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I survived a speaker’s worst nightmare at BlogWorld! (And you can, too.)

October 17, 2009

Summary: When I realized I was giving the wrong presentation, I started to panic. What should I do? Plus, five tips on how you can survive a speaking disaster.

• • •

I delivered my BlogWorld presentation, “Instant Startup: Your Very Own School for Blogging,” from the floor, not from behind the podium. I like getting closer to the audience, rather than being trapped onstage.

When the first few attendees left my presentation early, I wasn’t fazed. “Seminar shopping” is a part of conferences.

Then, a few more left. Did my slides suck? Had I forgotten to shower??

About 15 minutes in, I was hitting my groove, making eye contact, delivering my talk at a relaxed pace. And then someone raised her hand to ask a question.

Jill Stanek (@jillstanek) asked if I would be teaching about how to write better blog posts. I said, “No, maybe you have the wrong room?” (Sometimes, attendees wander into the wrong room.)

No, she was in the right room, here to see Wade Kwon talk about improving your blog writing. I was confused. Another attendee pulled out her printed guide (I hadn’t thumbed through it yet) and read the description for my session. The session title was right, but the conference organizers had included a summary from a different proposal I had submitted months ago. (See, print isn’t dead.)

I was horrified. I had been giving the wrong presentation!

blogworld 2009 printed program

I started to panic. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was embarrassed for me. I was concerned for those who had already left. I was a little ticked. And I needed a game plan.

I took a deep breath.

“Who here wants to learn about starting your own social media academy?” About five hands went up.

“Who here wants to learn about writing killer blog posts?” Just about everyone else, about 35 people, raised their hands.

I decided. I promised the five people that if they would see me afterward, I would tell them anything and everything they wanted to know about creating your own blogging school. If I had to stand in the hallway and talk with each one individually, I would do it. They paid good money to be at this conference, and I didn’t want to let them down. (One of them was Kim, who told me at breakfast that she was looking forward to my class.)

(And dammit, I spent a lot of time on this new presentation. I’d give it, even I had to stand on the Strip shouting it to tourists.)

And then I told everyone that I would switch to my “Writing Killer Blog Posts” slides. I had 40 minutes left to do a 90-minute presentation with no notes, no preparation (I hadn’t taught this lesson plan in months), but plenty of adrenaline. I warned them that I would be moving quickly, but would still take questions.

I kept a close eye on the clock, as usual. I settled down and started talking through the material. I asked questions, fielded questions, asked more questions. And somehow, we made it through all the material in half the time.

It could’ve been a disaster. It turned out OK, maybe even a little successful. One attendee came up afterward and called me a “rock star.” Wow. She said she appreciated my flexibility and cool under fire.

I do have my concerns:

  • Damage to my credibility, especially among those who left and never got the class they wanted.
  • Damage to BlogWorld’s credibility. One small editing error makes for a lot of chaos.
  • Lessening my chances for speaking at BlogWorld again, either through negative feedback on the attendees’ evaluation forms, or from simply going public with this. (I left a message at the BlogWorld office for organizer Rick Calvert to call me. He hasn’t yet, though it is in the middle of his conference.)
  • And simply this: Leaving students in the lurch. I think most got what they wanted. And I did teach the new material to two attendees around the lunch table. It was relaxed, informal and direct.

But I survived. And perhaps gained some confidence. Maybe I can handle any disaster while giving a talk.

Twitter - mary_rarick: Wade Kwon RAWKS! #bwe09

• • •

Let me share some tips on how you can survive your own speaking disaster:

Take a deep breath. You have to regain control, of yourself, of the situation. (Though you never really lost control or maybe even had control.)

Listen carefully. Had I not taken Jill’s question, I would’ve continued to make an ass of myself. But Jill had the common sense and courage to ask the obvious question. I’m grateful to her, because she alone saved my presentation. Thank you, Jill!

Listen to your audience carefully. Their verbal and nonverbal signals are the early warning signs if your presentation is going awry.

Prepare for possible hurdles. If the wi-fi goes out, have screenshots of Web sites. If the projector explodes, beat out the fire with a misprinted program, then continue the talk with your notes.

Be flexible. Consider your options (and yes, you always have options). Just think them through. You can’t prepare for every possible snafu, but you’re smart: Can you switch gears? Can you ask the audience for their preference? Can you promise on a make-good and then deliver?

Let’s say I didn’t have the slides or the notes for “Writing Killer Blog Posts,” then what? I could still talk about the two parts of the lesson — improving writing and tweaking the blogging side — in an open discussion. I could throw out some examples, then ask students to suggest their own techniques. I could have students ask specific questions and put their blogs onscreen to critique.

You always have options. Except one: to abandon your audience.

Keep a positive attitude. It’s your show. Even if you’re panicking on the inside, keep a calm exterior. Act calm, and eventually you will be calm. Mistakes happen, and audiences understand that. So be a good sport about it.

Share your suggestions for how speakers should deal with disaster in the comments, please.

Update: Jill talks about what she learned in class (“quite helpful”) and other info from BlogWorld.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. Zackery permalink
    October 17, 2009 11:24 am

    I would have died!! Sounds like you successfully recovered. Keep on RAWKING!!!

    Z

    • October 17, 2009 1:21 pm

      I almost died. But years of experience in public speaking pays off. Thanks for commenting, Zak.

