Speaker Lessons Learned – Free Advice That’s Paid For

Jun 3, 2011   //   by Karen Lopez   //   Blog, Professional Development, Speaking  //  16 Comments

Jen McCown (blog | twitter) has called for a Un-SQL Friday blog post on Speaker Lessons Learned.  Since I speak frequently, I thought I’d whip up a quick post to cover some of my tips on making a presentation look it it was all planned.  I’ve been giving presentations for so long I can’t even tie  these recommendations to any one event that caused me to adopt these practices.  However, they are all most likely due to either a failure on my part or a failure I’ve witnessed while attending an event.

I once co-presented with someone who showed up to do a half-day training event and he didn’t bring his own slides, nor handouts, nor any contingencies.  I had a copy of his slides, just because I wanted to see them before they were presented. The audience wanted to …well, let’s just say they didn’t feel they got the value they paid for. You don’t want to be that guy.  You want to come across as being all in control.  Even if on the inside you are quaking with fear.

Contingencies Will Make You Look Super Sauvé 

I’m big on having  duplicates, backups and just-in-case options.  Some people, like the one I live with, think that I overplan for something to go wrong.  Having options in place makes me a more confident speaker.  I can sleep better the night before.  I am more relaxed when I enter the room.  So overall even if I never make use of these, it makes me better at what I do.  This may seem excessive, but they are all pretty much part of my process and each takes only a minute or two to do.  The benefit exceeds the cost by a huge amount.

  1. Don’t just have a backup;  have a backup farm of backups.  For every item involved in my presentation (slides, demos, code, databases, data, etc.) I have many copies stashed all over the place. These backups or copies are both at the component level and as an entire package.  Here are the likely places I’ve stored these files:SQLSentry Bottle Opener USB
    • Dropbox: Dropbox (affiliate link) is a free service that will store your files on the internet *and* on your local machine and magically keep them all in sync.  You can purchase more space if you need it, but the free space will hold many presentations and scripts.  If you use my affiliate link above, we both get extra free space, too.  I have Dropbox installed on my phone, iPad, netbook, laptops and desktops.  My files are just always there.  Note, your organization may have policies against storing company data on such services, so check first.
    • Thumb drive/USB Stick: I make sure that all my materials are also on a USB storage device, too, just in case there is no connectivity in that hotel basement meeting room.  This way, if my laptop dies or it won’t cooperate with the data projector, I can borrow someone else’s machine to present with, at least the slides.  Did I tell you that I have a Bottle Opener USB drive from SQLSentry? That’s two contingencies in one!
    • Phone/iPad: I also put the slides on my Phone or Tablet in case I need to e-mail them to someone to print handouts or to possibly even use as presentation device.  My iPad has a dongle so that I can use it to present the slides.   That’s another two contingencies in one.
    • Server/Desktop:  If there is connectivity, I can also remote desktop into a machine back at my office to run demos or to do the presentation completely from the office machine.  Since I usually develop my materials on my desktop so no extra work to have it available.
    • Email:  I sometimes even e-mail myself a copy of all the materials so that they are there in my inbox, just in case.
  2. Have a plan for when other technology fails you.  It’s not just your slides that can wrong.
    • Projector: What will you do if the data projector isn’t working? Or the projector is very dim.  Or very old and doesn’t work well?  What if the person who was supposed to bring it doesn’t show up?  This has happened to me a lot over the years, more than is acceptable.  So I bring one printout of my slides with me to the presentation. If the projector isn’t there or is not cooperating, I ask the organizers if they want to make copies for handouts.  Having a printed copy ready makes that process easier to do.  This can also help mitigate missing screens.  Having handouts instead of a projector isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing at all.  Some people go as far as travelling with their own projector.
    • Room set up:  What would you do if your presentation counted on flip charts or whiteboards and they weren’t there?  What if the room you are presenting in is very long and narrow and 3/4 of the audience can’t really see your slides?  I arrive at my presentations at least an hour a head of time to check out the room and make plans for what to do if the room set up is not what I expected.  This also gives me time to request flip charts or other items.anti-theft outlet   In some extreme cases, I’ve been able to arrange a different room.
    • Power problems:  What if the outlet is 20 feet from where your laptop is supposed to be and there are no extension cords?  Is your laptop fully charged? Will it make it through your whole presentation?  I travel with an extension cord but sometimes a hotel doesn’t allow them or has anti-theft plugs to keep people from "stealing power".  Have I told you how unhappy this makes me when I see these special plugs in public places?  Sure there are designed for applications where you don’t want a plug to be accidentally ripped out, but when the entire conference center has these, you know they are there to protect the electricity, not the device that is plugged in.
    • Anything else: There are so many other things that can go wrong with the facilities.  Having a generic "what if I had to stand up in front of people and just talk for 90 minutes" plan is going to go a long way in dealing with all kinds of things the universe might throw at you.  Sure you might not be able to do demos and your presentation might not be as strong as if everything went perfectly.  You can still deliver a ton of value just by interacting with people during that 60-90 minutes.  Don’t underestimate the value that you personally add to the presentation.
  3. Don’t panic.  I would guess that every single person in your audience has had something go wrong during a meeting or presentation, so they will have empathy for you and the situation you are in.  If you panic, though, you won’t be able to recover well and make a smooth transition into delivering value given the circumstance.
    • The audience wants you to win, really.  They might not be happy your laptop died or that the projector doesn’t work, but they want you to keep your focus on delivering the knowledge you came to share.  Sure, there might be a couple of sadists out there who enjoy it when speakers fail, but even they don’t want to sit through an hour and half of flailing arms and incoherent utterances. So have your contingencies and plans in place.  Make that smooth, suave segue into your other plan and keep going.
    • Don’t keep apologizing.  Yes, you feel bad that things are going to all heck.  Yes, you should apologize.  But don’t keep saying I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.  Gosh, I’m sorry… That’s just focusing on the fact that things aren’t going as planned. Apologize, then move to your Plan B (or C or D) and you’ll look calm, cool and collected.  In other words, act like a professional.
    • Don’t blame anyone.  Later, if you want to conduct a forensic investigation to find out who did it and have them prosecuted, do it.  Don’t stand at the front of the room, blaming the hotel, the staff, the volunteers, your mother and your dog.  Even if they all did get together and sabotage your event.  No one in the audience cares why it happened.  They just want you to fix it.  By focusing on blame, you haven’t made the audience have any greater respect for you.
    • Don’t quit.  Whether or not you flew across the globe or just walked down the hallway to make your presentation, the audience carved time in their day to hear what you had to say.  Say it.  Work really hard to meet the same objectives that you set out to do.  Deliver value.  I’ve seen speakers cancel their presentation in front of 200 people because they didn’t have a backup of their slides.  They had a complete fail instead of a partial win.  If you are so dependent on your slides that you can’t deliver any value at all on your own, maybe you should just email your slides to everyone and save everyone a bunch of time.

