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Dave Hill – Speaker, Trainer, Author, and Speech Coach

It was just meant to be another parent-teacher meeting at my kid’s school. Little did the teachers know that disaster was on the way. The parents and kids slowly started filling the school gymnasium. The location was not ideal, as the metal roof of the building seemed to capture the many conversations going on before the meeting, and elevate it to the point of not being able to hear the person chatting to you. The PowerPoint projector had been set up ahead of time, and was projecting a picture of a bunch of happy kids on the screen.

Teachers were scurrying in and out of the room with an aura of stress; they were each going to present a section of the school happenings, goals and achievements. The teachers called for attention, parents started to take their seats, and the background noise started to diminish. Then it happened. There was a noticeable pop from the projector, and the screen went blank.

Imagine 6 female teachers looking at each other with eyes as big as golf balls and mouths wide open in silent screams. By looking at their stressful faces, I knew that they were trying to speak telepathically to each other. “I am not going to speak without the PowerPoint”. “I am on the verge of running out of this room”. “Don’t even think of asking me to speak”. “I feel a hot-flash coming on…”

The parents and school kids picked up on what was playing out in front of their eyes. Tension was building in the room as people were thinking, “I am really grateful I am not in their shoes right now“.
We wondered if they were going to call it off, but then we noticed that 5 of the teachers were staring at the 6th. They were making facial gestures at her, nodding, and subtly pointing at the speaking area at the front of the room. She was apparently the “chosen one” and hesitantly stepped forward, looking at the ground with her mind going at 100 miles per hour, trying to get her thoughts together. She started by immediately saying something funny, relating to the popped bulb. I cannot remember what she said, but it got everyone chuckling, and there was immediately a relaxation of tension.

I had heard this teacher speak before at a graduation ceremony. She was the only one who spoke without notes and from the heart. Her speech was memorable, compared to the others who were reading notes word-for-word in a monotonous voice, without any eye contact or engagement with the students or parents.

The “volunteer” teacher talked while maintaining a level of confidence, and managed to stumble through the presentation while trying to recall the main points she had to cover (for everyone). She completed her presentation and received loud applause from the parents and school kids. They recognized what she had just done, and were not only appreciative; they were relieved that she did not break down and cause an awkward moment.

Now that I have described someone else’s disaster, let me describe my personal embarrassing mess-up. I was scheduled to give a free technical presentation to a group of engineers in 2008. The meeting was being held in a private room at a local restaurant, and I was to speak after the business meeting. My contact had told me that he would bring the screen and projector so I could do a PowerPoint type presentation. I put a lot of work into the risk engineering technical presentation, and it even included videos of toxic clouds and explosions to help people understand how I help keep people safe in the unlikely event of a toxic or flammable release at a chemical plant. During the business meeting, as I was arranging my hand-out notes, my contact came over to me, red in the face, and stated that he had just noticed that he had forgotten to pack the cord that runs between the projector and the laptop. We jumped in his car and went to the local electronics store; however we could not find the correct cable. I was stressed and annoyed with myself.

Before departing for the meeting, I had considered bringing my own projector and cables. Somehow, I managed to convince myself that that would be a waste of time. The loud voice of “Murphy” rang loudly in my head- “If something is going to go wrong, it will!” It was ironic that Murphy would impact me, the Irishman, but it was a reality check for me, the person who knew to be better prepared for things going wrong. Luckily, it was a small group of people and I was able to get them to huddle around the laptop screen and see my slides and videos. Not ideal by a long stretch, but at least I managed to get my message across.

Some Considerations To Help You Prepare For Audio-Visual Problems:
1) Think of all that could go wrong- ask other presenters what could go wrong, and have some form of backup plan.
2) Have funny comments available ahead of time for each type of failure instance. Deflect the tension.
3) **Get to your venue as early as possible, set up the equipment, and test everything. Talk to the audio-visual technical person to get an idea of what problems have come up in the past in that specific room.
4) Find out ahead of time how you can contact the technical person at a hotel or conference area if things do go wrong.
5) Projector & Laptop Computer
• Check before you leave your house that you have packed all the necessary cables and extension cords.
• Find out if the venue has spare projectors, bulbs, and laptops at hand.
• Do you have a spare bulb for your own projector? Practice how to replace it in a hurry.
• Consider the possibility of using your handout notes to work from, if everything else fails.
• Is your computer set up so that distracting updating security software messages and similar messages do not pop up during your presentation?
6) Microphone – see my previous article on “Befriending the Microphone” at this link:
• Test it ahead of time to find the feedback areas and learn where the on/off button is.
• Is there someone qualified to make adjustments if feedback or anything else starts to become a problem during your presentation.
• When were the batteries last changed? Do you or the A-V technical person have spare batteries?
• Will the crowd size and room size be small enough for your voice to project to everyone without a microphone?
• Will there be a second microphone that can be used as a backup?