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May 13, 2013 / Sarah Ludwig

Rotten Tomatoes: All the Presentations I’ve Bombed

image via flickr user billaday

I’ve reached the point now where I’m presenting enough to get a sense of when I’m doing well and when I’m failing miserably. And I obsess over the bad presentations. They swim into my consciousness late at night when I’m trying to fall asleep and I cringe as though they happened earlier that day and not months or even years prior.

The worst one, I think, was at ALA. I was the chair of a YALSA committee that sponsored a panel presentation on book trailers, so I was moderating the panel. A group of four people sent me their PowerPoint slides and I mashed them together on my Mac. But when I got to ALA, I panicked about using my Mac with an adaptor (this was a few years ago, so please forgive me), so I transferred everything to a PC laptop…which meant that none of the videos played. Or rather, they played for ten seconds and then froze, which is almost worse. Since the presentation was ABOUT videos, this was pretty bad. So bad, in fact, that during the presentation itself–with a packed audience, by the way–I made reference to weeping, curled up, in the corner. Everyone assured me that it was fine, but I knew better and I really did want to disappear.

I gave another terrible talk at a YALSA pre-conference event, when I for some reason spaced out about the fact that I was speaking to teen librarians (really?!), and I focused way too much on services to children. I was talking about a program that I have mostly used with elementary-aged kids, and I didn’t have the foresight to adapt my presentation for those working with teens. It wasn’t until the very end, when someone ased about teens in my Q&A, that I realized my blunder. Ack.

I was late for a webinar once, so not only did I not show up until ten minutes in, I was also out of breath. So I sounded almost strangled as I talked, and I never got over being flustered at being late. That’s one webinar I will never listen to!

At another event, non-ALA, I was on a panel, and because the panel was speaking in response to a keynote–a keynote I hadn’t seen ahead of time, because it was itself unplanned–I was unprepared, inarticulate, and, frankly, dull. The only thing that people seemed to take away from my remarks was that I allow students to be loud in the library….not exactly the message I was aiming for. I am not good at speaking off-the-cuff.

The thing is, I consider myself to be a pretty good public speaker. When I’m prepared, I seem to have the whole thing under control. I can connect with the audience, and make them laugh, and be fairly articulate from memory (I saw a wonderful presentation recently that was read entirely from a written speech, and while it was lovely and interesting, I find that far less engaging). And, to be honest, I love giving presentations. For a socially-awkward introvert who will avoid parties at all costs, there’s something about standing in front of a group of people that I find incredibly appealing.

So what goes wrong at these awful presentations? Well, sometimes it’s just bad luck–the traffic on my way to the webinar was unusually bad. But more often, it’s bad planning on my part. And sometimes, it’s just that the audience and I don’t connect. You know when you’ve got an audience loving you. You can feel the energy coming at you on the podium. Other times, it feels like you’re speaking into a vacuum. But even so, there are times when I think everyone hates me and then people come up to me after and tell me how useful my talk was. So, you can’t always tell.

Why am I writing about this? It’s not to convince people not to accept my conference proposals. It’s because I need to come clean. We all make mistakes in front of crowds. I remember attending the SLJ Leadership Summit in 2011 and running into a speaker right before she went on stage. This librarian is extremely well-regarded–some might even consider her a bit of a celebrity in the school library world–and she was nervous. Very nervous, in fact. I was astounded by that. But it also made me feel better. Because I get nervous no matter who I’m talking to–a huge group at a national conference or a tiny group in my own school–and it was nice to know that I’m not alone, and that even the most practiced speakers get the pre-show jitters.

Speaking in public is fun if that’s the kind of thing you like to do, but we all have bad performances, and many of us have to run to the bathroom six times before we go on stage. It’s OK. I will keep trying to give presentations, and I’m sure I will have other sub-par performances. But what I’ve learned from the bad presentations is extremely valuable. Here’s what I’ve got:

  • Make people laugh by laughing at yourself. It diffuses tension and makes you human. Acknowledging that something isn’t working or that you’re frustrated or flustered can go a long way toward breaking through the roadblocks that are tripping you up. For example, I am going to acknowledge that I just mixed my metaphors. See? Doesn’t that help?
  • BE PREPARED. Read over your slides ten times if you have to. It’s not to memorize the information, but when you get up in front of the crowd, chances are you have memorized some of it without even meaning to, and when you get nervous or have a quiet little internal freak-out, autopilot will kick in.
  • Re-read the description of what you’re doing before you start making your slides. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you put in your proposal (or get asked to do something) six months before you actually give the presentation, your brain may mess with you and get you to believe your’re presenting about one thing when it’s really another. Stupid brain.
  • Test your tech. Duh. And have a contingency plan if something doesn’t work. This may be distracting people and running out the back door and straight into a bar. Or, maybe it’s holding up your iPad and being extra charming in your delivery!
  • Shake it off. If your presentation sucked (and it never sucks as much as you think), get over it. Analyze what went wrong, try not to read the tweets about your talk, and move on. Try again. People won’t remember your mistakes like you will. And there’s nothing like a great presentation to erase the memories of a bad one…unless you’re trying to fall asleep.
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5 Comments

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  1. pandanose / May 13 2013 10:34 am

    I would also add: be prepared to speak without amplification. More than frozen videos or stalled webpages, an inability to project naturally can absolutely shut down a presentation. I think women in particular need this advice, because many of us were never taught how to speak in public. (Theater training is especially helpful, but even the least theatrical among us can learn to project!)

    • Sarah Ludwig / May 13 2013 2:02 pm

      Yes, great point! I did theater in high school and can project if I want, but I’m not really used to it anymore. There’s nothing worse than being at a presentation you can’t hear. But I also get a teensy bit annoyed when people choose not to use a working mic, because then they have to yell their entire presentation and you inevitably do miss some things.

  2. Beth / May 24 2013 7:49 am

    I attended your presentation at CIL in Washington, DC and it was amazing!! I’m interested in presenting and am planning on applying to present both at my state conference and ALA next year. Any suggestions/tips for writing a conference proposal? Thank you!

    • Sarah Ludwig / May 28 2013 6:52 pm

      Thank you so much! That’s really nice of you to say. Here’s my advice on writing a proposal: choose a very specific topic. Every time I am too general with my topic, I get rejected. Talk about take-aways. What will participants get out of the presentation? And why are YOU the right person to talk about it? If you don’t get a proposal accepted, try small conferences. State conferences are a great place to start, or even regional conferences. You can also try co-presenting with someone who has more experience. That helps you get your foot in the door. Once you present once or twice on a larger scale, you can use that to leverage more engagements. BUT, that said, I just got my proposal to AASL rejected–so it’s never a guarantee! Good luck. 🙂

  3. Ashley / Sep 12 2013 8:26 pm

    This was such a great post. My presentation today was an epic fail and I’ve been trying to figure out how to cope. I keep telling myself that it was just a learning experience but the presentation was just humiliating. Your advice helps and I greatly appreciate it. May even help me sleep tonight.

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