Best community event session was the one where the demos broke

Just had this conversation in Twitter – well, as much of it as the 140 char limit allows.

Somebody (keeping things anonymous here – own up if you want to! :-)) said the best session at the community event WebDD was one where the presenter had trouble with his laptop and couldn’t show any demos. Not the first time I hear something like this – perhaps I wouldn’t be bothered if it was. But most community events these days seem to have one or the other such incident.

Well, I’m afraid I don’t like that sort of a statement. I totally appreciate that issue happen and you can’t be prepared for everything. It is great to be able to pick up the pieces and continue when something odd happens. And it’s interesting and even impressive to watch somebody do it well. But.

When I go somewhere to do a presentation, especially if it’s more than an 8 people user group meeting, I come prepared:

  • I have my presentation materials on a USB stick.
  • I have thought about the worst-case scenario beforehand – that is, typically, losing or breaking my laptop
  • For that reason, I have everything I need on that USB stick. My source code, my PPT files, and, yes, all installers for all software I’m going to use, that could be considered non-standard, and is therefore likely absent on somebody else’s laptop.
  • If I need something larger for my presentation, like a VM on an external drive, I carry a copy of that VM. Yes, really. Why not? In many cases it’s going to fit on the USB stick these days, and a second external hard drive doesn’t cost much either.

There is very little cost involved with this sort of preparation. There is no reason, apart from thoughtlessness, why somebody would not come prepared like that. Personally I tend to carry a second laptop some of the time, for what I consider more risky situations – but that’s of course more costly and not something I would expect everybody to do.

In any case, what I’m saying is that this sort of setup and preparation helps solve issues like BSODs, even if they happen in the middle of a presentation. Not 100% of the time, no. But they will allow me to do the presentation I came for in the majority of cases, which I presume is what the attendees come to the event for. Nothing more and nothing less.

And that brings me to the core of my disagreement with the statements above. Wether well prepared or not, issues sometimes come up that nobody expected. That can’t be worked around even when well prepared. Perhaps somebody tries to restore his working environment on a secondary machine and that machine turns out not to be up to the job somehow. Maybe. And he still soldiers on and manages to do a talk on his topic. Admirable? Sure. But.

Does that person deserve to be lauded as the most interesting act of the event? I don’t think so. Surely, his presentation was less perfect than it could have been without the issues. Surely, other speakers who didn’t have any trouble deserve to be mentioned before that poor guy. Because they were luckier, maybe. But also because they came to deliver a perfect presentation, and they did. In contrast to that other guy who didn’t, however much fate was involved.

Surely, if you are that speaker with the perfect presentation, you want your deserved spot in the limelight. Especially if we’re talking about a community event where people are ever so slightly less professional overall, and also less used to that limelight.

11 Comments on Best community event session was the one where the demos broke

  1. Oliver, I see what you are saying and I guess in a professional presentation where the speaker is being paid then yes, I agree with you that you must absolutely be prepare for the worst. Double up everything, have redundant backups, the works.

    However, I think that it is laudable that a speaker (any speaker) can carry on and get their point across even when everything did fall apart for them. I know plenty of speakers that could not do that.

    A picture paints a thousand words. If you lose the picture then you are just going to have to get on with the one thousand words. If a speaker is of high enough quality to do that then I think he deserves more credit than you are giving him. I personally wouldn’t want to see a presenter get a BSOD mid-flight only to have to watch him transfer his presentation to another laptop before he carries on. That would be even worse.

    I think you are being overly critical in this instance.

    Where I would be critical of a speaker is where they know they’ve not prepared sufficiently and they know it. Rather than own up, they come into a session and waffle for an hour on the history of the internet run just ever so slightly over time before starting the demo that I came to see in the first place only to have to admit that (1) they are over time and (2) they didn’t even install the software they were going to demo. At which point it suddenly makes sense what all the waffle, regardless oh how entertaining, was about. That is something to be genuinely critical of.

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  2. Colin,

    Thanks for the comments, but I think they are a bit beside the point. I am critical of any presenter, whether paid or not, if he comes unprepared – simply because the preparation I’m expecting is not rocket science, or expensive, or otherwise hard to achieve. I’m not really criticizing the person referred to in this story, since I wasn’t there to see for myself and in any case it sounds like it was a really bad situation he was in.

    But that’s not the (main) point I was making. I’m criticizing the statement that a failed presentation was the best of the event. I regard such a statement as either of these two:

    * testament to the fact that the event’s overall quality of presentations was ridiculously low

    * highly disrespectful of those people who did presentations that did not fail.

