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Nightmares on Elm Street: Turning Platform Disasters into Opportunities

By Patti A. Wood, MA

Years ago, I was standing on stage speaking to 500 engineers. I had just said, ``Our nonverbal communication is more accurate and honest than our words,'' when my half slip fell to the floor. I quickly picked it up, smiled at the audience, and said, ``A Freudian slip!'' The audience roared. I tossed the slip behind the podium, my hand shaking, and continued my speech.

Was this a disaster or an opportunity? Was I a teenage victim of ``Nightmare on Elm Street'' or Melanie Griffith overcoming the odds in ``Working Girl?'' Well, the audience could see through my skirt for the rest of my speech, and I didn't get to kiss Harrison Ford, but I felt that in that moment of reality (and abject humiliation), I connected with the audience in a very special and memorable way. Anyone who had been in public with spinach between their teeth or a price tag hanging out identified with me.

Forget all the nightmares on Elm Street. If you want to avoid or deal with disasters on the platform, here are the movies you want to learn from.

Our first movie is "Working Girl.''

Melanie Griffith is accused of stealing an idea. She doesn't slink out of sight. She stands up to the accuser and explains how she got her idea. Lesson #1: "Show grace under pressure.''

You need to remember that it is not the disaster that matters, it's how you deal with it. Your audience takes their energetic cue from you. They will decide what they think about you, your speech, and the event, based on your reaction.

Roll the credits! The next movie is "The Longest Yard.''

Burt Reynolds is in prison. He plays football and has made intricate plans to escape during the big game. In a moment of truth, he realizes the greater goal is to support his teammates. He stays. Lesson #2: "Remember the greater goals.''

It's easy to pass over the greater goals in our rush to get through our planned content, but teaching the five ways to motivate employees or sharing that funny story that ``always works,'' are not the greater goals of a speaker. I believe the greater goals are: 1) to be present in each moment with your audience, 2) to connect with each audience member, and 3) to be a living, breathing example of your topic with all your sparkle and foibles showing.

Eight years ago, I was doing a program for a state agency. The big wigs were in the audience to check me out. If it went well, I would take the program all over the state. While handing out gold stars for audience participation, I suddenly realized I wasn't going to get through all my wonderfully well-planned material. I thought, "No problem, I'll just give stars to every other contributor.'' So, I didn't give a star to the next contributor who happened to be black. The next contributor got a star. He happened to be white. The next contributor did not get a star. She was black. I noticed the faces of the two bypassed people and thought, "Oh no, they are disappointed!''

My mind raced for something to say while I kept going and giving out stars. Seconds later, the first bypassed woman raised her hand and spoke up, saying, ``I just want to point out that you bypassed the two minorities and not the two white men, and that is exactly the kind of problem we have all the time in this agency!'' The room was silent—all the air left my lungs—I knew in that single moment my speaking career was over. I had blown it.

Some nebulous voice inside me said, "Remember the greater goals.'' I sat down and moved my chair closer to the audience. I told them, "I really messed up. I was thinking of the material and the time and not about you. Even when I saw your faces fall, I didn't stop. I rushed on. I apologize.'' Then I asked each of the bypassed women, and then every member of the audience, to share what they saw and felt in that moment. We then discussed how it related to how they felt at work. It took the rest of our time together, and it was a scary process, but I've never forgotten the greater goals, and I continue to learn about myself each time I uphold them.

Back with more popcorn, our next movie is "Sister Act.''

Whoopie Goldberg gets stuck in a convent as part of a witness protection program. She illustrates Lesson #3: "Take the adverse energy of the situation and turn it to your advantage.''

I was on the same association program with the "super fantastic'' motivational speaker Keith Harrell. During the high point of his speech, the revival meeting (including a fifty member gospel choir) in the banquet room next door broke into full song. The sound was unbelievable. Like the pro that he is, Keith took control of the situation and had every member in his audience up clapping their hands and singing. It brought down the house! He used the situation to his advantage and energized the audience.

The curtains part on our next movie, "Do the Right Thing.''

Danny Aiello learns a negative lesson. He is a pizza shop owner in the ghetto. His coolness is admired, but one day he loses his cool and yells at some kids acting up in his store. The result is fire, mayhem, and death. Alas, if he had only remembered Lesson #4: "Stay cool!''

It was a beautiful warm spring day. The college auditorium was filled with 100 students wearing shorts and dolphin T-shirts. They were party vessels ready for action. The students were whispering, throwing spit wads, and writing love notes. I was the graduate teaching assistant. I watched the instructor getting more and more angry until finally he exploded, yelling at the students to "shut up!'' I saw 100 students quickly unify and turn against an instructor they had loved that semester. I prayed, "Please don't ever let me forget this.''

