Despite what instructors will tell you, sometimes a presentation just goes bad. It isn’t the fault of the presenter and doesn’t result from a lack of rehearsals or planning. It has nothing to do with the number of hours invested in research and is wholly unrelated to the audience or the subject matter. Truth be told, some presentation glitches simply can’t be foreseen.
My lack of sleep the previous night was a perfect example. I had engaged in my usual pre-bed routine and was snuggled beneath my electric blanket in plenty of time to get my usual 8 hours. My head hit the pillow and I was out like a light.
It was a fine start, but for some inexplicable reason, the usual setting for the blanket didn’t produce its usual result. Instead of keeping me toasty through a night of pleasant slumber, it began to get warm. Groggy-eyed, I threw off the covers, turned down the heat, and zonked out again.
About twenty minutes later, I was once more awake. This time I was cold. I grabbed the covers (which were still piled at the foot of the bed) and pulled them up around my shoulders. It felt cozy, so I closed my eyes and drifted off. Then, like shampoo, it was a matter of rinse and repeat for the rest of the night. Total yield: six hours of fitful slumber.
By the next morning, I was only partially coherent. The only thing I really remember clearly is that a presenter who was supposed to follow me jumped the gun and took my slot. I’d been chugging down coffee, so this probably worked in my favor. Nevertheless, as I strode to center stage, my brain went blank. The well-planned, well-rehearsed presentation had evaporated into thin air, leaving in its place, only fear.
I stared out at my audience and cautiously began to grab at anything and everything that might even vaguely pertain to the subject: product repositioning. I defined a few terms, glanced at the clock, panicked (an emotional response which I believe my audience picked up on), and began explaining the art of perceptual mapping.
In theory, this process produces a visual diagram of the relative market position of different product lines as perceived by customers, i.e., is it cheap, expensive, easy to maintain, difficult to maintain, etc. I quickly drew a chart with these four markers and began to fill it in not with brands of cars or DVD players (as I had originally planned), but with types of relationships.
Marriage, it turns out, falls near the intersection of difficult and expensive while the “I’m a princess” girlfriend is located somewhere in the range of easy and expensive. And Vegas hookers? Those are easy and cheap… unless, of course, your wife finds out. (Then, they become more expensive than marriage!)
The audience was doubled over, but I was feeling mildly mortified. Where were these analogies coming from? It was like having an out of body experience in front of two-dozen attentive spectators.
I later confessed my feelings to several of my audience members, apologizing for the uncharacteristic “bombing” of the presentation and the phenomenon which I later named “sudden onset presentation turrets” or SOPT for short.
“Don’t apologize!” one of them laughed. “I’ll never fail a test on perceptual mapping until the day I die!” (She went on to explain that the key to her success would by my Vegas hookers. Several other audience members nodded in agreement.)
This, of course, goes to prove two important points. The first is that you can’t anticipate everything that might go wrong with a presentation and that what you can’t anticipate sometimes can’t be stopped. The second is that if you don’t just bomb a presentation, but bomb with style, people will still remember what you said.
Fifty years from now, my audience members will be sharing my spectacular diagram with their grandchildren. My only hope is that when those youngsters hear the tale they will recognize that even a perceived failure can become a useful memory. Perhaps the difference between victory and defeat is, in the end, merely a matter of perspective.