The Worst Public Speaking Disasters

[Update: there’s now a follow up presentation, with summary, on Overcoming the Toughest Speaking Situations , slides and Q&A here]

Back in 2009 while working on Confessions of A Public Speaker, I wrote this post asking for speaking disaster stories. Nearly 60 people replied, and some emailed them to me privately. The best ten, including some from famous people, appeared in the book. Until recently this post was buried on another blog, but I’ve reposted it here.

If you have a good story to share, please leave a comment.

To get things started, I’m a veteran speaker and here are some of my own public speaking disasters:

  1. I suck at math (The Hague, Netherlands, @CHI 2000). At the CHI conference I and some friends ran a live design competition called Interactionary. 4 teams of designers (from IBM, Razorfish, Sapient and U of Malmö)  competed live on stage in front of a crowd of 800 people and were scored by famous judges in real time. At the end we announced the winners and took questions.  Someone yelled out that our scores were wrong, which prompted the audience to start yelling and booing us – things got out of control and I had to end the session early. They were right – we announced the correct scores later that day.
  2. Audience teaches me a lesson in front of 400 people ( San Francisco, 2007, @Etech). I made the mistake of claiming that the word architect is derived from the word arch, as in the people who make arches. Not sure where I read it (I did read it somewhere), but it turns out to be bogus. As soon as I finished my talk, Tom Coates stood up gleefully and called me on it as the first question.  Blam. That sucked. (We joked about it later over drinks – he apologized, even though he was right).
  3. “Lets start 20 minutes late with gear that doesn’t work”  (San Francisco 2008, @Adobe Software). On book tour in SF, I spoke at an Adobe office with the worst tech guy I’ve ever met. I arrived 30 minutes early, but 20 minutes after I was supposed to start they were still sorting out their sound system, with various shrugs at my questions on why their system sucked so much. I spoke with a 2 second echo delay in my headset (required so 5 people could listen in remotely) the entire time, to an audience of maybe 15 people that blamed me for starting so late.
  4. I piss off a hostile and drunk audience (Cambridge 2008, @Ignite). This first Boston Ignite was at a bar worth studying for the worst place to do public speaking (Tommy Doyle’s). The small stage is dwarfed by the much larger bar area, meaning as the speaker I could hear the roar of the bar much better than myself or the audience. And since the crowd had been drinking for 2 hours before I arrived, an inevitable heckler yelled out, with an esoteric complaint about my mention of Crick & Watson without mentioning Rosalind. I made a joke about having discovered the feminist section of the audience, and it all went downhill from there. Mike and Marlowe, the organizers (and my friends!) asked me to speak again to close the night, despite my protests based on how much I’d drunk to get over the opening session, I eventually said yes. I believe I rambled something about Michelangelo and creativity but it’d be best to ask someone who was there. Actually spare me more embarrassment and don’t ask.
  5. The problems of being uni-lingual  (Kiev, Ukraine 2008). Being translated is cool if it’s done simultaneously like at the U.N. But silly me, I didn’t think to ask. And in Ukraine I was surprised to learn they were doing live translation, but with the translator on stage. On the fly I had to divide my material in half, as it takes twice as long to do anything if you have to wait for every word you say to be translated. Most exhausting full day seminar ever.
  6. “Please ignore the 120 decibel fire alarm” (Port of Spain, Trinidad).  Halfway through my talk the fire alarm goes off. I can see the hotel staff and firemen running in a panic in the hallway behind the audience, but they can’t see it. Do I tell them what I see? Or play it cool and ignore the fact and try to speak over the alarm? I did the later. Talk about a distracted audience – at least no one slept through my talk.

If you take a minute to share a story, you can win:

  • Best story wins $100 gift amazon.com gift certificate
  • Two runner ups get gets $50 each
  • Any story can win inclusion in the book (you’ll get an acknowledgment & a free copy)
  • Instant therapy – you’ll feel better after you share, I swear! I do!

Comments are still open if you have a good story to share.

63 Responses to “The Worst Public Speaking Disasters”

  1. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    Does a near miss count? I’ve got the whole story here. http://blog.cooklikeyourgrandmother.com/2009/01/behind-scenes-on-thats-life-with-robin.html

    Summary: I was doing a cooking segment on live TV. The studio is 15 minutes from my house. So I left an hour early … and there was an accident on the freeway. Twenty minutes later, I got off at the next exit, along with a few hundred other people.

    When I ran into the studio, the opening music was already playing. And as I unpacked I realized I forgot to pack the butter.

    My wife totally saved me and the segment came off just fine, but I was as close to a heart attack as I’ve ever been.

    Reply
  2. Kav Latiolais

    Another great reason folks should jump at chances to speak rather than running from them; even when things go downhill it makes for great stories.

    Reply
  3. Hillel

    While working at Microsoft, flew all the way to Toronto to do a demo during Steve Ballmer’s keynote for COMDEX Canada. The whole demo was supposed to be 5 minutes.

    I walked on stage, clicked one button, the demo machine started flashing and having a seizure, 15 seconds later I was headed off stage.

    All that time and money spent for 45 seconds of public humiliation and pain.

    And of course, the picture on the front of the Toronto paper the next day was of me and Ballmer laughing uncomfortably while I was flailing. I’m sure he loved that the press decided that my 45 seconds were the most important part of his keynote.

    Reply
  4. Mike Brown

    So we were scoping an intranet out for a client who had never had one before and we thought it would be good to start with an “Intranet 101” presentation, some stuff about what intranets are, how they can be used, what benefits they might bring.

