Dear Michael Bay
I watched you get messed up by Samsung’s presentation support staff at CES yesterday. You’re probably aware that it’s all over the net now, likely a skit on SNL this weekend and maybe you’ll make The Daily Show. You’re a pretty easy target to begin with (*boom*) but add all the things that went wrong in the space of a couple of minutes to your already fiery personality and wham instant Internet meme.
It’s tough. It’s unfair. How many of the people having fun at your expense have themselves spoken live in front of an audience of 200 people? 500? The pressure of standing in front of thousands at CES and hundreds of thousands more virtually would make most of today’s detractors wet themselves on the spot. But the Internet is not big on walking a mile in anyone else’s shoes if they can feel schadenfreude or get a laugh instead.
But you could have done better.
No jokes here, just a couple of things to remember the next time you get in front of an audience.
Fight or Flight
One of the basic human reactions to pressure is fight or flight, especially when it’s a surprise. We civilized folk tend towards flight, because it’s more socially acceptable. And obviously that’s what happened yesterday. But maybe fight doesn’t have to always mean throwing a punch. Fight can just mean fighting yourself to stay on that stage and keeping your audience involved.
Expect the unexpected
Murphy is my traveling companion. He always makes something go wrong. Always. Because of his tenacity, I believe in multiple levels of redundancy in anything that matters to my performance in front of an audience. And you should too when you can.
Of course, much of it is out of your control, no amount of planning can cover everything.
So just go into it expecting something to go wrong. It’s not frightening, it’s just realizing that you need to remain flexible in all situations involving pressure and performance. If you’re expecting someone to fail to hit their cue, step on your line, the wrong slide to be showing, anything unexpected can be dealt with.
And most important here, you must keep your sense of humor about it. Taking yourself too seriously will lock you into a situation where you can’t think and have no alternative other than flight.
Accept the situation
When something goes wrong, accept it. It can’t be undone now. You now have choices as to how to proceed.
It is somewhat paradoxically important not to apologize too much, and not to find others to blame. Both may be your immediate urge, but you must suppress it. Your team may have let you down, but they probably feel worse about it than you do (and it’s likely going to be a topic for discussion with their own management!) Focus on getting back on track, not on how you got off track – your audience doesn’t really care.
Humor is a powerful ally when you can do it off the cuff. You don’t have to have the audience rolling in the aisles, just keep them on your side. “Ever have one of those days?” or “Pardon me while I burst into flame here.” will let them know you’re off-script and the personal aside will keep them in your corner. Resist the urge to be the butt of your own joke, that’s an easy way out, but like too much apologizing it undercuts your relevance and credibility. It’s important to remember that very few people in the audience really want you to fail. They’re basically on your side.
One of the greatest exercises a speaker can do is improvisational speaking. Develop some level of familiarity with improvisational tactics. Lots of forward-thinking organizations bring in formal improv training for team building and management seminars. You can approach this in many ways, but once you do you’ll find it’s value surprisingly useful.
For example, at our Pecha Kucha events, we warm up with a form of presentation called PowerPoint Karaoke. Here presenters must string together a presentation based on slides they have never seen before. And we do this for fun! Of course presenters are expecting the situation, developing their ability to expect the unexpected, and again the audience is on their side. And it’s damn funny. But it’s a terrific exercise for any presenter wanting to develop their list of public speaking calisthenics.
While you’re in the moment, look around. Quickly appraise the situation and prepare to deal with it. Look for inspiration, allies, audience reactions… these are all fodder for your response to bridge back to the topic at hand.
Continue the Dialogue
Now that things are composed, and assuming you’ve done your homework, you can probably wing your presentation for a short bit. Hopefully the support staff is working frantically to correct things. And hopefully the well-managed disturbance takes on no more significance than an interrupting sneeze.
But if it goes longer, nothing changes in the advice. Remain graceful and move to transition out of the confusion. Lots of alternatives here. Consider:
- Engage other speakers already on stage or invite other participants onto the stage. This is what you really should have tried with Joe Stinziano, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics yesterday. He’s probably conversant enough to answer an off the cuff question or give you a clue as to what you want to move onto next. A conversation is a lifesaving improvisational step that can take the pressure off while keeping the audience’s attention. (Improv Hint: Read up on “Yes, and…” technique!)
- Backtrack and start over. Often the easiest thing to do. It doesn’t have to be a complete recreation, but a summary of what you’ve covered so far can also help the audience shake the confusion of that moment off themselves.
- If all else fails, moving on to another part of the agenda and returning to your message once the situation is corrected is the graceful way out of a presentation that has burst into flame. Inform the audience, and move gracefully to the side until recalled.
Yeah, good advice in hindsight. Easy, right?
I can see it right now. Someone asked you to get on the stage and get some promotional value for the next Transformers film while pushing some technology you actually liked. Your protests of I haven’t got time to prepare for a presentation! were met with assurances that all you have to do is read the teleprompter. Well, we see how well that worked out.
Even if you can’t take the time to memorize the speech, break what you have to talk about into one or two salient points that you can fall back on should the unexpected happen. Winging it still means you stay on topic, and you need the facts to do so.
Of course preparation is the activity that pays off in gold. It makes everything above that much easier. If you can’t take 10 times the amount of time you’re planning on being in front of an audience in preparation, you really should bow out.
And That’s About It
Hope this somehow gets to you Michael. While I’m not the biggest fan of your movies, my heart went out to you at CES. It wasn’t your fault, and the Internet is having a lot of fun at your expense today.
I know you already addressed the situation in your own blog with the self-deprecating comment I guess live shows aren’t my thing. I know it’s tough right now, but with just a little prep I think you could turn that impression right around.