only shown as dots when keyed.

MORAL – I could have been there for hours and not figured this out – but I had a fighting chance to do it quickly if I hadn’t lost my rag. And PC support would have had a small chance of sorting this out in a couple of minutes if I’d been courteous with them. But because this was a 1-in-a-100 problem, as soon as I got flustered and panicked I was done for.

Easy to say in hindsight, and in ‘cold blood’, but as we are always told ‘It’s nice to be important, but even more important to be nice..’ We live and we learn..

A long time ago, but still able to give me nightmares..

Bedd’s experience echos my earlier post about the staying in the Valium bubble. No matter how badly things are going, anything other than a calm, measured response is going to make the situation more difficult to resolve. Any losing of one’s rag needs to be saved for after the presentation is over.

Seems like something that will need to be added to The Principles. Just need to come up with a pithy phrase to describe it. How’s this sound: “Letting it loose might mean losing it all”? Yeah, I thought so. That’s just off the top of my head. It might be better to keep thinking about it.

Thanks Bedd, I really appreciate you taking the time to share this obviously painful memory. It serves as a great reminder to all of us who are dropped into these sorts of situations on a daily basis.

Your Turn:

Do you have a better idea than “Letting it loose might mean losing it all”? Have things ever gone from bad to much worse due to your losing it during a presentation or while preparing for one?

The Valium Bubble

Valium BubbleI brought a very bad habit with me when I started my first real job. Considering it was the day after I turned 16, I guess it’s not unusual that I still might have had a bad habit or two left. It wasn’t an uncommon habit. Whenever I burned my finger tips, I reflexively touched them to my tongue before shaking them (just like a Polaroid picture). Considering I was employed by the local McDonald’s, my managers were, understandable, not terrible pleased with this. At this particular franchise, the grill faced the front counter and I was in full view of the customers waiting for their Big Macs. This habit was quickly and brutally broken using the two time-tested methods that work best with inexperienced 16 year olds — ridicule and the raised voice.

Believe it or not, there was still a bad habit or two remaining once I became a member of the adult workforce. One of them was no big deal when I was stuck back in the office, but once I went out to work at meeting venues, in front of clients waiting, as it were, for their Big Macs, it became much more of an issue. Let’s just say I tended to get a little too caught up in the moment, a little too passionate when things didn’t go according to plan. Again, nothing uncommon, but definately not behavior you want to exhibit in our line of work. Luckily this bad habit didn’t last much after my first professional road trip, due, in large part, to some very good advice I got from my boss.

I had been in a quiet corner of the rehearsal room working on some slides. If I remember correctly, PowerPoint had just done something stupid and I had just lost an hour’s work (to be honest, it might have been user error). I responded with my usual passion and let loose a word or two that really aren’t meant for polite (or corporate) society. Turns out a couple client types were in discussion nearby and heard my little outburst clearly. My boss also heard me as she was sitting next to me and I was sharing my displeasure with her.

Apparently, one of the clients mentioned this it to her later, more out of amusement than anything else and she took me aside to point out the error of my ways. The way she put it stuck with me, and has served me well, ever since.

She said that as I was leaving my hotel room every morning that I was on site working a meeting, I needed to imagine I was surrounding myself with a “Valium bubble.” No matter what was going on, no matter how badly things were going, no matter what hell was breaking loose around me, the best, the only really useful response was a complete, thoughtful calm. Deal with the situation actively and directly, she advised me, but learn to leave the adrenaline upstairs in your room. Even when it’s the client getting over anxious and excited, it’s your responsibility not to join in, but to stay above it. The client might, at the time feel that you were not as fully engaged in the situation as they might have liked, but when they realize later, after the heat of the moment has passed, that your calm, cool, thoughtful reaction was the most productive, they will thank you.

She went on to say that some of the problem can be traced to anxiety over the possibility of screwing up and that it was crucial to get past that. A person who can get distracted by the possibility of doing something wrong is not going to be providing the best performance and will have a difficult time doing something right during a crisis.

I’m not going to pretend that my transformation was instantaneous. Habits, as we all know, are hard to break. I might have slipped once or twice while I began to put her idea into practice. And I have to admit, I still don’t always sleep soundly the night before the big show. However, putting on my Valium bubble and remaining calm when events are encouraging me to do otherwise has become more and more habitual over the years. It’s a good habit. A useful habit.

And although I don’t have any hard data to back this up, I’m convinced that one person’s calm can spread and help relax the rest of the team, and even perhaps the speakers, just before the presentations are about to begin. Stopping by the speaker’s breakfast buffet with a smile and a cheerful “good morning” can sometimes do a whole lot of good.

In case you’re wondering, I still don’t lick my fingers when I burn them. Thanks McDonald’s.

And thanks Barb, in case you’re reading this, for not only giving me one of the best pieces of professional advice I ever got, but also for giving me my big break to begin with.

Related Resource

The first two lines of Rudyard Kipling’s great (although somewhat sexist) poem If are: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

[Late addition] Krys Slovacek also wrote a post today about dealing with strong emotions when you’re onsite and it offers some excellent suggestions: Chill out!

Your Turn

What’s your method for getting ready to go into battle. How do you put on your game face? Do you have an equivalent to the Valium bubble? Please feel free to respond in a comment to this post.