How I Salvaged My Imploding Presentation in Long Beach, Ca.

I gave a 40-minute presentation several weeks ago to 600 computer programmers in Long Beach, Ca. Five minutes into the talk, things started to go horribly wrong.

This is the story of how I escaped with my pride intact.

The speech was on my usual topic: presentation skills.  What was different was that the conference organizers had asked that I use a new technology that allows audience members to use their cell phones to text answers to questions I posed to them.

For example, I could ask “What are the biggest challenges you face organizing a message?” And anyone in the audience could text back “My biggest challenge is figuring out how to decide what to leave out.”

All the text messages would then scroll up on the screen next to my PowerPoint slides.

I had never used the technology before. But my client said that they had used it in the past and it had been a huge hit.   They wanted me to use it. So I said “Why not?”

We tested out the technology ahead of time in the auditorium. It worked great.  The night before in my hotel room, I rehearsed several times, making sure that I practiced weaving the texting system into my message. This was going to be fun.

I thought it might even be a breakthrough. After all, one of the biggest challenges we face as speakers is finding ways to interact with the audience.  It’s hard to do that with large groups. This new technology offered a way past that problem.

And when I started to speak that morning, the technology worked wonderfully.

Too wonderfully.

The vast majority of the texts were responsive to my question. Unfortunately, a handful of jokers thought it would be funny to broadcast up on the screen things like “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like George Bush?” and “Hi Mom” and “When’s lunch?”

Things got far ruder.

I subsequently learned that the technology has a screening function. But that wasn’t helping me as I was getting titters of laughter at the inappropriate comments.  My presentation was imploding.

So what did I do?

First, I plowed ahead. Yes. I was distracted and panicked.  But the show had to go on. So I pushed ahead trusting that most of the people in the audience were enjoying the presentation.  This is one of the reasons that you practice. So that when distracting things happen, you can push ahead.

Second, I made a joke.  Rather than getting defensive or scolding the handful of jokesters, I said, “I see that several of you have taken it upon yourself to give me some personal feedback. I just want to say thank you for that.”

Now as you read that, it probably doesn’t seem funny. It doesn’t seem funny to me as I write it. But it got a huge laugh.  I wasn’t the only one getting nervous. The audience was nervous too.  They didn’t want my presentation to implode.   And my self-deprecating remark relieved the tension.

Finally, I adjusted. Even though I had planned to use the texting technology several more times during the presentation, I dropped it and went back to my standard speech.

And it all ended well.  Afterwards several people came up and said, “I was amazed at how you handled those jokers.”

“Though, I must say,” someone added, “You really do look like George Bush.”

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Does Guy Kawasaki Miss the Point on How to Become More Likeable?

Here’s an interesting guide to becoming more likable from Guy Kawasaki.

But I have to say that I think Guy left out the only thing that really matters. If you want to be more likable, you have to like others more.  That seems to work better than painting on a smile and working on your handshake.  As evidence, I point to our dogs.  We love our dogs because they love us,  not because they’ve practiced a series of skills aimed at “charming” us.


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Public Speaking Lessons from Mr. Spock

Mr. Spock: Master of the Mind Meld
Sometimes, when I’m listening to a business presentation, I want to shout “Dude! This isn’t Star Trek. And you are not Mr. Spock.  So why don’t we stop with the mind meld?”

Let me explain.

“Star Trek” fans remember Mr. Spock as the ever-logical, emotionless, side-kick to Captain James T. Kirk on the Starship Enterprise.

He was actually half-human and half-Vulcan and had the ability to execute the “Vulcan Mind Meld”.

In a mind meld, Mr. Spock would put his fingers on your head in a mystical way and perfectly imprint his thoughts into your head (or vice versa).   It was almost like he were jamming a flash drive into your ear and downloading his brain’s data onto your mental hard drive.

Listeners Don’t Want a Mind Meld

Many business presenters seem to think that they are capable of performing a mind meld with their audience. They seem to think that their job as a presenter is to stand in front of the room with 60 slides and download all their information onto their listeners’ hard-drives.

They then deliver the messages in the same style as an emotionless Vulcan. These erstwhile Mr. Spocks seem to think that the audience will be able to take that information and come to the right conclusion.

But the whole purpose of a presentation is to take that mass of information and form it into a meaningful story. Then you have to deliver that story in a very un-Spock-like manner – with intensity.

Turn Your Data Into a Story

To turn your information into a story, the first step is to ask yourself “What kind of story does my audience want to hear?”  Business people usually want to hear your solution to their business problem.

Let’s say that the CEO is worried about the rising cost of manufacturing and you’re asked to give a presentation to her on the topic.  You should start your presentation by making it clear that you are going to tell a story about how to reduce manufacturing costs.

From there, you should look at all of your data and ask “What are the three most important things I want my audience to remember about how to reduce costs.”  Tell those three things quickly and then go into detail.

Deliver the Story with Energy

Too many people deliver their presentations like Mr. Spock, with a flat monotone, as if all that mattered were the logic and ideas.

But the way you deliver things matters a lot, according to UCLA Prof. Albert Mehrabian.  Dr. Mehrabian came to be seen as almost an anti-Spock when he published a now-famous study on the importance of style over substance.

The study found that in certain circumstances 55 percent of the impression you make is based on how you look while 38 percent of the impression you make is based on how you sound.  That leaves only 7 percent for the content.

I don’t want to take Dr. Mehrabian’s study too far. He was not studying business presentations. But his study does highlight that how we say things matter.

Even Mr. Spock, who had a human mother, would betray emotion once in a while with a raised eyebrow.  And those of us that are full-blooded humans need even more than a raised eyebrow. We want to hear passion in our speakers.

We don’t want a mind meld. We want a personal connection.

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