    Fired up after following and reading Presentation Zen I was determined to do a great presentation – no bullet points, lots of great images, nice snappy flow.

    It was late at night with the presentation early the next morning and I was putting the finishing touches to things. I needed an image to denote “collaboration” and went to look at flickr Creative commons images. I found the perfect image – a whiteboard filled with words and doodles and shapes. Obviously the result of a switched-on team working together. It fitted in well with the rest of the slides so I grabbed the image and added to my deck. I had a final run-through on the laptop and all seemed fine.

    Next morning I was presenting to about 15 people from various parts of the organisation. They happened to be mainly women, which possibly made what happened a little more embarrassing …

    I honestly never noticed. I was completely in the flow of the presentation, thought it was going well and went right to the end, finishing with a nice flourish. But the image of collaboration. You see, I’d only looked at it on my laptop. Late at night. Not great light. I was tired.

    Among the swirls and doodles were pictures of cocks. And breasts. And jism spurting. And when it was blown up on the big screen, well, they were apparently quite noticeable.

    As I said, I honestly didn’t even notice and went through the rest of the presentation and questions oblivious. It wasn’t till a day or two later when I was told I needed to apologise!

    Reply
  5. Vince Stevenson

    My first professional presentation was a disaster from start to finish. I was in the bathroom, I opened the tap to wash my hands and the high water pressure drenched my light blue Miami Vice suit. Fortunately, it was a really hot day, so I went outside and stood in the car park to dry off in the breeze. Unfortunately, it didn’t save me, but it did get a laugh from the audience. Rgds Vince

    Reply
  6. Kai

    When in high school, I was leading male in a play in which my character was sleeping with the leading female, but it was supposed to be discrete (so we wouldn’t get in trouble for “racy” material). Instead of saying, “While we’re waiting, maybe we should have some coffee.” my mouth and brain got out of order and I said, “While we’re mating, waybe…” in front of the entire high school. Try recovering from a Freudian slip in front of hundreds of horny teens!

    Reply
  7. Steven Levy

    At TechEd ca. 1995, I had a complex visual animation of a bit of abstract database theory (I think it was an early version of backup by log-shipping). For some reason, preparing at home on a small laptop, I decided to accompany the animation with some PowerPoint sounds — the only canned sound in the presentation. I was speaking in a 3000-person hall, but the guy with the session after mine usurped *my* entire pre-talk time setting up his own presentation. I had to hope the version pre-copied to the show machine would work.

    Which it did, until the slide in question. No one had tested the audio, which was at full volume. Suddenly, everyone in the room was for cover amid the shrieks and whistles of the absolute dumbest PowerPoint animated sounds ever!

    And I couldn’t speak over it until the animation had mercifully ended. It felt like ten minutes, though I think it was only 30 excruciating seconds.

    Never, ever, ever use sound in an animation :-) .

    [Reading the attendee feedback afterwards, I know this moment, unlike many speaking gaffes, was remembered well by the audience.]

    Reply
  8. Amy

    Picture this: my first 3-hour tutorial. I’d never actually attended one before, but here I was giving one, on the first day of OSCON.

    400+ geeks in the audience, standing room only at this point.

    I didn’t turn my deck in on time to get it printed out for everyone.

    I was sick as a dog, on cold medicine, and had barely slept the night before.

    The power strips for people’s laptops didn’t work.

    The promised internet connection didn’t work either, so people couldn’t follow along with the online interpreter I pointed them to.

    At one point, the audio cut out for 20 minutes. After a couple minutes of waiting quietly while the AV guys poked and prodded, I stood up and tried to speak loudly enough to be heard.

    One gentleman from the crowd actually went and got me an apple juice during this little break because apparently my coughing was driving everyone nuts (I didn’t realize I’d been coughing into the mic). He was supremely nice about it, but I felt like something the cat dragged in.

    Then, near the end, I did some live coding. Terrible idea. And while I managed to present my material as well as possible given the circumstances, two people’s questions totally threw me… and, on the hot seat, I couldn’t remember how to write a JavaScript event handler “the right way” without a framework.

    There’s an upside, though. No public speaking has EVER scared me since.

    (Decongestant meds and speaking don’t mix well, historically, but I have chronic sinusitis. A couple years ago at SXSW, part of my talk descended into poop jokes… I swear it was actually relevant, because I was speaking metaphorically about composting, but even I was agape at my own silliness and yet UNABLE TO STOP.

    Plus there was that one time where I think I accidentally implied that I could be, how shall we say, *bought* for a drink at the end of one Q&A session… whoops.)

    Reply
  9. Christopher Fahey

    At the 2008 Information Architecture Summit, I was a co-leader of a all-day workshop for people thinking about making a transition from being a design practitioner to a more management role. The title of my talk: “The Courage to Lead”, about how designers are already empowered to lead teams and businesses, they just need to have the courage to take hold of that power.

    As is my customary habit, I usually finish about 1/3 of a talk two weeks before a talk, another 1/3 in the three or four days before the talk, and the final 1/3 on the day before, often well into the night.

    This time around, I was doing pretty good: I had a coherent and complete “speech” in good shape a week before. My final night was mostly breaking down my speech into slide-like segments and then to illustrate the parts I felt needed some illustration.

    My talk was scheduled for 10:00am the next morning. At around 10:00pm, my computer just stopped working (it eventually ended up shipped back to Apple, completely dead). I had tons of backup versions of my speech and PPT deck, but all of the backup *was on the hard drive*! Twelve hours to go, and I had nothing. Not even a computer.

