When Technology Fails

If you do a lot of speaking, you’re eventually going to experience a technological malfunction. Your computer will crash. The projector won’t work. Your clicker will stop responding. The sound system will short out. Something will go haywire. Count on it.

Man with chainsaw and computer

Yesterday, I felt like I watched a train wreck in slow motion. I was attending a trade association conference. One of the speakers had a technological meltdown. First, his lavaliere microphone wouldn’t work. So, the conference organizer gave him a hand-held mic. He briefly apologized and then launched into his introduction.

It was great. Except that the production guy, walked to the stage while the speaker was speaking and stood in front of him like a dog waiting for a biscuit. He wanted to change out the batteries in the lavaliere. Of course, this was incredibly distracting to the speaker and the audience. So, we waited for the batteries to be changed out. This didn’t fix the problem, so we went back to the handheld.

Then the speaker tried to advance his computer to the next slide in his PowerPoint presentation. Nothing happened. No matter what he tried, the computer was locked up. Again, the speaker apologized. Another tech guy came forward and finally got the slides working.

This has happened to me before, so I certainly empathized with the speaker. There is nothing worse than working your tail off to prepare a presentation and then have it go down in flames when the technology gremlins decide to attack. Fortunately, this particular speaker did a masterful job of retaining his composure and ended up giving a very compelling speech. By the time he was finished, everyone had forgotten about the rocky start.

If you are a speaker, there are some things you can do to avoid this situation. I want to talk about those first. But sometimes, even when you have prepared and done all you can do, circumstances will conspire against you. Forces beyond your control will take over. You need a plan for that, too.

So, first, what can you do to avoid a technological meltdown?

  1. Make a backup. This is the most obvious. But few speakers do it. I make a back up of my presentation on my hard drive. And, then I make two copies on a small flash drive—one is a Keynote copy of the presentation (which is the Mac equivalent of PowerPoint), the other is a PDF of the presentation. My thinking here is that if no one else at the conference has an Apple computer, at least I can copy over the PDF and flip through it. It won’t have all the carefully considered transitions and builds, but it will be better than nothing.
  2. Print out your notes. If I can’t get the projector to work at all, then I want to at least have my notes available, so I can still give my speech. This is actually a very good test of whether or not your presentation has any substance. Whatever you have created in PowerPoint (or Keynote, if you are using an Apple) is not your presentation. It is a supplement to your presentation. If you have read any of my other posts on PowerPoint, then you know how often I preach this. YOU are the presentation. If your speech isn’t compelling without PowerPoint, no amount of fancy builds and transitions will save you.
  3. Test your equipment. This is the critical. I always arrange to test my equipment and the conference organizer’s equipment well before I step up to the podium. I was actually the speaker before the one I described in my opening paragraphs above. I had a Mac. He, unfortunately, had a PC. I made sure my microphone and my slides were working properly. I wanted to make sure that I could see the “Presenter’s Display” (with the timer and upcoming slides) on my laptop, while the real presentation was displayed on the two giant screens. Everything worked flawlessly.

    The speaker that followed me, then plugged in his machine. Again everything worked flawlessly. But I don’t remember him testing his microphone. Oops! You’d think a professional production company would have insisted on this, but apparently they were asleep at the wheel.

So what do you do if you’ve done all you can do and the technology still fails? First recognize this is going to happen. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will eventually happen to you. I don’t know when or how, but sometime, someplace, the stuff you are counting on to work is going to fail. What do you do then?

