Tom Webster, writing and speaking

How To Recover From A Speaking FAIL

Added on by Tom Webster.

I had a fantastic time speaking at this year's Social Slam in Knoxville last weekend. If Mark Schaefer asks you to speak at his event, you go, no questions asked, because this was an accessible, affordable and refreshingly BS-free event that I'll continue to attend on my own nickel whether I'm speaking or not. I gave a keynote right before lunch on how to think about data, and I was rolling right along when all of a sudden, exactly halfway through, my MacBook Pro crashed. Hard. Spinning-beach-ball-of-death hard. With 45 slides left to go. I won't say I was "unfazed" but I hope I was unflappable. I've been standing up in front of clients and audiences for over 15 years, and let me tell you--something always happens, especially when you are doing client presentations, where you don't necessarily have any support or backup.

I was humbled and grateful for all of the positive tweets I received during the speech for how I handled the laptopocalypse (I finished the story from the section I was on and took a few questions while I put a backup laptop online and got my slides off a USB stick) but it certainly wasn't my natural reserves of cool that got me through it. It was training and practice. Learned behaviors. Since this sort of thing is bound to happen to you if you present in any capacity, I thought it might be useful to share exactly how I prepare and train my mind for these sorts of things.

1. The tech stuff. Yes, I had a USB backup of my presentation, and there was another laptop (the conference computer) already at the lectern. I swapped it out myself because I was right there, and when you do as many client presentations as I do, you learn to be a self-sufficient unit. I will admit to being a little "nonplussed" when I see a speaker have a tech fail and then call for A/V because they are "no good with these things." I have practiced turning on a computer and starting up an app over 1 BGILLION times. I'm good at that. So are you. But always have a USB backup (NOT a Dropbox backup--a physical backup) of your slides in your pocket. Don't have a spare laptop? See point 4.

2. Know your story. In the days before I give any presentation, I am relentless about getting one thing down--the story. It's the story I want you to walk away with, not the slides, or the exact sequence of points. Yes, you can memorize the whole thing, slides and all, but with my workload and travel schedule that is often not possible. If you tie yourself to the order and sequence of the slides, you will always get derailed when you lose them, and when you get the slides back you'll have a natural tendency to want to go back and "do it right." But if you focus on the story and not the slides, you won't suffer from the "shoulds." When my laptop crapped out, I continued with the story because it's the story that I want you to walk away with. The slides support the story. The slides aren't the story.

3. Take some questions! In the few minutes it took me to swap out laptops and get loaded up again, I had a great opportunity to answer a few questions. This, in a sense, lets you, the audience, dictate what you want to happen in these moments that would ordinarily be "dead." No dead moments! If you have been given the honor of the lectern/pulpit/stage, you are there because the audience sees some value in your presence. Honor that, and make yourself accessible. Often I have seen speakers close down when they have presentation fails, and bury themselves in their notes or laptops. Instead, I look up. Which brings me to…

4. Invite the audience to share your pain. I had my laptop completely fail at Social Slam. If there had not been another spare on stage, you know what I would have done? Asked YOU for one. My A/V failed at the start of my Blogworld keynote last year. I invited the audience into my pain--asked them if it's ever happened to them, and how they deal with it. This is closely tied to #3 above, but the best thing when you can do when you suffer these bumps in the road is to open up and break down the "fourth wall." Shared pain is mitigated pain; more than that, it's often comedy. In the case of my Blogword speech, it set the stage and warmed up the crowd exponentially better than any half-baked joke would have. I'm glad my A/V failed.

5. Think "Clients," not "Audience." Finally, I give many, many presentations every year, but more of them are for clients than for conference audiences. Most of my day job is deriving insights from data for Edison's clients, and then presenting that data in a way that inspires action and change. If my laptop fails, or my file is corrupted, or my mic doesn't work, guess what? I will be plowing on, because I was paid to do this. I take my job very, very seriously indeed. When presenting for clients in poorly equipped conference rooms, you'll always have issues. Always. And it's on you to solve them. You have to be ready to go without slides, without amplification, using transparencies and finger puppets if you have to. YOU HAVE TO. Now, replace "client" with "audience." That is what I think, each and every time. I take you very seriously, too, even when it looks like I'm having a laugh.

Those five things keep me grounded, sane and humble in any conference situation. I hope, if you attended SoSlam, that you got the value from my talk I intended to deliver. And even if you didn't, I hope you got value from these tips.

What are your conference FAIL tips? Share them below!