Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Horror, the Horror…

I have been delivering technical presentations for a long time and have experienced many highs and lows. Here are a few of the more difficult challenges I’ve faced while presenting.

Expert in the Audience (Cincinnati, OH, 2000)

I used to do a lot of classroom training and my habit on the first day was to go around the room and ask each student to describe his or her experiences and goals. I once taught an XML class that included a module on a new product called “BizTalk”. I knew almost nothing about BizTalk but it was so new that I assumed no one else would realize the extent of my ignorance.

Imagine my surprise when, during Day 1 introductions, I learned that one of my students was a senior Microsoft consultant, who was currently implementing BizTalk Server for his client.

Thinking quickly, I asked this consultant to deliver the final module to the class. We all learned something from him and I was spared any shame or embarrassment.

No Laptop (Southfield, MI, 2008)

I was asked by a Microsoft Architect Evangelist to deliver a presentation at a Microsoft event. The slides and demos were provided for me, but I did not have access to a laptop, so I asked the evangelist to find me one. Unfortunately, he never did, so I ended up borrowing a laptop from a friend at the last minute. This laptop had two major problems:

  1. It was woefully underpowered, so all the demos ran very slowly
  2. Someone had installed an unlicensed copy of Windows on the laptop, so an “Illegal Software” warning repeatedly appeared during my presentation.

No one commented on the warnings that popped up, but the audience grew restless with the time it took each demo to run.

Dead Video (Toled0, OH, 2008)

I arrived at a user group in Toledo to discover that no image would display on my screen. User group leader Jason Follas came to my rescue. Using a crossover cable, Jason connected his computer with mine, which allowed me to remote into my laptop and present from his, averting a crisis. Sometimes one has to think outside the box.

Lost in Genesee County (Flint, 2009)

The Flint, MI .NET User Group met at a New Horizons training center. I had the address and a map, but I drove around the area for at least a half hour looking for the building. I had to stop at each building in several adjacent office parks and walk inside to see if it was the correct one. I finally found the group inside a building hidden behind an unlit parking lot. I only discovered this was the correct location because someone happened to be walking out as I was walking in.

I was 45 minutes late and completely rattled and this as one of the worst presentations I ever delivered.

Overcommitted (Southfield, Lansing, 2009)

I try to avoid overcommitting, but it sometimes happens. One memorable time occurred when I was scheduled to deliver a talk at Lansing Day of .NET; and was subsequently asked to fill in the day before for an event in Southfield. Another presenter was called away by a family crisis, so I had little time to prepare for my 4-hour presentation and I had to create nearly all the materials myself.

I was unable to start preparing for the Lansing presentation until the night before, so I ended up staying up most of the night.

Dead Laptop (Lansing, 2009)

My laptop completely died the morning of the 2009 Lansing Day of .NET. I had to borrow one from Michael Eaton. Unfortunately, I did not have a backup of my presentation (I now use DropBox, so I always have a backup), so I had to recreate it. To make matters worse, I was unable to install the necessary software on his laptop, so I had to forego my demos and only display slides.

The Bomb Threat (Lexington, KY, 2010)

It was a crazy idea to drive down to Lexington, KY and back in a single day; but I wanted to be the first speaker at this new user group. The meeting was scheduled in the basement of a public library. After a five-hour drive, I called my host, who informed me that a bomb threat had been called into the library and the police had evacuated the building and the user group attendees were standing on the corner outside the library. The projector and the pizza remained inside. The building did not reopen until the following day and I ended up delivering the presentation (sans projector and demos) at a local restaurant.

So, What’s the Point?

I share these stories for several reasons

  1. Preparation is the key to success. The more familiar you are with your material and your demos and your hardware and the location of the event, the less likely things will go wrong. You will also be more aware of what can go wrong and ready to deal with it.
  2. It's possible to recover from a mistake. It doesn’t matter if it is your fault or something beyond your control – things will sometimes go wrong. Deal with it and move on with your demo. Don't assume that everything will go well. Have a backup of the completed project or a video or slides showing code. You can still teach concepts even if your demo fails.
  3. Know that it's OK to screw up. If you are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about your topic, your audience will be surprisingly forgiving. Don’t dwell on your mistakes: Learn from them.