    I thought about the title of the speech and decided that I could not bail out. A rewrite was in order. I thought of Thomas Carlyle and his History of the French Revolution: his friend John Stuart Mill, who inspired Carlyle to write the book in the first place, accidently burned Gibbon’s only manuscript of his masterwork. Carlyle then rewrote it from memory.

    So while I still tried in vain all night long to have DiskWarrior rescue my hard drive, I assumed that I was back to square one. A friend with a heart of gold was the first step: He flat out gave me his computer.

    I had two more wonderful bits of luck. First was the simple fact that I prepared most of my speech’s most essential ideas *in a paper sketchbook* over the course of the previous months. Not as coherent sentences, but as keywords and names and rough ideas.

    Second bit of luck was that I brought my four most inspiring source material books with me to the conference. Having primary, offline sources to inspire (and quote from) helped focus my rewrite.

    So I pulled an all-nighter, rewrote the whole speech, backing up every ten minutes all night long. I made a deck of 50 black slides each with a single word on it.

    When my time came, I delivered the talk without mentioning the disaster that befell me. Speakers who open their talk with excuses suck. No excuses, I thought.

    Here’s the best part: The “disaster” actually gave my talk the best ending I could ask for: I concluded by revealing the events of the night before, underlining the importance of my core message: Courage.

    Reply
  10. Zef

    Back around 2004 I was running a presentation to the newly formed New Zealand Chapter of the Usability Professionals’ Association.

    The room was full of geeks, web managers, consultants and librarian-types.

    To introduce new and potential members to the organisation I opened a web browser to call up the website and proceeded to type http://www.upass.org

    Unsavory things being done to butts flashed up on screen followed by gasps and laughter, some fainting and one “Yahoo!”.

    A quick ALT+F4 came in handy.

    Since then all my presentations have had very high turn-outs although a significant portion of the audience wear dark shades.

    The proper URL is http://www.upassoc.org

    Reply
  11. Pawel Brodzinski

    Remember at the party you’re speaking tomorrow (morning, if you’re out of luck).

    This was my first serious speaking event and I had not one but two sessions to do day by day. I was all stressed but did my homework and prepared pretty well. The first one went good. The stress was gone and I was ready to celebrate my little success at the evening party. When I finally got to my room it was long after 5am and I was after way too many litres of beer. Needless to say my second session, which had been scheduled for 10am, was adisaster.

    Not only I had one of the worst hangovers in my life but I still wasn’t even sober (OK, I actually was drunk). And it isn’t the worst part of it. After a quarter of speaking I felt I had to go out to the toilet. I was seconds from leaving the audience in the middle of sentence, but fortunately somehow I managed to win with my alcohol-poisoned organism and stayed on the scene.

    Anyway despite my preparations I couldn’t focus on the subject and messed things I was trying to show. My pathetic tries to fix things on the fly made things only worse of course.

    Never ever heavy partying before morning sessions.

    Reply
  12. Buck Woody

    Short but true – I was 19 years old, and just transferred to an Air Force Base in England. I was asked to deliver a talk in a church. As I began, nervous and on display, a woman in the back row peeled back her shirt and began to breastfeed her baby.

    Needless to say, I had a difficult time focusing on the topic. At least the topic I was supposed to be giving.

    Reply
  13. Daniel

    Early last year, I was presenting at a user group, demonstrating a few basic techniques with Windows Presentation Foundation and showcasing a Sudoku demo I had developed as an illustration. A number of factors contributed to making this REALLY awkward:

    – My presentation was on camera (camcorder, as opposed to the TV variety). That made me somewhat self-conscious.
    – A couple of questions caught me off-guard, not knowing what angle they were coming from. Perceiving one such question (“Did you design this yourself?” in a forum where the focus was more design-oriented) as inferring criticism, I guess I came across as defensive in response.
    – Much of the audience consisted of people from my work. Part-way through the rest of the presentation (after the tech demo), I noticed some of them giggling. One of them even left the room briefly to regain composure. Fearing that it was something about the way I was presenting, I started rushing things and having mental blanks part-way through sentences (hoping I wasn’t THAT boring).
    – Near the end of this painful experience with the muffled giggling still going on, I heard this deep, nasal breathing. Looking toward the source, I discovered that an older guy in the audience was actually asleep! That disrupted my concentration so much that I was at a loss for words, so I remarked, “Oh, we’ve got a sleeper.” With that, the room erupted in laughter, waking the poor guy up. He left the session in a somewhat embarrassed state.

    So yes, I felt really awkward about that whole presentation. I just hope to God that the video isn’t lurking somewhere on the Internet.

    Reply
  14. Jurgen Appelo

    Years ago I was a freelancer, hired to do talks and courses about Microsoft Office technologies and programming.

    One morning I was traveling by train to start with a new group, and all circumstances were against me. The Dutch railway system f*cked up my schedule with so many ridiculous problems, I couldn’t keep count. So I arrived half an hour too late, and apologized for my lateness.

    I then tried to repair my damaged image by making lots of jokes and complaints about the Dutch railway system. (I thought that if there’s one thing that unites an audience, it’s the sharing of pain.)

    Unfortunately, it turned out that this particular group was working for, and sent by, the Dutch railway company.

    My reputation with them never recovered.

    Reply
  15. Jason Crawford

    As a teaching assistant for a computer science class in college, I eagerly volunteered to do the entire review session for the midterm exam, because I thought I had some great material on how to do mathematical proofs, how to understand recursion, etc. I prepared and wrote an extensive outline. In my mind, it was going to be a tour de force.

