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.
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.”