When Your Presentation Goes Awry

Call me paranoid or call me prepared, but I go through a ritual every time I’m scheduled to present at a conference.

I begin by saving copies of my presentation onto two different thumb drives. One goes in my purse, and the other travels in my luggage. I then e-mail the presentation to both my university and Gmail accounts before printing out a hard copy.

When I enter the presentation room early—always early—I make sure the technology works and pour myself two glasses of water. I then attempt to forge connections with the people who arrive first to develop some early rapport and ferret out potential hecklers. I breathe deeply and remind myself that my audience wants me to succeed.

I went through that ritual this week and felt energized when the projector synched with the laptop without a hitch and a room with 100 chairs quickly filled with more than 100 people. “We are golden,” I thought to myself as my co-presenter kicked off our session. If only.

The microphones that worked perfectly when the tech people were in the room didn’t work at all once they disappeared, so after a bit of unsuccessful fiddling, we began to shout.

Then, with horror, we watched a small brown bird that had apparently ingested cocaine zoom into our room and begin dive-bombing the scalps of people who were packed into the room like sardines. Up and down, under chairs, up through their legs, onto their shoulders, into their necks—there were gasps and screams and squeals as the avian creature terrorized those held hostage in the room.

Chaos. Absolute chaos. And then, suddenly, it was quiet.

The bird, which was actually kind of cute in a maniacal kind of way, made its way to the front of the room and stood quietly on the floor next to me. Taunting me? I think so.

I needed to take action. Should I stomp on the bird’s feather-covered head with my foot, or try to stun it with the hard-copy version of my slides (maybe I was meant to print them!)? My mind raced, and my future passed before my eyes, as I pictured people forever whispering, “She’s the crazy one who killed that poor bird in Boston.”

Plan B involved several failed attempts to trap the now-hopping bird with a sweater generously sacrificed by a colleague. Eventually, the adrenaline-crazed critter flew out of the room, over the head of the tech guy who had returned to fix our microphones. The presentation was saved.

Despite our best preparations, presentation disasters happen. The speaker who preceded you goes long, thereby requiring you to cram 30 minutes of content into nine. The session next door is loud, raucous, and full of laughter, prompting your audience to regret that they are listening to you. You can’t for the life of you remember what you meant on Slide 8. A know-it-all hijacks your session. You suddenly realize you have left the “l” out of your “Encouraging Public Discourse” title slide.

What’s the worst thing that has happened to you while presenting? How did you recover?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user dlofink.]

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