Today’s guest post is from Jen Hamilton, a.k.a. superwoman. Jen is an experienced evaluator, the communications committee co-chair for the Eastern Evaluation Research Society, and, perhaps officially now, an evaluation blogger. Check out Jen’s previous posts about the magical ingredient in potent presentations and evaluation theory.
After writing my previous guest post on conference presentations, I’ve been thinking about them a little more. Specifically, what to do when something goes wrong. I don’t mean a glitch, I mean, horribly, terribly WRONG.
There’s the usual suspects when you think about what might go wrong with your presentation. You forgot your flash drive on the plane, your socks don’t match, you forgot to wear socks, the projector doesn’t work, nobody except your mother is in the audience, EVERYONE is in the audience—the list goes on and on. The over-riding worry is that you are going to come off looking like an unprofessional, inarticulate doofus in an ill fitting suit.
I’m here to tell you that these worries pale in comparison to the worst presentation I’ve ever seen, and how the presenter turned it around.
This was in 2009 at a professional conference, and the room was full. Not just of regular geeks like me, but also with big famous geeks who have stuff named after them.
The presentation started well enough, the equipment worked, the presenter was wearing socks, and was reasonably articulate. And then he flashed on the screen a slide that made the whole room gasp. From this slide, even I could tell that the study that he had designed, and worked so hard on, had a giant, fatal flaw. He had made a whopper of a mistake in the design of the study. I saw it. I looked around, and could tell that EVERYBODY had seen it. I considered sneaking out of the room so I wouldn’t have to watch the inevitable bloodbath.
A big famous geek raised his hand, and the surprised presenter was soon sporting a horrified expression, as the magnitude of his mistake sunk in. Everything he had done was tainted. And here is what he did. Instead of explaining and getting reflexively defensive, he said. “Oh, boy. Look at that,” pause, “That’s a problem, isn’t it? I can’t believe I missed that.”
Instead of smelling blood, the audience rallied to his defense, pointing out (kindly) how it was easy to miss, and then they started brainstorming ways to fix it. Basically a room full of smart people were working together to salvage his study.
It went from a presentation to a brainstorming session. The presenter was furiously taking notes. It was uplifting, and not only that, I learned more from the brainstorming than I ever would have from the original presentation.
So. The lesson is –don’t ever get defensive. And don’t worry about the socks.
— Jen Hamilton, @limeygrl
Jen, you mean I shouldn’t be doing this anymore?! http://whatshouldwecallme.tumblr.com/post/20142530779/when-im-giving-a-presentation-and-someone-asks-a
LOL at that visual Ann! I’m going to use that at some point. This is a interesting post, I have one along the same lines sitting in my drafts *sigh*. I wanted some original(fiction) material for my virtual bookclub, but this is great and a TRUE story!
I joined a meetup group in Atlanta, GA and I’m far from Tom Sawyer, but the last writing prompt I worked on was: “…and after ten minutes the noise had stopped” during a free writing session that allows you to get feedback from fellow writers(experienced, unlike myself) and bloggers.
Thanks so much for sharing! I’ll have to check out your posts Jen!
Good luck on your journey through blogdom 🙂
Unfortunately I can’t take credit for the excellent picture, Jen picked it out. I laugh every time I see it!
I know the feeling about drafts… I read a Q&A interview with a professional blogger (that’s her full-time job) and she said she’s got more than 200 drafts sitting around. Yikes.
Your writing meetup group sounds like a great idea! I just learned that there’s a similar group at the library near my job, so maybe I’ll check it out. Everyone keeps talking about storytelling as being one of the keys to giving potent presentations, so it can’t hurt. Stay tuned!
I look forward to reading your “…and after ten minutes the noise had stopped” story!
Great story by Jen, and that is why I always make sure to carry extra socks in my backpack!
More seriously, getting defensive in these situations is the last thing you’ll want to do. You just want to admit the mistake and roll with it – and that goes for obvious flaws in your evaluation design to more benign things like typos on slides. Getting defensive invites more (and harsher) criticism. Recognizing your mistakes and even inviting more commentary and discussion frequently leads to really positive group discussion.
Thanks Isaac – you are exactly right. I’ve seen presentations go the other way too. Presenter gets defensive about something small, and audience spends the rest of the time picking them to pieces. It’s not pretty.
I think a big factor is likability. You need the audience to like you as a presenter, and I think the audience comes into the room *wanting* to like you. That changes quickly however, once you get your back up about something. The mood shifts, and it’s almost impossible to recover from.
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