Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Presentation Horror Stories

Reading this tale of a Rails demo saved from near disaster reminded me of some of my own presentation woes. Like most developers, standing up in front of a few hundred people and giving a talk is not my idea of fun. I chose to present at DevCons and LotusSpheres not because I liked it but rather because it was considered a good career move at Iris and I considered it a personal challenge to try and overcome my fear of public speaking. Once I was up there, I generally got a pretty good rush from it but it always was the cause of a lot of butterflies.

Much like Dave Geary's issues in the link above, one of my worst experiences was with a pre-presentation glitch. I was showing some Java stuff at LotusSphere Berlin and the demos required numerous pieces of pre-positioned software in order to finish in the allotted time. My presentation was the first demo in the morning so I stayed up late double checking everything on my laptop. When I was satisfied everything was perfect, I closed the laptop lid and went to bed. I awoke early, showered, dressed and decided to check the demos one last time. Much to my horror, my laptop had failed to hibernate and had run out of power during the night. Instead of a nice relaxing breakfast I spent every last minute before the demo franticly repositioning the demos. I was able to get everything running again but the experience totally sucked.

My second story comes from LotusSphere during an infamous Garnet session. During this session I was co-presenting with a great developer, who I will refer to as Developer-X, who had never presented before. I was the lead presenter but Developer-X had a key demo halfway through the presentation. When it came time to do our first dry run things didn't go so well. Developer-X presented with zero emotion in a complete monotone. He was downright robotic. It's a given that not all developers are born presenters so Iris would regularly hire presentation coaches to come in and work with the developers. Developer-X and I had quite a few sessions with the coach and to Developer-X's credit he improved remarkably. By the last practice there was intonation and actual emotion in his voice. Things were looking good.

So the presentation rolls around and I take the lead. We are on a wide stage in front of a few hundred people, me at one podium, Developer-X at another way over on the other side of the stage. I get through my first section OK and pass the presentation over to Developer-X. Within a few words, I knew we were screwed. Developer-X was speaking in a monotone, a very slow and deliberate monotone, worse even than the first practice session. Given that I wasn't speaking I had a lot of time to just watch the audience. It was apparent very quickly that people were not enjoying the presentation. In fact, a steady flow of people were getting up from there seats and leaving. Developer-X's section only lasted ten minutes but it felt like an hour. In that short time he had scared away half the audience. It was that bad.

A month or so later when the session reviews came in the comments were not kind to Developer-X. I recall one comment in particular that struck me funny. The guy pointed out how painful Developer-X's demo was to listen to but he noted that he felt sorry for the Developer-X because I was glowering over him from the other side of the stage.

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