Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Houston, we have a problem

When Things Go Wrong: Ten presentation lessons from Apollo 13.  

(I enjoyed this so much when I read it  on John Zimmer’s blog  Manner of Speaking, that I’ve reblogged the whole thing. Thanks John).

OK. The day of the big presentation has arrived. You’ve prepared, you know your material and you’ve arrived at the venue early to get set up.

You check the room and everything looks fine. The stage is ready, the sound system works and the lighting is perfect. The only thing you have to do is test run your slide presentation which you have on your computer. You set it up, connect it to the beamer and click on the button to open your slideshow.

And then this happens…

Lesson 1: “Since all public speaking is a kind of performance,” says Scott Berkun, “things can and will go wrong, no matter how good you are.” Yes, problems arise and things go wrong and s*!t happens. It’s all part of the deal. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, consider yourself lucky and remind yourself that your time will come.

Lesson 2: If you cannot fix the problem quickly yourself, enlist the assistance of those who can. (“Houston, we have a problem.” – 1:20) Your first point of call should be the tech people, if any, so always obtain a contact number for them before the day of the presentation.

Lesson 3: Stay calm and try to identify the problem methodically.(“One at a time, people. One at a time. One at a time. Ecom, is this an instrumentation problem or are we looking at real power loss here?” – 2:14) Now, if you’ve prepared thoroughly and gone through your public speaker’s checklist carefully, you’ll probably have a back-up of your slide presentation on a USB stick and there’s probably a decent chance that you will be able to use another computer. But what if you don’t? Or what if there is no other computer?

In that case …

Lesson 4: Determine how long you can try to fix the problem before you have to switch to Plan B in time for the beginning of your presentation. (Do you have a Plan B?)

Lesson 5: Once you reach the deadline in Lesson 4 above, forget the problem and concentrate on the workaround. (“Gentlemen, I want you all to forget the Flight Plan. From this moment on we are improvising a new mission.” – 0:05) You need to ensure that you have enough time to make the necessary adaptations to the presentation to be ready to start on schedule.

Lesson 6: Weigh your options carefully but quickly and decide which workaround you will use. (“The only engine we’ve got with enough power for a direct abort is the SPS on the Service Module. … [I]t could’ve been damaged in an explosion, so let’s consider that engine dead. We light that thing up, could blow the whole works. It’s just too risky. We’re not gonna take that chance. About the only thing the Command Module is good for is re-entry, so that leaves us with the LEM. Which means free return trajectory. Once we get the guys around the Moon, we’ll fire up the LEM engine, make a long burn, pick up some speed, get them home as quick as we can. – 1:06)

Lesson 7: Don’t worry about what your presentation was supposed to be like; focus on getting it into shape to make it as good as possible. (“Well, unfortunately, we’re not landing on the Moon, are we? I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do. So let’s get to work.” – 1:45)

As you work on your modified presentation, you may well encounter other obstacles:

Lesson 8: A presentation is always about the audience no matter how much is at stake for you. You have to do your best to give the audience the maximum value possible. (“We’ve never lost an American in space and we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option!” – 1:53)

So, you are working on a new plan for the presentation but you don’t have a lot of time or a lot of material to work with:

Lesson 9: Use whatever material is available. (“We gotta find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.” – 0:50) Can you do the presentation using a whiteboard, blackboard, flip chart, notes, props, interactive exercises or some combination of these and other things? If you know your material well, it will be much easier to improvise on the spot.

By now you have decided on your workaround and done everything you can to go with an alternative presentation. You don’t have much time left but at last everything is in place. Still, you’re probably a little wound up after everything that has gone on.

Lesson 10: Take a few moments to settle yourself and refocus your thoughts on the presentation and the audience. (1:10 – 1:40) Try to find a private place where you can take a few deep breathes and do some gentle stretching to relax yourself after the unexpected adrenalin rush.

Fortunately, a technological malfunction in our presentations will almost certainly never be a life-and-death situation as it was for the Apollo 13 crew. However, failure could have consequences. But if you are well prepared and keep your cool, you still should be able to deliver an effective presentation and get this kind of audience response:

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