    What I didn’t realize was:
    1) I had way too much material for the 80-minute session.
    2) The students wanted to hear about the concepts that would be on the test, not my theories of how to do proofs.
    3) My exasperation with grading poorly-done assignments for half a semester was creeping in to my tone and manner.

    The result: Two thirds of the way through the session, a student near the back had the guts to finally interrupt and ask whether I was going to cover the actual class material at any point in the session. It was only then that I realized how behind I was, and rushed through the rest of my material.

    Worse, when midterm feedback came in from the students, one of them complained bitterly that in place of an exam review, he had been subject to “an hour and a half of condescension” from one of the TAs (that would be me). I felt like crap and wrote him personally to apologize.

    A minor lesson from this was how long it takes to cover a given amount of material. But the major lesson was that my natural tone and manner come across to some people as arrogant and condescending, even when I intend no such offense. I’ve been working on that ever since.

    (On the other hand, a few students reacted very positively to my session. One of them even said I was better than the professor–flattering though incorrect. The other half of the lesson for me was that people’s responses to me and what I have to say can be varied and unpredictable.)

    Reply
  16. Pat Allan

    I’m not expecting this to take any of the prizes, but it should be cathartic to let it all out, right? ;)

    There’s a talk I’ve done a few times, called ‘So You’re A Kick-Arse Coder’, in which I cover different ways people can use their skills to help others. One of those times I presented, I did a reasonable job, and a friend recorded the audio, so I spent quite some time adding timings to Keynote to then export my slides as a video in sync with his recording.

    A couple of months later, I was at the (Australian) Open Source Developers Conference in Sydney. There was space for lightning talks, so I put my name down and rehearsed the talk a couple of times beforehand, just to make sure everything was fresh in my mind.

    When the actual session came about (with an enforced 5 minute limit), I got up, plugged in, and got going… and for some reason, my remote wasn’t changing slides. I tried the keyboard, with no luck initially, but then slide two appeared, and I thought I was on track. Except I couldn’t progress to the next slide.

    So, I’m half presenting and half cursing at technology, and then I realise – the timings I’d set when exporting to video were still there. But too late, the time was up, even though I was maybe halfway through, and was urged offstage rather pointedly – no exceptions, no excuses. I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it was pretty obvious how disappointed I was. However, I did appreciate the fact that several people, in the remaining day and a half of the conference, asked me what the rest of the content of my talk was.

    Lessons from this? Rehearsal mode in Keynote does not follow any timings you may have added. Also, if you do find yourself in the same situation, kill presenter mode, and just scroll through your slides manually.

    Reply
  17. Lauren Cramer

    I was running a user conference for a marketing software company and the keynote lunch speaker was an analyst for Gartner. We knew that his wife was having a baby right around the date of the keynote, but he still accepted the speaking engagement.

    I had emailed with the analysts several times prior to the presentation date always asking if he still felt he would present. As of 9 am the morning of the presentation it was still a go. I started to get worried at 11 am when he didn’t show. At noon I really panicked when he still wasn’t there.

    At the scheduled start time of 1 pm the analyst was a no show and we apologized profusely to the audience that the keynote wasn’t going to occur.

    The next day I received an email from the analyst barely apologizing for not showing and not contacting me about not making it. His wife was having the baby that morning.

    My lesson learned is that I no longer hirer speakers that are expecting babies within one week of the presentation date.

    Reply
  18. Lauren Cramer

    Hope you don’t mind if I write up two. This next one was also for a user conference, the same company where I scheduled the previous missing keynote speaker. This time I had hired an opening to kick off the start of the conference. The idea is that this act would get the attendees pumped up and excited and then the CEO would come on and do his opening keynote.

    The act was this amazing hula hoop artist. I know sounds a bit odd but he did all these amazing things with hula hoops (like getting 30 of them going at once on different parts of his body). At 11 pm the evening before the first day of the event I get a stressed out phone call about the opening act.

    My talent had arrived but his equipment was stuck in another city. Some how all his hula hoops were put on the wrong flight. The talent had frantically called many toy stores to see when they opened the following morning. It really wasn’t the right equipment but he said he can modify his act by using traditional hula hoops. None of the stores opened in time and the flight with his equipment wasn’t due in until 10 am. We had him scheduled for 8:30 am.

    We changed our plans and had the CEO do a kick off without an opening act and put the opening act on day 2 before the product roadmap discussion. The attendees didn’t know about the opening act so it wasn’t that big of a deal to them. They did question why we had this guy performing on day 2. So many of the surveys came back saying he was great but should have been done one day one as a kick off.

    Reply
  19. Jim Noble

    I was giving a talk at a Security Conference, and referenced ChoicePoint, as an example of what NOT to do with Security. There was a ChoicePoint representative in the room, and after the talk, I was contacted by their attorneys, lost my job, and was threatened with Lawsuits. They actually tried to bully me into signing a 7 year gag order. I turned that over by telling them that I would go to the press and shout it from the rooftops.

    The funny part, I didn’t say anything that the FTC and Bruce Schnier hadn’t said online and in public forums.

    I laugh about it now, but it was a frightening 3 months of bickering with council.

    Reply
  20. John Metta

    Almost 10 years ago now I created one of the, if not the, first middle school computer programming curriculums in the Charleston, South Carolina school district. My idea was to teach Python– which at that time was still fairly new, but was still popular. As a test, I initialized it as an after school program, and it was open to the staff and families as well as the students. It was became known as sort of a “Community development” effort.

