Five Ways to Avoid Speaking Disasters

Writing in the Guardian, Athene Donald describes Eight Common Conference Disasters. Some of these, like the time a swimming pool leaked into the auditorium below, are hard to guard against. But for most of the others careful speakers can at least mitigate the impacts, and sometimes avoid the consequences altogether.

Here are five ways that speakers can and should prepare to minimize the risk of catastrophe.

Check Your Own Laptop. If you plan to use your own laptop at an event make sure that you test it at least the day before. Don't wait until you are on stage to discover there is a problem. Run through the entire presentation to make sure that everything works as you expected. Make sure, too, that you also know how to connect your laptop to the projector. Practice this operation with a projector at least once and stick a note on your laptop to remind you which key you need to press to send the video to the projector. Be especially careful to test that animations and videos run correctly on the computer you will use.

Have a Backup Copy of Every File. If you had planned to use your own laptop and it fails at the last moment you can always borrow another computer, but make sure that you have a key with a copy of the presentation file on it. Keep a special key for this purpose and carry only the files needed for the presentation. This will avoid your private files all being listed on the screen while you look for the file. Keep the key separately from the computer but just in case you lose both always have another backup copy of the presentation somewhere you can access it online -- perhaps on GoogleDrive or DropBox. For smaller files you can even email it to yourself.

Test Onstage at the Venue. At the best-run conferences speakers have a chance to test all the equipment on stage before the event. In some cases this speaker practice is mandatory but in any case you should always do this. Apart from identifying technical problems it also reduces your nerves by getting you more used to the stage, the sound of the microphone and so on. It's also your chance to ask if lights can be moved, monitors placed in a better position and  so on. If the organizers have not planned any sound check time it doesn't hurt to ask. There's no reason why they shouldn't let you try everything before the doors open to the public.

Always Have a Plan B. In any case, always have a plan B for every eventuality. If a key video doesn't work make sure you have an alternative image sequence you can use. If the computer fails be ready to switch to another. And if the problem isn't going to be fixed quickly either ask for a break or fall back on a computer-less alternative. Remember that little more than a generation ago nobody needed Powerpoint for a lecture. Be prepared to deliver at least your key messages using just a whiteboard or a flip chart. You can have specific notes for this situation if you have some hard-to-remember data to present, but you should be able to deliver the key messages of your lecture with no support at all. Practice this at home. In addition to sparing you some hideous embarrassment it will also calm you nerves to know that you are ready for everything.

Influence Organizers to Improve. Many events are organized very efficiently by professionals and more or less immune to disasters. These are the conferences I prefer to speak at. Others are not so well organized and in this case I recommend speakers to use their influence to change this. If there is no speaker practice time in the schedule ask for it. If there is no technical expert standing by to fix technology problems suggest that they find at least a volunteer to help. If the equipment is very poor make a note of lobbying for better next time. You can't control all of the circumstances but you can at least push the balance in your favor.

Some disasters -- like leaking swimming pools -- are very hard to plan around, but most of the really common presentation disasters could easily have been avoided by preparing, testing and redundancy. Ultimately its your own reputation that is at stake so it is worth making this effort to make sure that you are the unruffleable speaker that continues through anything, rather than the unfortunate person whose presentation was essentially lost to PowerPoint gremlins.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing about speaking and other communication topics you can contact Andrew Hennigan by email at, by phone at 0046 730 894 475 and through his website


Popular posts from this blog

Dear Best Regards: How to Start and End Your Emails

Reverting to Emails: Confusion and the Indian English Language

TED’s Magical Red Carpet