  2. October 17, 2009 1:51 pm

    Great recovery Wade!

    • October 17, 2009 9:18 pm

      Thanks. It was very nearly a comedy of errors.

  3. October 17, 2009 3:59 pm

    Thank you this is a perfect example of sharing in an authentic, open hearted way that is perfect for interaction. You rock for breathing, staying calm and shifting into (thank god you had your slides) your other presentation.

    I appreciate your being open and showing us ways to handle situations that can present themselves when we are not expecting them.

    • November 2, 2009 4:49 pm

      You’re welcome, Michele. It was a challenge, but it’s easy for me to share the story, warts and all.

  4. October 18, 2009 8:05 am

    I just told my wife about your Twit and read your post and we feel your pain. My wife teaches real estate related courses and now we are moving into social media classes. My wife always says we have to expect the unexpected.

    One class she taught, the person who was bringing all the handouts and the projector forgot the time of the class and showed up a half an hour late. Luckily my wife always brings her own projector and extra handouts.

    It all worked out but it always seems something technical seems to go awry every once in a while.

    Glad it worked out for you.

    • October 19, 2009 9:26 pm

      She sounds like a pro. And she has good advice.

      I’d like to get to the point where I can buy a small projector. It would come in handy for instant setups, as well as in case of problems on site.

      Thanks for commenting, Jay.

  5. October 18, 2009 12:48 pm

    Wade,

    As I public speaker myself, I was SO IMPRESSED by your recovery, first that you didn’t panic, then that you had the “Write killer blogs” slides with you, immediately knew where they were, and honestly didn’t skip a beat when switching topics.

    You apologized in advance for being rusty on that talk but I noticed you anticipated upcoming slides and bullet points before advancing to them, indicating you had practiced, practiced, practiced at some point.

    I learned a lot from your class, Wade. And I spotted you twice afterward (once at lunch, once in the hall) giving your original presentation. This showed topnotch character on your part.

    In my mind this entire episode was a blessing in disguise. You taught more unspoken lessons than you may know.

    God speed… 🙂

    • October 19, 2009 9:28 pm

      Jill,

      I am blessed by having students like you. And I hope you never have to endure such a last-minute surprise!

      I hope BlogWorld was a great experience for you and that you’ll continue to share your insights and passion with the world.

  6. October 22, 2009 4:16 pm

    Wow, Wade. Yuck. That totally sounds like something that would happen to me. But it sounds like you pulled it off excellently – much better than I would have!!!

    • October 22, 2009 8:02 pm

      Thanks, but you never know until you’re put to the test.

      That’s one reason I wrote this up, so that you have the tools to overcome these kinds of obstacles. If anyone else has ideas or tips, please share.

  7. October 26, 2009 11:48 am

    It’s for just such occasions as this that I have a splash screen slide (sometimes that’s my only slide! 🙂 ) and typically start of by saying what I’m intending to do and then having a joke about “if that’s not what you’re expecting, say so now, so we can go to the pub!”. (Hey, it’s funny when I tell it, honest!)

    Nice recovery though.

    S

    • October 26, 2009 4:00 pm

      Excellent. Slides are a crutch. I believe good presentations can be given in various ways.

  8. October 27, 2009 12:06 pm

    Wow that’s quite the experience, thanks for documenting! I am far from even a decent public speaker and would have been a nervous train wreck in that situation!

    • October 27, 2009 10:21 pm

      You’re welcome, Paul.

      BTW, Paul has great writeups of his experiences at BlogWorld and at WordCamp Birmingham.

  9. George Costanza permalink
    November 11, 2009 9:02 pm

    I was scheduled to give a talk on risk management and my files got switched around, so ended up speaking on Ovaltine. Fortunately, the material was quite good, and I got a standing ovation for the “Roundtine” joke.

    • November 11, 2009 9:57 pm

      Ba dum bump.

  10. December 2, 2009 6:14 pm

    I was in your session that day, Wade, and I was so impressed with the way you handled a difficult situation with grace and poise.Your second presentation was impeccable.I took copious notes.

    I can honestly say that I learned more from you in that session that I learned in any other BW09 session.

    • December 2, 2009 10:26 pm

      Mary,

      You rock! Thanks for weighing in and for connecting me with others.

      Wade

  11. September 24, 2011 4:55 pm

    I had never heard of BlogWorld until yesterday. Yeah, what the hell kind of blogger am I? I won’t go into that here.

    I enjoyed your recounting of this story. An incident of this nature can actually be a real blessing for the pro-speaker. How you recover and come off in the aftermath will probably get you more future speaking gigs than a slick well delivered presentation where everyone politely applauds, walks away, and soon forgets.

    I wonder if you’ll get this comment two years after the fact. Anyway just noticed the L.A. version of BlogWorld coming in November and thought I might just see if they could slip me in as a last minute speaker. Since I live here anyway and all.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out

    • September 24, 2011 6:27 pm

      Good luck, Lee!

      I have talked with the BlogWorld folks since, and I even returned in 2010 to speak again.

  12. October 24, 2016 3:37 pm

    Clutch your heart, fall to the floor and let those who have had CPR and the paramedics take it from there. Don’t forget to say “Bless All Of You” as they roll you out of the room.

    • October 24, 2016 9:31 pm

      Trust me, my acting is worse than my speaker-in-the-clutch routine. 🙂

Trackbacks

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