    No one had previously tried to teach programming to 8th graders, so this was fairly revolutionary there. It was also well known because I was somewhat (in)famous as “The robotics guy” having spent the previous 2 years implementing a robotics program in the school.

    So, well known guy tries one more thing new. Opening day, something of a celebration. Picture a large conference room full of 8th grade students, teachers, parents, and even the principal… and a computer that’s projecting everything I do onto a screen.

    “Now,” I say, launching into the most charismatic public speaking persona I can whip up, “I’m not really going to teach you all how to program, I can’t. You have to learn that. What I’m going to teach you is HOW to learn. I’m going to give you the basics, the fundamentals, and you have to take it to the next level. Thus, I’m going to show you how to find the information you need when you want that next level. Documentation is the Programmer’s bible. This is the first place you should go when you need information about Python…”

    Then I proceeded to type http://python.com into the address bar and project that website to this room full of little kids and their parents.

    Read that again. I loaded http://python.com.

    Not, as is correct, http://python.org.

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  21. Scott

    Wild – I wouldn’t have guessed how many disasters are related to Internet pornography in some way.

    Thanks for all the stories so far! Great stuff.

    Reply
  22. David Abramowski

    Speaking at a partner conference for a major security software vendor I was presenting on the benefits of an upcoming release for one of our desktop products. To my surprise a technical consultant of the partner started to get vocal during my presentation. I tried to use the typical approaches to deflect his comments and tried to defer his questions for a private session but he was having none of it. As I made each point about the new release he made a counter point and attacked. This made for a rather uncomfortable situation back and forth as the session progressed. There was even a point where the partner was literally screaming at me. As I looked for assistance from the management of the partner, they all just sat there and let the consultant to his own. After the session finally completed and I was weary from the battle I found out that the partner was being courted by our main competitor. The competitor actually trained the attendee to attack each point of our presentation and the partner’s management was in on the approach and had hoped to find a weakness in our story.

    Reply
  23. Ray Johnson

    I was best man at my buddy’s wedding, but I’d never been to a wedding before, so had no idea I was expected to toast the bride and groom … until someone poked me in the side and told me everyone was waiting for me to say something. Quick as a flash, I said the first (and only) thing that came to my mind: “Ladies and gentlemen, since we’re all just interested in eating anyway, I give you the newlyweds, Mike and Jane.” Judging from the lack of appreciative laughter, I quickly learned that the world’s shortest wedding toast was a bust.

    Reply
  24. Livia Labate

    I get up to present to large audience and I’m feeling confident. I make strong points and I’m happy with how the content is flowing. Slowly, I notice confused faces in the crowd. People start whispering to their neighbors and give me blank stares and inquiring looks. I then realize what’s going on: I’m giving the talk in the wrong language!

    While this hasn’t happened (yet?), this is not infrequent recurring dream I have had for many years now. It’s a scenario that really haunts me. Every time I speak publicly, whether it is for a large audience at a conference or a small group in a meeting at work, I do a mental check after saying hello to make sure I am speaking in the language I am suppose to.

    Reply
  25. Alice Allergeek

    Hi Scott!
    I’ve got a minor one to give away, I remembered an occasion on my first semester in university. I’d been trying to make it a good start, so I spent time in libraries making notes, reading. It was the day for students to present an essay, the lecteur called students and they made presentations of their work. When it came up to me, i stood up, told the theme loudly and started the introduction. Then the lectuer stopped me, saing: “Go better read it to your wardrobe”. That was quite demotivating :)

    Now than I’ve got my therapy, I would like to say Thank You for books, essays and all the things you’re changing (i planned to say so for a long time, since I read your interview in Computerworld Russia in 2007). Hope to attend your seminar someday.

    Reply
  26. Livia Labate

    Just thought of another one.

    It’s 2005 and Rich Internet Applications and AJAX are the new exciting thing. Everyone wants to talk about it. I’m at the Information Architecture Summit and the big buzz is how everyone is declaring “the page” dead because RIAs are here to make everything wonderful and jazzy for users.

    The amount of people who showed up for the panel was overwhelming; every seat filled, people standing on the back and sides, sitting on the corridors, literally exploding out of the doors. Even Jesse James Garrett, who coined the term AJAX, was there. The pressure was on!

    Each panelist was to give a quick 5-8 minute presentation about their perspective of Rich Internet Applications. It was really neat if you had any kind of dynamic prototype to show what this stuff could do, but I was vibrant – I didn’t just have a prototype, I had a functioning LIVE PRODUCT, one that not only was AJAXlicious, but did so for VIDEO consumption (again, 2005, video had not exploded yet). This was the bleeding edge; it was the coolest thing I could possibly show.

    I’m second to last and my goal was to pull it up and give a demo of the product walking people through the main scenarios of use and really show all it could do. I was going to make that baby dance for the crowd. It had been live for more than a year and we already had millions of users on it so I was not at all concerned about it not performing.

    I show the browser with the app preloaded and the second I say hello to the full room and click on the UI, the wifi dies and the app loads a bunch of empty containers. I am floored. I had not prepared for this at all, so excited I was about demoing this thing. All I had was a lousy screenshot of the app, which is exactly what people staring at while we switched from the last presenter to me.

    I spent the longest 90 second of my life trying to get the wifi back on to no avail. Having just over 5 minutes left I decided to go for it in storytelling mode using just the screenshot. A lot of gesticulation was involved in convey sliding panels, motion and different states in the dynamic interface.

