Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Presentations: When Smooth Isn't Possible

Have you ever given a speech or made a presentation and everything seemed to go wrong?
Despite my reputation as a preparation freak, I've had some days when an army of gremlins was present. Room and audio/visual glitches are the usual culprits but so long as people are involved, new twists are practically guaranteed. One vivid memory is of a workshop that began in a room filled with 45 firefighters. An alarm bell for a major fire began to ring and, one minute later, I was the only person in the room.

You learn to roll with the punches and if I can offer one bit of advice to any new speakers who have not yet had a rendezvous with chaos, it is this: Barring a major problem that completely ends the possibility of continuing with your presentation (such as a five-alarm fire), be ready to give a fantastic presentation with minimal support.

Here's an example. Around a year ago, I was scheduled to teach a How to Make Presentations to Councils and Boards workshop in Tucson. I had carefully proofed the workbooks and dropped off a hard copy with the training broker to avoid glitches in any electronic transmission. The broker had proofed the workbooks again, then had them reproduced. The hotel was part of a major chain so there were trained audio/visual people on hand to help with those needs. The room was comfortable. I was fired up. The attendees came early and were friendly and enthusiastic.

Everything appeared to be in place for a good session.

And then I opened the box with the workbooks.

All of the workbooks were there. On the surface, they looked fine, until I thumbed through one of the books and a gremlin popped out. Although I'd given the broker a hard copy for reproduction, they'd scanned and transmitted it via an e-mail to their printer. During that transmission process, strange things had happened to the text. Random letters were turned into dollar signs and question marks. Few pages were unaffected.

It was clear that I was not going to be able to give a class on presentations with a flawed workbook. The Felix Ungers in the room would have had a seizure, perhaps shortly after my own. So I remembered one of my rules:

If something in your presentation is not going to work, don't work around it, scrap it entirely.

And that's what I did. After making sure that each class member had a note pad, I explained what had happened, apologized, and promised that each of them would receive a copy of my paperback book on How to Make Presentations to Councils and Boards. I then promised them that despite the problem, they were going receive a marvelous class.

They took it well. The class was moving right along. Great questions. Great interactions. We seemed to have gotten past the speed bump and then a thunderstorm literally rolled in.

Tucson is famed for its wild storms. Nature puts on a stunning performance as rain pours, lightning crackles and thunder booms. The fresh smell of wet creosote sweeps in from the desert.  If I'd had the freedom to sit on a porch and watch the pyrotechnic display over the mountains, I'd have done so. All of us could tell from the sound that a major storm was underway.

Since we were in a training room without windows, all went pitch black when the entire hotel lost its electricity. Fortunately, we were able to open an outside door at the back of the room and get some light. The electricity returned briefly and then departed again before eventually deciding to stay. We worked around the problem, laughed a lot, and adjusted the exercises so the class became a success. Through the good humor and patience of the class members, I was reminded of another truth:

The audience wants you to succeed.

In some respects, that workshop may have been better than it would have been had no glitches arisen. We all got to demonstrate how to handle some minor adversity and throughout it all, a major rule was illustrated:


Michael Wade

[P.S. I didn't forget to send the books.]