It’s not often I feel sympathy for a Hollywood film director.

Michael Bay, whose now-famous meltdown at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has drawn more than a million YouTube views, has earned it. As he took the stage to introduce Samsung’s new super HDTV with a curved screen, Bay’s teleprompter went south, and he lasted about 45 seconds before completely losing it and walking off stage. It’s hard to imagine someone who is presumably accustomed to being in the public eye suffering such a fate, but it can happen to anyone. I know this, because I have experienced the Michael Bay moment.

Several years ago at a local tech conference, one of my fellow organizers introduced a fun distraction called Powerpoint Karaoke. It involves an impromptu presentation by a speaker who has no idea what is coming. Slides last about 20 seconds, and the entire presentation is about five minutes long. It was to take place during lunch, with everyone gathered in the large room.

It was, as far as I know, one of Memphis’ first Powerpoint Karaoke presentations. There were three of us selected; I agreed because I was on the organizing committee, and I’m a pretty good sport. I thought it would be fun.

I could not have been more wrong.

As I took my place on stage, the first slide appeared. It was a picture of a guy in a white jumpsuit that was not Elvis. I had no idea who this guy was, or what he did. Only that he had an ugly mullet. And how long can you talk about a mullet in front of a large group of people?* So I’m standing there in front of a room and I’m completely blank.

Understand that I have virtually no stage fright. I speak relatively often and enjoy the energy of the room. But I know what it’s like to go blank in front of a room, and folks, it’s not a place you want to go.

Here are my five tips to keep you from melting down on stage:

  1. Know your stuff. This should go without saying, but I never present on anything I’m not intimately familiar with. Unless I can easily explain it in casual conversation, I’m probably not going to get up and talk about it. Your material should be so familiar that you don’t need notes. I use my slide deck as a trigger to talk about things and stay on track.
  2. Don’t depend on technology. Equipment — including projectors, bulbs, computers, software, and even your fancy laser pointer — fails. And when it fails, it does so at the very worst time. I always use a remote because I like to walk around, but if it suddenly fails, or I forget it, I can advance the slides manually if I have to.
  3. Whatever you do, don’t depend on the Internet. Once I did a WordPress 101 presentation. The idea was to walk through the admin interface and explain it while demonstrating how to create a post, add a photo, and other basic tasks. You know what happened: of course the Internet refused to load the pages, just for me. It could have been a disaster, or another Bay moment, except that I had Plan B: a full deck of screenshots of each element I wanted to cover.
  4. Write your own material. Or at least review it heavily if you don’t. I cannot imagine giving a talk I didn’t write. One of the many reasons I’m not in politics. Unless you’re a CEO or the President of the United States, I’d rather hear your words from you than what someone else puts in your mouth.
  5. Backupbackupbackup. When I go to speak, I have a copy of the presentation — in Keynote and as a PDF — in no less than three places: in my Dropbox account, on my Mac desktop, and on a stick drive in my pocket. The PDF is in case you forget a Mac adapter or otherwise have to present from someone else’s laptop; your fonts, and graphics will stay where you put them. Yep. Six copies of the darned thing. That’s because once I as preparing to speak, I realized my presentation hadn’t fully synced to Dropbox. And the desktop copy was somehow corrupt. Enter the trusty stick drive. Disaster averted.

If you follow these tips, I can’t guarantee you’ll never have a speaking disaster, but I will promise you’ll be more prepared for the worst. In case you need to feel better about your own on-stage nightmare, here’s a (short!) video of Bay’s undoing.

What’s your worst speaking experience; either your own or one you’ve witnessed?

*Someone told me later that the guy was Dog the Bounty Hunter. I still have no idea what he does. 


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