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