    Ultimately, I did deliver the talk I intended, but my expectations of putting on a show were so high that I felt like it was the biggest failure ever. I think people thought it was just a mediocre talk.

    And while most people have experienced lack of wifi at some point these days, that was my first. Now I always have plan B.

    Reply
  27. A

    At OSCON one of my friends was doing a short award ceremony. We were talking about it beforehand, and somehow hit upon the idea of dressing up as if we were at a real awards show and my friend asked me to join him so that there would be two people on stage as you often see in these types of events. We thought it would be amusing to spend more time dressing for the awards than actually giving them.

    There wasn’t much time, so I asked someone to give me a ride back to where I was staying so I could get my long black dress. I had only bought it the week before and hadn’t worn it anywhere yet.

    There were probably a couple hundred people in the audience (certainly far more than for any talks I’ve given) and to make sure people in the back could see, there was a man with a camera feeding live images of the speakers to a huge screen behind the stage.

    My friend tried to hook up his laptop but was having trouble with the cable. I bent over to look at it. It turned out that my dress was cut a little bit lower in the front than I had thought–pretty much my entire bra was visible. The camera had been focused on me, so everyone saw my breasts, about 10 times larger than life, for a few seconds before the camera moved. I wouldn’t have been aware of it had some audience members not decided to bring it to my attention with some cheers. I had to stand on stage for five minutes more and it was all I could do to keep from standing motionless with my arms crossed in front of my chest.

    The worst part was after the talk, when I was walking to see some friends in the back of the room. I was doing my best to ignore the sexual remarks some of the men were making when I overheard a woman telling her friend that I had obviously done it in order to attract attention. Humiliated and then accused of doing it on purpose…I don’t recommend it, except that once you’ve gone through something like that, ordinary public speaking isn’t at all frightening.

    Reply
  28. Derek Powazek

    I was doing a day-long session on Community Design and had prepared an extensive set of PowerPoint slides with copious notes on my Mac laptop. But when I got to the venue a few minutes before it was set to begin, we realized that my laptop would not work with their projector, and I had to move the presentation to their PC computer. We all looked at the two computers with a feeling of doom and impotence. How to get the file from one to the other?

    One of the conference techs ran off in search of a burnable CD. Another went looking for an ethernet cable. I stood there frozen in fear.

    Then someone from the first row of the audience stepped up sand said, “Excuse me, would this help?” and handed me a small USB thumb drive. We transferred the file and all was well.

    Now, when I speak, I have a handful of those thumb drives in my backpack, just in case.

    Reply
  29. Derek Powazek

    Another favorite: In 1997, after I’d been working at the highly influential HotWired website for a year or so, I went back to my alma matter to give a talk to a web design class about working in the nascent web industry.

    I stood in front of the class and told what I thought were highly entertaining stories about life at HotWired for a half hour. When I finally stopped and asked if anyone had questions, one hand meekly raised in the back.

    The question was, “What’s HotWired?”

    Reply
  30. David Sayen

    I work in the Medicare program and I give lectures occasionally to medical students about our programs. I was speaking to med students at the Medical College of Pennsylvania some year ago. I forgot that it USED to be the Women’s medical college of PA. Most of the students were women. I kept talking about medicine and always, if I spoke about a hypothetical doc, I referred to the doc as ‘he’. One of the female students pointed out that lots of physicians are female and I should not say ‘him’ all the time. You can bet that rocked my world. I’m so grateful to that person: whenever I speak about any profession I used a liberal mixture of ‘him’ and ‘her’. Lesson: know your audience and demonstrate some sensitivity.

    Reply
  31. Gerv

    I don’t know if this counts, but…

    I was travelling to FOSDEM in February 2006 on the Eurostar from London. I was due to give the opening presentation in the Mozilla room on the state of the Mozilla Foundation. The Foundation/Corporation split had happened in mid-2005, and so people were eager to hear what the future held.

    I arrived at Brussels Midi and decided to save a quid or two of the Foundation’s money by taking the subway rather than a taxi. I went down into the subway station, and tried to buy a ticket. The ticket machine utterly baffled me. After five minutes of trying, I turned round in frustration to find that my wheeled luggage had been stolen. I had lost everything except, praise God, my passport, wallet and return ticket, which were in my jacket pockets. But my suitcase, clothes, and my laptop with my presentation for the Saturday, were all gone.

    Fortunately I arrived early enough that I had time to go clothes shopping. But the 45-minute talk had to happen from memory.

    These days, I always take a cab to the hotel.

    Reply
  32. Pawel Brodzinski

    I have another extremely fresh example – just a few-day old. I delivered a presentation for a local agile group, which contains quite a big group of agile zealots (and I had known it before the show). Besides presenting my points my plan was to cause a stir and bring a hot discussion to the table. I even left about 10 minutes at the end for that.

    The stir appeared to be way greater than I expected and it of course started in the middle of presentation. I ended up trying not to be rude ignoring people who started arguing with my points and at the same time move the presentation along hoping to present whole content. I failed at both. I used not only my 10-minute buffer but also failed to deliver one of the most interesting (in my opinion) parts of the presentation. At the same time I cut discussion on a few points without giving people a chance to present full range of arguments. This was the only presentation during the evening which didn’t get applause. Not a single clap.

    Lessons learned?

    1. I should have thrown two third of the content out and plan for 30 minutes (out of 45) for discussion. If you think you’re going to be controversial you’ll probably be more controversial than you think. Especially when audience is willing to fight for their positions.

