The comedian Al Franken performs his party piece at a fundraiser. Al can draw the United States of America, state by state, freehand. It’s one of those fairly pointless man things – “Hey look what I can do!” – but when you’re running for the Senate, it’s a slightly more concrete demonstration of how much you are interested in your country than wearing a lapel pin.

Most trainers and skilled presenters have a couple of these schticks that they can pull out at the drop of a hat. It’s a very good idea, because you never know when you are going to have to fill some ‘dead air’ because of a technical hitch or a late arrival.

Steve Jobs illustrated this really well in his January 2007 keynote. His remote clicker stopped working and so did the backup. He paused for a moment, smiled and said, “They’re scrambling backstage right now.” He got a big laugh and then led off into a riff about himself a Woz building a TV Jammer and messing with people’s TVs while they were watching Star Trek and forcing them into contorted positions trying to fix it. Lots of laughs, a story that related to the glitch Steve was experiencing at that moment and, sure enough, the techies fixed the problem and he went back into his flow. [You can see a short YouTube of this incident here]

Franken is able to make his party piece an integral part of his stump speech. If you can do that, well and good, but even so, have a couple of pieces of sure-fire material that are not technology dependent. What would you do to fill the dead air if:
  • All the lights went out in the room?
  • Your microphone stopped working?
  • The PC crashes or the lamp on the projector blows?
  • Your guest speaker is nowhere to be found?
  • The markers for the whiteboard were all dry?
  • Your presenter notes were not visible to you because you are up on stage and, due to the room setup, your laptop is not in your line of sight?
  • There were intermittent 3-minute bursts of loud construction noise from the street outside?

People always make fun of my fanatical preparations and backups for big presentations, right up to the point where something goes wrong and I am able to continue despite the problem. I was never a boyscout – too much walking – but for presentations, I am Mister ‘Be Prepared’ guy. What’s your party piece? Can you use it in professional settings? And if you have any horrors and catastrophes that you would like to share – whether you overcame them or not – I’d love to hear about them. Do drop me a line or a comment.

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Technology failures