reflections on failure

So, I stepped onto the stage to give a Keynote presentation having checked and run through the whole IT setup, twice. The IT guy pressed the button to swap from the Conference backdrop to my presentation and launched…absolutely nothing, just a blue screen. I paused. I saw Mr IT rushing forward, so I started speaking. After about a minute of him faffing around as I continued to speak, it became clear this was not going to improve. So I shut the laptop, put down the remote control and stepped into the middle of the stage.

This is the first time I have ever had such a major, in delivery, fail and although it wasn’t ideal I got through. I’m writing this not as self praise but to add some thoughts on what to do and how to cope. IT problems are real and the best advice I can give is to be prepared for complete failure.

A presentation without supportive media is, in most cases, entirely possible. Probably the first thing to emphasise is do not panic. I completely appreciate that is easier said than written. Stop for a second or two, gather your thoughts and remember all that practise. Practise is essential not only to groove delivery at the big event but for precisely this eventuality. Repetition will have ensured that you know what your p1 is all about. Added to that the reality that your audience neither know your script nor are they marking you against how well you stick to it. This is simply another practise, without slides.

For the vast majority of p3 presenters, even although  their delivery has moved beyond a script on the slide set the individual images of p2 frequently are signposts in the speaker. They mark transitions and sparklines. Visualisation of these steps will lead you through delivery. A pause at the end of one section will offer the space to mentally move the slide set forward: the next section will become clearer. Try to avoid telling the audience repeatedly what can’t be seen.

It is essential to move quickly past the problem and repeated apology is neither required nor valuable. The audience may not even reognise there is an issue. The presentation now relies more strongly on the delivery (p3). Anxiousness will always result in speaking more quickly. It is important therefore to purposefully, slow, down. Slower speech has many effects; it will actually calm the anxious speaker simply in itself; it gives space for the speaker to consider the next section and to think about speaking rather than remembering. Consider more clearly the idea of a conversation, rebuilding the story rather than reciting it.

Perversely, without the concrete structure and with delays in beginning there is a strong likelihood of over running. Good preparation will ensure the arc of the story is clear in the presenter’s mind but it is essential that the punchline is delivered effectively and within time. Ensure that as time progresses that endpoint is both clear and targeted.

If, due to lack of practise, it would be impossible to deliver the presentation unaided speak to the Chairman. Five minutes unofficial break may allow IT to resolve the problem and the speaker to regain their cool. A talk can often be re-scheduled. If all else fails it is better to withdraw gracefully than crumple after a few minutes.

Technological problem do happen despite preparation. If not immediately resolved make a decision whether to carry on or not. Good preparation will allow most presentations to be delivered but ensure a more paced delivery with visualisation rather than presentation of images. Ensure timekeeping is accurate and that a more conversational delivery still results in the punchline being delivered. Practise is the key defence against failure.


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