    2. I should have deliver softer message. There’s no point in making a discussion more like a war than like, well, a discussion. You don’t go preach one conservative religion on the forum of believers of another conservative religion if you know what I mean.

    3. I should have changed an axis of the presentation. Instead of showing what I believe is right or wrong I should present situations and ask questions. If you’re planning a discussion with audience let people do the work of finding solutions and you just stop at guiding them. It brings more fun for everyone and doesn’t start a conflict.

    Reply
  33. Scott Hanselman

    My first major speaking engagement, I was to speak at COMDEX on “Building Large-Scale e-Commerce Systems.” This was during the first boom, before Amazon was #1, when scale was VERY hard. We’d done it and folks wanted to hear about it.

    I was flown to Chicago to give a 90 minute talk in a room that could hold 1200 people. It was empty, so I set up. As the time to speak approached, I wasn’t sure why the room wasn’t filling up. I walked around, checked the signage, confirmed the room # and time. There was just a smattering of people in the room. I figured I could start late if something had happened.

    The time to start came and went…5 people in a room to hold 1200. Was I going insane? I could hear the crowd outside…COMDEX *was* packed that year. I went into the hall, towards the din, and saw him. Linus Torvalds. Speaking in the room across the room. That room with standing room only, overflowing into the hallway.

    I returned to my own 1200 seat room, sat on the edge of the stage, and delivered my talk to 5 attendees.

    Reply
  34. Dave Dustin

    I was invited to speak at a user group meeting while we were visiting relatives in another city.

    Got dropped off at user group meeting where I was speaking. Wife took our car back to the house.

    Getting set up for the meeting, I realised that it was my keys that were being used in the car, and on the keyring was the USB drive that contains the digitial certificate to unlock my laptop. So I had to do the entire evening from memory, with no demos or slides.

    Still turned out ok in the end though.

    Reply
  35. Pieter

    Hi

    With English being my second language I made a bad mistake once. I was describing the food I had to my colleagues. I went on saying that the steak was so tender that I could have used a spoon to eat it, except for the seamen in it…I meant to say sinue, which is what we call gristle in South Africa…I think anyway.

    That incident still haunts me today, they just won’t let it go.

    Reply
  36. Martin Yarborough

    Standing up in front of 30 bright eyed high school seniors the first day back to school from the Christmas holidays in 1983 will stand in my mind for all eternity. We used “chalk” back then and I was at the chalkboard doing one of my brilliant presentations about vector analysis (I think I was as bored as my students) when I dropped the chalk. I bent over to pick it up and guess what. In short, I farted in class. It was not a SBD (silent but deadly) but a real rip roarer. Don’t really know where it came from. I stood up and turned to the class to see the astonished faces staring at me in disbelief. All I could think to say was “Excuse Me”. Then we all cracked up. I threatened them with every inch of their lives and told them I would fail anyone who uttered a word of this to the outside. Yeah, it made the local school paper the next week. Took me the rest of the semester to live that down. When Facebook came out, I hooked up with a bunch of my old students to see how they turned out. Yep, they all reminded me of the incident. I think it was permanently engraved on their brain forever.

    Reply
  37. Jonathan Buford

    My most memorable incident was during a campaign speech for the Georgia TSA (Technology Student Association) back around 1990. I was in front of around 1000 or more peers that I wanted to convince to elect me as VP of the organization for the next year. About a minute into my speech, a cyclic squeaking starting coming from the service hall that was behind me. Someone was pushing a cart with a squeaky wheel through there. OK, no problem, but it kept getting louder and more people started hearing it. After a little while, the cart slammed into something and made a loud bang.

    The audience immediately was laughing, and I had no idea how to deal with the situation. A better speaker would have used the situation to their advantage, but I just waited it out and tried to trudge on. In hind site, being open and prepared to interruptions would be one of those skills to practice.

    Reply
  38. Laurent

    Mine is not that bad but it was just so embarrassing… My very very, very first speaking engagement, for a user group in the Zurich area… I packed everything I needed for the talk, except… my power adapter. And of course, I noticed only when I reached the room, so I had worked in the train to polish a couple of demos, which means I had really little power left. At the time I was using a Fujitsu Siemens laptop (not my own choice, believe me…) and these guys use some totally non standard power connectors, so noone in the room could help me. So I just started the presentation, which went great for… 20 minutes and then blackout. (The presentation was supposed to last 1 hours).

    I finished the presentation using a white board. It was not easy because the topic was Windows Presentation Foundation and how to work with designers, quite a complex topic and of course I couldn’t show the demos I had prepared so I had to improvise all along. Interestingly enough, and even though I was feeling so embarrassed, the rather small audience was really friendly and made me feel that they didn’t completely waste their time coming to listen to me…

    Since then I have a checklist of things to prepare and to do before a talk…

    Reply
  39. David Heacock

    In the early 90’s I was working for a small Mac-based graphic design company in Canberra, Australia. We had a contract with the local convention centre and were asked to produce a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the keynote speaker, Mr. Bill Gates. The specification from the client was clear: produce a PowerPoint presentation. Unfortunately they neglected to test it and we discovered the embarrassing consequences of poor project planing. The slideshow was a total disaster and crashed the Windows PC it was running on.

    Mr. Gates was left to explain to 3000 delegates that “Microsoft were still working on the finer aspects of cross-platform development”.

    Reply
  40. Scott

    Here are two great ones from Michael Nielsen:

    The well known string theorist Leonard Susskind tells a hilarious story at the start of his lecture here.