  1. Apologize once, then stop apologizing. My only complaint with the speaker whose equipment failed yesterday was that he kept apologizing. I know how embarrassing this can be. You want to find a hole and climb into it. It is humiliating. But the audience will take their cues from you. If you are calm and at ease—even if you have to fake it—they will be calm and at ease. I think a good rule of thumb is to apologize once, then zip it. Don’t bring it up again. Let the techies do their job and, hopefully, get it fixed. But what happens if it drags on and they aren’t getting it fixed?
  2. Make a decision to “fish or cut bait.” You have to retain control. Everything feels like it is in slow motion. You want to scream. But give them a couple of minutes. You have to go with your gut. Are you confident that they know what they are doing? Or, are they clueless and just hoping they get lucky? Only you can make the call. If it is the latter, than you have to ditch the PowerPoint and get the techies off the stage. This is where you need to be direct but not rude. “Gentlemen, don’t worry about it. I will make the presentation without my slides. Thank you very much.” And then, to the audience, “Let’s give these guys a big hand for a valiant attempt.”
  3. Remember, you are the presentation. You then have to take a big breath and make a powerful presentation. Now, before you panic, remember: the greatest speeches in the history of the world were made without presentation software. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” John Kennedy’s “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You,” and Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” speeches were all given—believe it or not!—without PowerPoint. You can do it. Don’t let PowerPoint be a crutch.

I know you’ve put a lot of work into your presentation, but people came to hear you, not see your slides. Even when your technology fails, you can give them what they want and deliver a great speech.

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  • http://joshuabryant.com Joshua

    I’m surprised one of your suggestions wasn’t “4. Use a Mac.” Okay, I kid, I kid. But there’s nothing worse than seeing MSN messenger pop ups during a powerpoint or spyware, etc.. just completely take over a computer and cause it to lock or misbehave during a presentation.

    I find many business PC users are not quite “up” on their computers and their little IBM laptops have more malware on them than actual useful software. I’ve seen more presentations destroyed by this than I can count. I think a big thing is to have a company laptop that only gets used for presentations and nothing else. A clean machine, reducing the risk of a disaster by 80%.

  • http://www.xanga.com/chicken_man Josh D

    thanks for that, I enjoyed reading it!

  • http://presentationrevolution.typepad.com Scott Schwertly

    I love this quote from Guy Kawasaki:

    “If there’s no projector when you show up for a meeting, it’s your fault. If your laptop and the projector don’t work together, it’s your fault. If the bulb blows out in the middle of your pitch, it’s your fault. If you start slowly, seem disorganized, and look dishelved, it’s your fault.”

    Here are some other practical tips:

    1. If you have an iPod, save your presentation on it. There is a program called iPresent It which will allow you to use your iPod as a back-up.
    2. Bring extra batteries for your presentation remote
    3. Double tie your shoes
    4. Bring an extension cord
    5. Bring back-up speakers
    6. Never use a handkerchief if you are sweating. Use your hands instead.

  • http://daveanthold.typepad.com/elevate Dave Anthold

    This is so true. I like being prepared and whenever I feel rushed and miss doing certain routine things like checking, I always get a little wary that something will go wrong. Being flustered certainly doesn’t help the situation. Thanks for the observations.

  • Brian Penney

    This is a common enough problem that some grad schools actually teach to it through variations of a certain exercise : one has to give a talk on a carousel of slides that one has never seen before. Although this is usually done for edification or entertainment (such sa the department Christmas party) the lesson is very good: be prepared to talk no matter what the projector throws at you!

  • Anonymous

    One time I attended a contest for Toastmasters. It was at a local county building with public access. In the middle of one of the speeches, a guy walked into the room playing a trumpet. If you’ve heard one, you know it’s very loud. All the speaker could do was stop until some of the participants escorted the guy out the door. Then the speaker calmly picked up where she had left off and continued with the speech.

  • Michele

    I am a professor at 3 Nashville-area universities, and I regularly force students to practice presenting while I foul up their technology. Now I can also hand them a copy of a blog from a CEO that preaches the same thing I do in class. Thanks, Mike!

  • http://twitter.com/dbonleadership Dan

    When technology fails during a speech you need to make the best out of it. Great points.

  • http://www.forward-living.com W. Mark Thompson

    My wife is a teacher and she’s a techno-phobe. I’m convinced that technology doesn’t work right for her because of all the horrible things she’s said about it. So I had to read this.

    I see now it deals with speaking and technology. Wow! That could make things look bad. But I really like the last point. “You are the presentation.” Can’t go wrong there. If the presenter KNOWS the material, how to communicate it & a great recovery is a lot more probable.

    Ooo… Gotta go help my wife with her new school-issued MacBook.