Saturday, July 5, 2008

Outsmarting The Sprites How To Prepare For Presentation Disaster

Writen by Lenn Millbower

In Medieval times people believed that when mischievous sprites heard you wish for something they would make the opposite happen. Many show biz professionals still believe in them. I can attest to their existence. I have seen them in action.

One time, when I was attending an American Society for Training and Development International Conference and Exposition, a featured speaker began by saying that this opportunity to present in front of his/her colleagues was the completion of a lifelong dream. It was a bad choice of words. The audience responded enthusiastically. The sprites responding by freezing the presenter's laptop.

The presenter apologized and asked permission to reboot. As the computer tried to recover, the presenter stalled. 10,000 people waited … and waited … and waited. After 10 minutes and a different computer hookup, the presentation finally began.

I had been forgiving up to that point. After all, the sprites can attack anyone. It is what occurred next that astounded me. The presenter could have continued without waiting for the PowerPoint to reload, but had not prepared for a sprite attack.

I've seen the sprites attack other presenters too. At the 2002 ASTD conference a famous presenter was discussing the proper usage of PowerPoint slides. Again the sprites pounced. There was a misspelling on a slide and a participant told the presenter so. The presenter interrupted the presentation and changed the slide as the entire audience waited. The sprite no doubt laughed.

In 2003 I was the presenter attacked. As I began a discussion of the distractions cell phones cause during modern training programs, a sprite commanded my computer to download software. I was forced to, like those presenters before me, halt my presentation and deal with a sprite.

All three examples are true. All put the presenter on the spot. All inconvenienced the audience. All were avoidable. In this article, I hope to help you outsmart the sprites by examining the extensive preparations show biz professionals practice. In fact the acronym for those preparations is P.R.E.P.A.R.E. We will discuss each of the steps in the acronym sequentially, beginning with Plan.

Plan The Plan is the most critical part of any performance but the least noticed by the audience. To gain insight into the length Hollywood goes when planning a movie, consider the current movie phenomenon The Lord of the Rings. The extended DVD version of The Fellowship of the Ring features hours of material showcasing the years of planning that went into that production including concept development, scripting, storyboarding, scenic selection, character development, music creation and actor casting. All these details added to the success of the film. Any one of them handled poorly could have ruined it.

Presentations, although not as involved, still require planning. That planning often starts with a concept that is developed into a script. I realize that some presenters prefer an outline. Outlines do offer spontaneity. But what they lack is specificity. A show biz production contains a myriad of details not readily apparent in an outline. The very act of scripting places a discipline on the performance that cannot be obtained in any other way.

For an example where the stakes can literally be life or death, consider the legal profession. Lawyers script their opening and closing arguments, witnesses script their testimony, and judges script the explanations of their rulings. They plan what they will say in the courtroom so that it will be factually correct and logically thought through.

Scripting forces you to determine exactly what you mean, how what you mean connects with what you've already said, and how what you will say leads inevitably to a grand finale where every detail of the performance connects. So therefore, the first step in foiling the sprites is to capture it all on paper.

Rehearse In entertainment you can spot the true professionals. They Rehearse so much that they look unrehearsed. They "flow." Flow occurs when you know something so completely that concentration is no longer required (much like our daily commutes: we've rehearsed that drive for months).

Constant, repetitious, mind-numbing rehearsal beyond endurance is the price performers pay to achieve flow. They examine the script line by line to plot the logistics of the performance. They determine where the props should be placed, how each item and person will get from point "A" to point "B" and correct disconnects in the script. These run-throughs, although tedious and time consuming, eliminate many of the flaws that attract sprites. As a result the performer becomes one with the presentation.

Explore With practice and repetition behind you and flow in front of you, the sprites must seek another opening. They look for the unexpected. Accordingly, you should take time to Explore all the potential unplanned challenges. Some people accuse me of being an "Eeyore" on this subject because I over-think potential calamities.

It is true that I spend a great deal of time exploring what could go wrong. I ask myself a number of questions:
* What technology issues could pop up?
* What questions might the audience ask?
* What would a heckler say?
* Are there any electrical wires to trip over?
* What health problems could someone in the audience have during presentation?
I explore these potential dangers not because I am a pessimist, but because the more emergencies I envision, the less likely the sprites are to surprise me.

Once you have identified a potential challenge, you should Protect yourself from it by devising a solution. You should then protect yourself again by devising a solution for the solution. You should ask yourself, "What's the backup plan?" Then ask yourself, "What's the backup plan for the backup plan?" Finally, ask yourself, "What's the backup plan for the backup backup plan?"

For example, consider technology issues and ask yourself, "What if the laptop crashed?" Then determine to bring backup overhead slides just in case. Next ask yourself, "What if the overhead projector light bulb blows?" Then resolve to bring an extra light bulb with you. Finally ask yourself, "What if that light doesn't work?" Then learn to present without your slides just in case.

Here's an example from my own experience. In My Training With A Beat presentation, I demonstrate the various uses for music in learning environments. Without music there can be no presentation. I have protected my clients (and myself) by integrating the music into the PowerPoint presentation. I then travel with the music on a backup CD-ROM and a back-up audiocassette. As an extra precaution, I have recorded the music onto a VHS tape so that, even if all the usual audio channels are unavailable to me, I can play the music on a TV. On the remote chance that all these mediums should become demagnetized, I also carry several emergency musical CDs.

In improv training, comedians are taught to welcome the unexpected, to treat sprite surprises as gifts. These gifts lead to new discoveries. I will never forget the time, as a magician performing the linking rings (eight rings link and unlink at will), a mike stand got in the way. Much to my surprise, the sprites linked a ring to the mike stand! Even more surprising was the audience reaction. They applauded! That bit immediately became a part of my act.

It is an axiom among magicians that the magician has greater power because the audience never knows what is coming. Chances are that when something unexpected happens, the audience will, as they did with my link to the mike stand, regard the occurrence as planned. This fact gives the performer a decided advantage. If you Accept whatever happens as a gift, the audience will likely never know the sprites struck.

Accepting is not the same as compliance. Even when something unexpected occurs, you should still take charge. React with an aura of confidence knowing that you are prepared. Ironically, the amount of preparation you have engaged in will rebound to your advantage. Your client will be impressed by the amount of preparation you went to the deliver for them. In this perverse sense you should welcome the sprites. Your reaction to their mischief will only make you look more professional.

You've planned, rehearsed, explored, protected, accepted and reacted. The final step is to simply Enjoy whatever happens. You control the dynamic so relax and place your focus where it belongs, on your audience. This focus will drive the sprites crazy.

A Show Biz Tradition
So, remember to P-R-E-P-A-R-E. And as a wish for luck (and in case the sprites are listening), break a leg!

Visit Lenn on line at

Lenn Millbower, BM, MA, the Learnertainment® Trainer is an expert in applying show biz techniques to learning. He is the author of the ASTD Info-Line, Music as a Training Tool, focused on the practical application of music to learning; Show Biz Training, the definitive book on the application of entertainment industry techniques to training; Cartoons for Trainers, a popular collection of 75 cartoons for learning; Game Show Themes for Trainers, a best-selling CD of original learning game music; and Training with a Beat: The Teaching Power of Music, the foremost book on the application of music to learning. Lenn is an in-demand speaker, with successful presentations at ASTD 1999-2005 and SHRM 2006; a creative and dynamic instructional designer and facilitator formally with the Disney University and Disney Institute; an accomplished arranger-composer skilled in the psychological application of music to learning; a popular comedian, magician and musician; and the president of Offbeat Training®, infusing entertainment-based techniques into learning to keep 'em awake!

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