14 February 2011

The Presentation Isn’t Over Until It’s Over

The senior corporate dignitaries settled into their seats looking important in a blue-suited sort of way. The lights dimmed as I strode out in front to give my presentation.  I had ten vital minutes to make my pitch.  I was about to dazzle the top management of a large software company who were considering the purchase of my software product. I would present them with a dazzling synthesis of diagrams, graphs, followed by  a live demonstration of my software projected from my laptop.  My preparation had been meticulous: It had to be: A year’s hard work was at stake, so I’d prepared it to perfection.  I stood up and took them all in, with a gaze of sublime confidence.

Then the laptop expired.

There are several possible alternative plans of action when this happens

    A. Stare at the smoking laptop vacuously, flapping ones mouth slowly up and down
    B. Stand frozen like a statue, locked in indecision between fright and flight.
    C. Run out of the room, weeping
    D. Pretend that this was all planned
    E. Abandon the presentation in favour of a stilted and tedious dissertation about the software
    F. Shake your fist at the sky, and curse the sense of humour of your preferred deity

I started for a few seconds on plan B, normally referred to as the ‘Rabbit in the headlamps of the car’ technique. Suddenly, a little voice inside my head spoke. It spoke the famous inane words of Yogi Berra; ‘The game isn’t over until it’s over.’ ‘Too right’, I thought.

What to do? I ran through the alternatives A-F inclusive in my mind but none appealed to me.

I was completely unprepared for this. Nowadays, longevity has since taught me more than I wanted to know about the wacky sense of humour of fate, and I would have taken two laptops. I hadn’t, but decided to do the presentation anyway as planned. I started out ignoring the dead laptop, but pretending, instead that it was still working. The audience looked startled. They were expecting plan B to be succeeded by plan C, I suspect. They weren’t used to denial on this scale.

After my introductory talk, which didn’t require any visuals, I came to the diagram that described the application I’d written.  I’d taken ages over it and it was hot stuff. Well, it would have been had it been projected onto the screen. It wasn’t.

Before I describe what happened then, I must explain that I have thespian tendencies.  My  triumph as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady at the local operatic society is now long forgotten, but I remember at the time of my finest performance, the moment that, glancing up over the vast audience of  moist-eyed faces at the during the poignant  scene between Eliza and Higgins at the end, I  realised that I had a talent that one day could possibly  be harnessed for commercial use

I just talked about the diagram as if it was there, but throwing in some extra description. The audience nodded helpfully when I’d done enough.

Emboldened, I began a sort of mime, well, more of a ballet, to represent each slide as I came to it. Heaven knows I’d done my preparation and, in my mind’s eye, I could see every detail, but I had to somehow project the reality of that vision to the audience, much the same way any actor playing Macbeth should do the ghost of Banquo.

 My desperation gave me a manic energy. If you’ve ever demonstrated a windows application entirely by mime, gesture and florid description, you’ll understand the scale of the challenge, but then I had nothing to lose. With a brief sentence of description here and there, and arms flailing whilst outlining the size and shape of  graphs and diagrams, I used the many tricks of mime, gesture and body-language  learned from playing Captain Hook, or the Sheriff of Nottingham in pantomime. I set out determinedly on my desperate venture.

There wasn’t time to do anything but focus on the challenge of the task: the world around me narrowed down to ten faces and my presentation: ten souls who had to be hypnotized into seeing a Windows application:  one that was slick, well organized and functional

I don’t remember the details. Eight minutes of my life are gone completely. I was a thespian berserker.  I know however that I followed the basic plan of building the presentation in a carefully controlled crescendo until the dazzling finale where the results were displayed on-screen.  ‘And here you see the results, neatly formatted and grouped carefully to enhance the significance of the figures, together with running trend-graphs!’ I waved a mime to signify an animated  window-opening, and looked up, in my first pause, to gaze defiantly  at the audience.  It was a sight I’ll never forget. Ten pairs of eyes were gazing in rapt attention at the imaginary window, and several pairs of eyes were glancing at the imaginary graphs and figures.  I hadn’t had an audience like that since my starring role in  Beauty and the Beast.  At that moment, I realized that my desperate ploy might work.

I sat down, slightly winded, when my ten minutes were up.  For the first and last time in my life, the audience of a  ’PowerPoint’ presentation burst into spontaneous applause.

‘Any questions?’

‘Yes,  Have you got an agent?’

Yes, in case you’re wondering, I got the deal. They bought the software product from me there and then. However, it was a life-changing experience for me and I have never ever again trusted technology as part of a presentation.  Even if things can’t go wrong, they’ll go wrong and they’ll kill the flow of what you’re presenting.  if you can’t do something without the techno-props, then you shouldn’t do it.  The greatest lesson of all is that great presentations require preparation and  ‘stage-presence’ rather than fancy graphics. They’re a great supporting aid, but they should never dominate to the point that you’re lost without them.

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