Finally, I highly recommend you find a copy of Lily Walter’s What to Say When You are Dying on the Platform.  Walters goes over a zillion things that could go wrongimage and how to avoid them…as well as suggesting snarky responses that diffuse the tension and get you moving forward again.  This was written in 1995, so it might not cover some of the current types of technology failures, but you’d have the right sort of responses to deal with minor and major issues during your presentation.

I guess this whole post comes down to being prepared and having confidence when something you wanted to go right didn’t.   Have lots of backups, have a plan, and don’t panic.  That’s all advice I’ve paid for, so you can have it for free. 

Break a leg!


  • “I’ve seen speakers cancel their presentation in front of 200 people because they didn’t have a backup of their slides”

    I almost wonder if it isn’t a good idea for speakers to go to events prepared to speak even when they aren’t scheduled. Just in case somebody flakes out. Probably a great opportunity to get your foot in the door at an event you normally would qualify for.

    How did the organizers recover from these situations anyway?

    • Good organizers have alternates identified before a fail or no show. And I’ve seen them reach out to experienced speakers to fill in.

      I always wondered about usergroups that cancel instead of filling in an alternate. Seems like one could get someone to full in.

      • So do the fall back speakers just show up and sit on the bench, and they may speak or may not? I mean, I’ve heard they do that with TV shows like Letterman, or even City TV’s Breakfast Television.

        • Yes, those speakers attend the conference, usually for free. They get called if another speaker is a no-show of if they fail to present.

      • For user groups the moderator usually has a slide deck ready, or makes sure some of the regulars are ready to do lighting talks. At least that’s what I did at LIPHP.

        As far as backups, I usually go to a conference with three laptops. My work laptop if my blackberry rings, my personal big laptop and my personal netbook. Also, I keep my slides in github.

  • […] traveled away from the families, taken days to prepare for their presentations, rehearsed them, fretted about them, planned for them, and generally spent a great deal of time trying to make that 60-90 minutes the best session of […]

  • Great points about backups upon backups. One of my coworkers likes to say “If you’re planning on demoing the Internet, bring the Internet with you.” Even if you have no network connectivity, you can still pull off a network-based demo if you’ve carefully rigged your laptop ahead of time to have a local web server, database, local copies of what you need, etc.

    I like the observation that “the audience wants you to win.” When I was getting started, it took me a while to get past the feeling that people would be there to challenge me, to dispute every point I made and to bring up the competition. But after a while I realized that those people don’t usually come to my session.

    Also: Try to be entertaining! Many people are at your session because it’s a break from doing actual work. Sometimes they just aren’t that interested in learning anything; they’re on vacation. So bring your trombone out on stage and threaten to play it! (Note, this may not work for everybody.)

  • Great advice! For the Technical Communications course that I teach, I have my weekly presentations on a flash drive and on the course’s on-line system (Campus Web via Blackboard), just in case. I always have my laptop with me in case the school’s computer goes down. And I now carry my own cable to connect to the projector (after dealing with one with a mashed connector).

    At a lunch meeting I went to, the presenter showed up with his Mac laptop and then was surprised when no one had the dongle to connect to the borrowed projector. Luckily he did have his slides on a flash drive and someone had their laptop with them. I was not impressed — he was a consultant telling us about using social media and other techie things.

  • Wow, EXCELLENT post, Karen! I’m making this required reading for my imaginary legions of followers…

  • […] Speaker Lessons Learned – Free Advice That’s Paid For […]

  • […] plan. Anything can happen before or during your presentation, so be a good Boy (or Girl) Scout and BE PREPARED! I keep extra copies of all my presentation materials in multiple places: email, Dropbox, S3, and a […]

  • […] plan. Anything can happen before or during your presentation, so be a good Boy (or Girl) Scout and BE PREPARED! I keep extra copies of all my presentation materials in multiple places: email, Dropbox, S3, and a […]

  • […] blogged about what to do when something goes wrong during your presentation, but I’ll be blogging about those things and more as part of this series.  I’ll be talking […]

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