    The short version is that as a 25 year-old Susskind was asked to give a talk at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton to an audience that included Oppenheimer, Nobel Laureate T. D. Lee, and many other notables. His tie got stuck in a machine he was using to give the presentation, and ultimately burst into flame; he was put out by his hosts. Full details from minutes 1-5 of the link.

    I have my own story in the Susskind vein. In 1996 I was giving my first ever conference presentation, at a workshop about quantum information held at the Santa Fe Institute. I was 22 years old, and very nervous, since the audience contained many quantum information big shots. The talk went well, and I got to the end. The audience clapped, and the chair started to suggest that we should break for lunch.

    I say started because he didn’t complete what he was saying. The spotlight of attention having moved elsewhere I had decided to relax. Unfortunately, I did this by starting to seat myself on the “table” that had supported the overhead projector during my talk.

    I say “table” because it looked superficially like a table, it actually didn’t have four legs for support. In fact, it was supported on a single pillar, so nothing supported the edges. I sat down on an edge, and the entire table collapsed, catapulting the projector all the way over my body, now lying prone on the floor.

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  41. Cassandra

    In my defense, I changed outfits in an airplane restroom.

    Last year I had a morning speaking engagement in Florida. Always the prepared flyer, I planned my flight for the day before, and was to leave LAX at 9 am the day before my 10 am presentation.

    One hurricane-level-winds in Houston warning, a stopover in Cleveland, a layover in Nashville, and twenty-four hours later, I landed in Orlando.

    On the bright side, I only travel with carryon luggage. My computer, clothes, and everything I needed were right there with me. On the downside, I realized somewhere between Nashville and Orlando that I would be arriving with minutes to spare – and there I was in my jeans-and-tshirt travel outfit.

    With the help of a sympathetic stewardess, I did my hair and makeup, then I changed into my suit, using every yoga position imaginable within that tiny airplane bathroom.

    My cab got me from the airport to the convention center with 10 minutes to spare. I made it onstage, gathered myself, and walked out with a smile.

    I made it through the hour, and wrapped up the presentation (a training for the IT-challenged about online software) with a line I used often:
    “You see, you don’t have to be a techie to understand even the more complicated programs, you just have to know how to explore”

    When an audience member piped up —
    “No, but helps if you’re a trekkie!”

    I noticed the sound guy trying not to fall over laughing offstage. He pointed to me, then pointed to his chest.

    I glanced at the video screen behind me to discover that the shirt I had hastily dressed over was clearly showing off its main graphic – a yellow and black star trek communicator – right through my blouse.

    Those who watched the show thought it was great, but I felt like it took me an eternity to get out my parting remarks:

    “Ah. It looks like I forgot to remove my communicator badge after my flight here. That just goes to show you, if you spend too much time on this stuff, you might end up spouting lessons like ‘live long and prosper’. But I think there are worse things in this world.”

    Reply
  42. Jennifer Kelly

    I was giving a talk about wine and how not to be intimidated about opening a bottle. I had two bottles to demonstrate step-by-step how to do this.

    The first bottle was a standard cork and I demonstrated opening it without a problem.

    The next bottle was a champagne bottle. I bought “sparkling wine” as we weren’t planning on doing a tasting and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a demo bottle. Well I should have because when I took the foil off the ‘cork’, it turned out to be a twist off cap. I was caught off guard and couldn’t demonstrate how to open a champagne bottle. I ended up laughing it off and the audience was very forgiving – but felt like an idiot.

    Reply
  43. Ari

    In early versions of powerpoint, the default slide color scheme was strongly remininscent of Tampax boxes. I went to a number of presentations where a male presenter put up his title slide and had to pause while a wave of high-pitched giggles made its way across the room.

    Reply
  44. Doug

    back in ’99 i was the “evangelist” for a software product. 200 people at a gorgeous location in Melbourne on the lake… i get introduced… i hit the first slide and… blue screen of death (if only i had a Mac back then).
    so i rebooted… my wallpaper was an ultrasound of my first child…. so i said… “well… that crash was embarrassing… but not as embarrassed as my wife will be when i tell her 200 people had seen a picture of her Uterus!”

    Reply
  45. Werner

    Scott, I have so many disaster stories I don’t even know where to start :-)

    There was a phase where I had started to experiment with making my slides really minimalistic and using really subtle color schemes to support the story, a sort of visual aromatherapy :-) I was strict at doing dry runs in the conference facilityon the day of the presentation making sure nothing could go wrong. In the disaster case it was a room with two 20 feet screens on both side of the podium and the slides look good, really good during the dry run. The screens are slightly forward of the podium so I can’t see them from stage, but that is OK because I can do this presentation in my dreams.

    When it is my turn I notice that the AV guy is hooking up cable #2 (instead of #1) to my laptop but I don’t think anything of it. I don’t know what went wrong but this alternate connection inverted the color scheme and made it horrific. But I could not see it so I happily went deep into my presentation. There was a bit of unrest in the audience, but I didn’t think anything of it.

    Afterwards people told me they left the presentation because the horribly clashing colors on the massive screen had made them physically ill…

    Reply
  46. Niko

    Couple of months ago I was giving a lecture about agile software development. I prepared a fancy presentation with animations, but I didn’t try to go through the presentation before the stage. As I am quite familiar with the topic I was sure the presentation could be great without the preparation.
    When I started the slideshow all those animations were too slow and I had troubles synchronising the speech with animations. Anyway it wasn’t a complete disaster but I learned it is better to make simple presentations. This way it is easier to give the main emphasis on speech and assist the speech with slides and not the other way round.

    Reply

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