Presentation Hack: Contingency Planning


I once pulled out a pocketknife so I could shave off the plastic collar on my HDMI plug that wouldn't fit into the venue's podium panel.

I've been that guy in the audience who whipped out a dongle from my bag to save the day. I shrugged my shoulders when a fellow attendee jokingly shouts, "Who the f%&k carries an HDMI-to-VGA adaptor around with them?!?

We've all been there. You're in the audience at a conference and the next presenter is having trouble getting his/her laptop to connect to the projector system.

You know the script:

"Ok folks, we're having some problems up here. Hopefully we will be getting started in a few minutes...."

They call the tech support to the podium and continue to be baffled at the settings, the tangle of cords, the remote control, the sound speakers..."Hey, can you hear this in the back?"

If you've been in that situation as that speaker, you know how much more awkward it is for you than for the audience.

So how can we as presenters, speakers, moderators, trainers, and teachers plan for these sorts of contingencies? 

Here are some practices I've learned...both from others and the hard way:

ASK AND CLARIFY

This might sound silly, but know what questions should be asked.

Do I need to bring my own sound speakers? How far back is the last row from the screen? What's the screen size?  Will it work with my MacBook? What cords do you have to hook up the video? Do you have WiFi? "Confidence" screen?

Does the projector screen cover the whiteboard when it's down? How are the seats arranged? Are there tables? Will I need a microphone?

SELF-SUFFICIENCY

Bring all your own stuff: Computer. Projector. Speakers. Slide advancer remote. Cords. There are plenty of online checklists of stuff to bring as a presenter, so I'll spare you too much repetition. But philosophically, the more you rely upon other hardware and software, the more likely something will not sync up.

I also realize that traveling by airplane does not always lend itself well to this level of self-sufficiency.  (See "Scaffolding" section below.) You've got to prioritize what to carry.

I've recently found myself using facilities that have some super high-tech control panels at the podium for room lights, sound, and input control for a variety of screens, projectors, and TVs displayed around the room. I can't recreate these setups with my own equipment! What can I do?....

TESTING OF THE EQUIPMENT

Iron out the wrinkles beforehand. Get to the venue early and work with A/V support. Make use of break times to ensure your sound and visuals work on their system.

Experienced conference organizers maintain special rooms for testing, close off venues from attendees for the sole purpose of testing, and will often notify speakers of when/how/where testing is done at the event. These organizers know how to limit that awkwardness in the transitions between speakers and slide decks.

Remember to test under the same lighting conditions as the actual presentation. Your colors might get washed out.  Do you have identical slide decks with different color schemes just for this issue? If not, hopefully you've got enough time to tweak the pallet before you go "live."

CONSOLIDATE / CENTRALIZE SLIDE DECKS

Simply, get all your stuff onto their machines that are proven to work on their system.

I've worked with some event organizers who request my slide deck before the actual event or presentation. This allows the planners to upload the files to their own in-house system. This allows for virtual seamlessness between speakers and works really well for panel discussions where each panelist might want to showcase a few slides. (I'm doing exactly this collection/integration for a conference panel I'm moderating next month!)

This becomes an issue when presenters use different software: MS-PowerPoint. Apple Keynote. Prezi. Work out these conflicts ahead of time. I'm a Keynote guy myself; but I'll use PowerPoint at their request if I can increase my chances of a trouble-free delivery!

SCAFFOLDING

The more complicated your presentation, the more that can go wrong. 

  • Need props? You know your luggage will get lost on this flight, right?
  • You want sound on a video? That's just one (1) more issue you have to figure out. 
  • Need WiFi to access files or links? Good luck with that!
  • Projector bulb takes a crap? Hope you've got a flipchart or a whiteboard. And markers!
  • Power goes out? I've seriously been in the room when this happens!!!
  • Relying on digital handouts? Sure it saves on printing costs...

Assume the more complicated things will go wrong...and have a plan to run your show without those aspects. I call this the "campfire mentality." Figure out how you'd give your presentation if everyone was siting around a campfire in 1870's frontier wilderness. If you've considered this, any of the other tech hiccups will seem insignificant in comparison!

ADAPTIVE MINDSET

Contingency planning should include gear and hardware, but it goes beyond that. A backup mindset will beat out backup equipment every time. Go ahead and make that checklist. But at some point, you're going to have to make a decision on what to leave behind.

No amount of spare batteries, cloud storage of files, or extra handouts will make up for a lack of planning or your deep knowledge of your materials, stories, and ideas. 

It's the unexpected failures that will derail you -- but only if you are not ready to give that campfire talk.

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Aside from writing on a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking or classroom experiences!

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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.

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