Panic at the podium

A few of us started bandying about some public speaking highs and lows and thought we’d share them. If there’s a lesson to be learned I think it’s something about a back-up plan!

I was in the middle of a meticulously scripted researcher scenario using live internet at an important meeting when the internet went down city-wide. I had prepared lifelike backup slides and no one knew the difference.

Early in my career, I gave a conference plenary about collaboration. It consisted of a dramatic recitation of how wonderfully Canada geese collaborate and how we should emulate them. It established a real theme for the day. The next morning the cover story on the newspaper that greeted us at our hotel doors was about the Canada goose problem and all the approaches the city was trying to get rid of them.

My first public speaking engagement was almost derailed. I had gotten a permit to take the videodisc (yes, I’m old) — that was the basis for my presentation — out of the building. But I had gotten the wrong type of permit (a collections pass, rather than a property pass) and the guard wouldn’t let me leave with it. I needed to get to the airport, so I called my boss who took another copy of the videodisc down and out the front door with no pass at all.

For my first major performance, I knew my subject inside out and had prepped a handful of 3×5 cards. I was quite used to talking to crowds of up to about 40. When 400 showed up, I choked. Froze. Literally opened my mouth and nothing came out. Luckily my more experienced co-chair sat me down and gave the presentation I should have.

At an important venue, the table mike failed; then the (replacement) hand mike failed; then the pc failed — then the network connection of a new laptop failed. The room was long and narrow and terrible acoustically. I ended up hiking up and down the long center aisle, nearly shouting to an overflow crowd. I was funny, articulate, highly successful, charged up on adrenaline and operating with no notes, no safety net.

My best day ever on stage was as a moderator, not a speaker. I was asked to moderate a panel of extremely engaging and articulate speakers. The venue was a very large stadium-like facility and the stage was set with comfortable chairs, low tables, and water. Before we went on, there was conversation and beer (beer!) in the Green Room. But what made it incredible was that besides having just three provocative questions set up ahead of time, it was unscripted and free-flowing. The speakers were provocative, probing, challenging, and inspiring. The audience laughed. They cried. They shouted. They booed and they cheered. We felt like rock stars.

We were teaching a week-long course to librarians about scanning, digital file editing, HTML, and a pile of other technologies. We decked our online classroom, where everyone had a PC, with a couple scanners up front arrayed next to our instructor PC and computer projector. We even had an overhead project as backup. I was in the middle of a talk when the computer I was using started acting funny. It was causing enough difficulty that I decided to switch over to the overhead projector, which I had enough foresight to prepare to use. When I flipped it on we completely lost power. It turned out we were taxing the circuit with so much equipment that the computer first flaked out and then the overhead caused the breaker to trip. So was I finished? Far from it. I asked everyone to refer to the printed copy of the slides they had in front of them and we carried on.

I was asked to speak about Internet searching at the International World Wide Web Conference. It was a “tutorial,” which actually PAID. I prepared the standard kind of talk I would give to my standard kind of audience — here are the basics, this is what you do, etc. For a reason that will forever remain a mystery to me, I misjudged the time and launched into my talk well before I was scheduled to begin. One brave listener spoke up and let me know that I was not scheduled to begin for a while. An exceedingly embarrassing silenced then ensued, during which my nervousness was able to reach heights previously unscaled. By the time I re-launched my talk, I realized that I had completely failed to do the very first thing a speaker must do — consider the audience and decide what it is they should hear. I was giving the kind of talk I would give to librarians new to the Internet — not the people who were engineering it. By this time I was in a state most speakers will recognize — autopilot. Just get through this, I keep telling myself, and FLEE before the tar and feathers can be found. I got through the prepared slides somehow, and the rest is a fog. As for the International World Wide Web Conference? They never asked me back, and I don’t blame them one bit. I wouldn’t ask me back either.

At a conference being held 6 weeks after 9-11, many panels were decimated, if not completely obliterated, by individuals canceling their travel. My panel survived as a scaled-down 2 speaker event, scheduled for the first day. However, my flight was canceled. The next flight would get me there just in time. As I arrived at the conference hotel, I noticed my moderator and co-panelist huddled around a pay-phone. They were leaving a message for my boss: “We don’t know where he is, and since you know about the project, maybe we could press you into service ?” They both jumped when I tapped them on the back.

I was giving a presentation in a subterranean hotel conference room. Just as I started to speak, city workers on the street above us began to jackhammer the concrete. The racket was absolutely deafening. Soldier on, though, we did. Astonishingly, people sat through this. Afterward I wondered what, exactly, would cause someone to actually get up and walk out, if not this. People are so polite.

One of the best was a panel I had put together on a hot topic in the East Asian community, but we felt its effects would be felt far more broadly. This was one of the first sessions to bring the issues to librarians beyond the East Asian community. We had a great panel – and it attracted lots of interest, lots and lots of interest. Indeed, the room we were assigned which held 150 people soon started overflowing, with folks far into the hallway. My boss came to the rescue and managed to get conference center staff to take down a room partition – amazingly quietly! – and voila! Room for all. Still a packed (much larger) room.

For a regional session a library gave us a very nice auditorium for a Monday, when the library was closed. Unfortunately, the right people didn’t know about it – when I arrived early, all the doors were locked. Attendees began mingling around the side doors, occasionally knocking. I called one of my contacts on my cell phone – magic! – the doors opened, and we were escorted inside. About an hour into the session, though, we heard very loud – VERY LOUD – fire alarms. Since the library is closed on Mondays, that’s when they test their fire alarms. (And they work very well, I must say). No way anyone could talk over that. So while we waited for the alarms to stop, I did some ad-hoc entertainment by doing some tai chi exercises on the stage in sync with the alarms. The alarms finally stopped, and we resumed where we left off.

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About Ricky Erway

Ricky Erway, Senior Program Officer at OCLC Research, works with staff from the OCLC Research Library Partnership on projects ranging from managing born digital archives to research data curation.

3 Comments

  1. Ah, so that is the origin of the famed Canadian geese slide!

    Conference session stories? Gosh, it’s hard to identify them all. Most memorable: 1) When then-candidate Bill Clinton made a surprise campaign appearance at a conference hotel during the start of my presentation. When word got out that he was in the hallway (just outside the session rooms) the ENTIRE audience walked out to see him, shake his hand, get his autograph, etc. Humbling, to say the least. 2) At a session I was moderating, one of my speakers stood up, flashed a beguiling smile, then promptly announced he had nothing important to say, and turned it over to the audience for questions.

    I have since adopted the Boy Scout credo of “Be Prepared.”

  2. Briefly, two:

    1) I drove to the conference and completely spaced on bringing my laptop. No tech at the conference to help me out, but… I had remembered my paper copies of the slides. So, I handed them out to everyone and it worked out far better than having PowerPoint. I could ask people to return to slide 11, then skip ahead to slide 25, then… I was so nervous about it, it helped my energy level and everyone had a great time. Lots of questions at the end.

    2) Unfortunately, quite recently, I gave a talk at a conference with full-blown flu that I had not had when I left for the conference. I was so doped up, I have no memory of what I said. No questions at the end– I think that pretty much sums up that one.

  3. Kat, that reminds me of a time I had a bad, bad cough, and took some cough medicine with codeine, which meant I could not only sleep at night but also was able to get through my talk without hacking to death. I was actually doing fine, but was talking about some very dry subject (METS, I think). It was a tough crowd — nobody laughed at my jokes, they just sat there. At the end of the talk my normally fabulous colleague Guenter said “Let’s all give Merrilee a big hand — she really deserves it because she’s heavily drugged.” I was completely mortified.

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