    The failed presentation can be the funniest, or even the most impressive, but it can’t ever be the best without any further qualification.

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  3. Having arrived at this point, I should maybe apologize to the unnamed person who made the original statement in Twitter – the expression that was used was actually “the highlight of the event”.

    So arguably the definition was closer to the point than I granted it initially – as I said, this post is a reaction to several similar comments I’ve heard in the past months, so getting hung up on this one and criticizing it overly was not my intention anyway.

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  4. I’m not sure it is necessariliy disrespectful to other presenters who’s equipment didn’t fail. I think it just shows how good a particular person’s individual communication skills are if they can still carry off their presentation without their laptop. (Something one of your collegues also managed increadibly well too, I might add. Not as a result of lack of preparation, but becuase the projector failed.)

    However, you seem to be laying the blame at a lack of preparation. Given that the person’s laptop failed mid-flight how do you propose to remedy that quickly and without irritating the audience? You already said that having a second laptop was an expensive option, especially for a community presenter. And if it was on a USB stick and they managed to find someone in the audience with a suitable laptop how long would you want to sit and watch as they uploaded their presentation and demos onto someone else’s machine and then worked around the quirks of someone else’s setup?

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  5. Colin – you’re hung up on that particular case – as I tried to explain before, that’s not my main point.

    > And if it was on a USB stick and they managed to find someone in the audience with a suitable laptop how long

    Well, I’ve seen it done and I know more than one person who did it. The answer is, perhaps two minutes or so, and I’m not talking about sitting watching the silent guy working. I’m not even saying it has to be the speaker doing that work – could be anybody, while the speaker is working the whiteboard for a little while. Whatever.

    But again, for the last time, I promise: that was not my important point here. See above.

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  6. As the ‘un-named’ person who seems to have kickstarted this debate, I should perhaps clarify my original comment. The session was the highlight of the event for me due to the content, not due to the failure of hardware or demos (although respect to any and all speakers how have problems with demos and still manage to carry on). That said, I think this is an important discussion to have.

    I agree wholeheartedly with you about being prepared for your presentations – I’ve been known to turn up at talks I’ve given with printed slide decks (not much use in a big venue), USB sticks with content and demos, spare cables, etc in case the worst should happen. This is the least you should do for your audience, and to some extents this is especially true of community events where your session has been chosen at the expense of a number of other willing presenters.

    That said, it is also an important skill for any presenter to be comfortable enough with the subject they are talking about that they can ad lib on the subject well enough that should things not go according to plan they cab still give their audience something worthwhile to take away with them. It also important that that level of comfort is not something that you come to rely on by not doing your preparation.

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  7. I watched that presentation and have to agree that it was one of the best that I saw today.

    Yes I agree there are lessons to be learnt about having a backup and that is definatly something that should be done – I have my files on a CD in case this happens.

    However a BSOD cant be predicted(although I would question whether a mac is the safest presentation machine). The laptop then wouldnt turn on, R# had issues and it was all a bit unlucky.

    Despite all this the presenter carried on and his
    enthusiasm & knowledge of the subject saw him through.

    I can see how you might suggest this was disrespectful to some of the other speakers (of which I was one) but it still was a good presentation – a presentation which would have been better had demos worked.

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  8. Cool 🙂 If we don’t disagree, we don’t disagree.

    It still seems to me that after recent community events the focus has been on the problem scenarios and related stories a bit more than it should be. Watch out for it next time and maybe you can appreciate better what I’m getting at in the end.

    Anyway, enough of this. Thanks for the discussion, guys!

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  9. To be fair to Oliver he has had to fall back on this in reality. I was speaking at BASTA with him when his PC failed, he borrowed mine, loaded up his presentation and was up and running. So a drama didn’t become a crisis. So Oliver does practice what he is preaching.

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  10. Thanks, Ian 🙂

    Actually that incidence does show part of my point: I got everything set up, did the presentation, no major issues. I don’t know if any attendees were impressed by the fact that I was doing the presentation on somebody else’s machine, but it was certainly not a perfect presentation, since it’s always a bit weird to work on a different computer. Luckily, I never heard anybody say this was the greatest thing at BASTA, and if somebody did, I’d disagree just as vehemently 🙂

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  11. Actually I think the reason a lot of people find that when presentation that had some kind of technical failure are the better ones is that presenters way to often rely on the visuals of a presentation, ie. power point etc.. and to little on just talking.

    Way to often people just start reading the material. When that fails and they have to ad lib, some times, you get a better presentation then what you would get if everything worked flawlessly.

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