Never get mad. It's a lesson I hope you will never have to experience. If you do, cajole, tease, make jokes, have them do an exercise, ask them for their help in doing a good job for them, go to your last story—and stay cool!!

Last month, on a warm, sunny day in Las Vegas, I walked in to speak for four hours to 75 sales people dressed in golf clothes for a 12:30 game. They, too, were party vessels ready for action. Years of doing training with sales groups helped a little, but it was that vivid burning memory of my college instructor's fate that saved me. I knew it was my responsibility to take this energetic group and create learning.

OK, break open those Milk Duds and get ready for our next movie, "Home Alone.''

MacCaulay Culkin, a small boy, is left alone in his house and must fight off intruders. His preparation for virtually every contingency saves the day. Lesson #5: "Be prepared!''

Every speaker I spoke to about this article had a story about a platform disaster—the wrong room set-up, a dead microphone, projector failure, no air conditioning, lost materials, etc. etc. All of them recommended proper preparation. The following tips can help ensure a smooth presentation:

1. Send a point-by-point list of your audio visual needs and room set-up. Don't communicate these needs on the phone; help your meeting planner by having the information available in writing. If you have an unusual request, send a graphic presentation with table sizes and spacing dimensions noted. One copy should go to your meeting planner with your contract and introduction; another should go to the banquet manager at the hotel. I also always request a lavaliere and hand-held microphone as a back-up.

2. Have the client confirm receipt of audiovisual and room set-up requirements, and those they will follow through on these items. In addition, always call two days before the presentation to make sure they have received all materials and are able to fulfill any others requirements.

3. Always check the banquet room as soon as you get to the hotel. Ask who is meeting in adjoining rooms.

4. Get to the room early and introduce yourself to the audiovisual people and learn their names. Check all equipment. Check the sound level on the microphone. Walk around with the microphone to make sure there are not ``hot spots'' where feedback will shriek out at the audience. Also, sit in various seats to make sure the audience will be able to see you and your visual aids.

Like true girl scouts and boy scouts, professional presenters always have a back up. June Cline, the court jester, carries a toy box, Tim Richardson has magic tricks, and Terry Brock, the computer guru, carries extra cords and plugs. Alan Black caries creativity kits, others carry extra light bulbs, duct tape, extra batteries, overhead originals, fun exercises, music, or stories for unusual situations. Batman could always save the day because he had his utility belt and a cool car ready for action.

Before the lights come on, we have one last movie, "Sommersby.''

Richard Gere is falsely accused of murder. To save the town, he takes the blame for the murder. By taking the blame, even though he was not at fault, he exemplifies integrity. Lesson #6: "Take responsibility.''

When I was a young and wrinkle-free 22-year old, I taught a two-week Train the Trainer course for law enforcement officers. One semester, I arrived to find the 20 copies of my 200-page manual had not been completed. I made the horrendous mistake of telling the class exactly why they had no workbooks, in effect saying, "Hey, it's not my fault!'' One of the officers in the class took me aside later and told me that not only did I lose face with that comment, but also I made the class feel that they were getting less than they could have without the books. Always take full responsibility for your presentation.

When things go wrong in a presentation, and they do, the fault may not necessarily be yours. It would be easyto say to yourself or your audience, it's the hotel's fault, or it's the audiovisual person's fault. But remember, as the speaker, you have the ultimate responsibility for creating the environment. Blaming someone else is not only unprofessional, it makes you look bad. Audiences remember the speaker who had them singing campfire songs by candlelight when the lights went out. They really don't care whether it is your fault. Show them a good time and make a great memory.

Now let's play Roper and Ebert and review our movie lessons.

Lesson #1—Grace under pressure. If your slip slips, make a "magic moment.''

Lesson #2— Remember the greater goals. Always be prepared to stop or let go of a planned presentation for a greater learning.

Lesson #3— Turn negative energy to your advantage. Remember the martial arts principle—don't fight, go with it!

Lesson #4— Stay cool. Never get mad or upset. Even a sharp word to the audiovisual person or the server who is late with coffee can turn the group against you.

Lesson #5— Be prepared. Think, "Murphy's Law'' and plan ahead for things that could come up.

Lesson #6— Take full responsibility for your presentation. Remember, the speaker has the ultimate responsibility of creating the atmosphere and the environment for the audience.

Every time we get up in front of an audience, we take a chance on success and acceptance and we risk failure and rejection. But isn't proving we've got what it takes what life is all about? So, when the movie credits roll, if you've given the audience your best, the cheers and the standing ovations will be yours, and Roper and Ebert will give you two thumbs up!