Spirited Communication

Presenting: A Train Wreck


Just days after communications consultant Shel Holtz celebrated his earning the top rating as one of 73 breakout session speakers at the 2006 IABC International Conference, I received my evaluation. This comment from one of the attendees seemed to sum it up nicely:

Don’t ask him back next year.

To use a baseball analogy, if Shel’s performance ranks him as the Detroit Tigers (the best in the league), mine would rank me with the Kansas City Royals (nowhere to go but up). I wish I could have compared myself to the Chicago Cubs–although they are perennial losers, some people consider them lovable. Unfortunately, my results were just plain ugly!

I actually can identify more with the major league debut of a Seattle Mariners player: infielder Ron Wright. Here’s how San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Chris Jenkins described that first experience in the “big leagues”:

Wright’s mistake was just getting out of bed, let alone Tacoma, the Mariners’ AAA locale. Indeed, we’re talking about perhaps the worst major league debut of all time.

For the record, Wright struck out in his first major league at-bat, then hit into a triple play on his next at-bat. The tail end of the triple play came on Wright’s ill-advised break for second base, where he was thrown out by the pitcher. “Hey, dude,” Jenkins quoted second baseman Bret Boone as saying to Wright, “that was bad.”

Things got better in Wright’s third trip to the plate, when he “only hit into a 6-4-3 double play,” Jenkins wrote. “For those keeping score, that’s six outs in three at-bats. Gotta be some sort of record.”

Well, records were meant to be broken, and I believe that my recent presentation has lowered the standard for a debut. Rather than sulk about it (I did that on the day that I received the evaluation), I prefer to believe the quote that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

So to make your presentations stronger and to let you benefit by NOT doing what I did, here are some thoughts to consider if you ever are asked to be a last-minute fill-in speaker at a major conference or event.

  1. Be sure that you understand the topic. I know that this sounds very basic, but consider my recent experience. About 3 1/2 weeks before the 2006 IABC International Conference, I received an email from an IABC staff member, asking me to serve as a fill-in. She mentioned a couple of communications professionals who “suggested I contact you, as you know the subject matter – managing change brought about by social media.” I was flattered to be asked, and considered it a great opportunity. But I dismissed the fact that the heart of the presentation required experience with building online communities –experience that I didn’t have.
  2. Make sure that you have enough time to prepare. Sure, we’ve all had experience with pulling all-nighters and weekenders to complete some rush project. I wasn’t concerned about getting the IABC presentation done on-time–particularly when I emailed the original presenter, who was very willing to share his thoughts on what he planned to deliver. I’d just combine some of the original material with my own experiences. That way, no one would feel cheated, I reasoned–incorrectly. I spent too much time trying to weave together the unfamiliar material with my own thoughts. In fact, I was tweaking the presentation all the way up to the day it was to be delivered. That led to another big mistake:
  3. Don’t ever, ever, ever read the slides. I knew this; I hate this when other presenters do it…yet I still read some of the slides. Why? Partly due to nerves, partly due to the lack of time to practice enough, and partly due to a lack of time to create presentation handouts. I wanted to emphasize some points, and since I couldn’t assume that everyone in the audience could quickly spot and read the points on my slides, I started reading. As Jethro Tull sang in Locomotive Breath: “old Charlie stole the handle and the train won’t stop going –no way to slow down.” My trainwreck was underway!
  4. If you can’t do justice to the original topic, try to adjust it to something you can discuss well. With the feedback from the original presenter, I felt that I could prepare a hybrid presentation that would go over as well as the new hybrid cars. The reality was that if hybrid cars had the same performance specs as my presentation, we would all soon be riding bicycles. I would have been better off speaking entirely on material I knew well–or declining the invitation to speak.

Good thing that I have this blogging thing to fall back on.


  1. Jeff Zwier

    I just had to take a moment between meetings to offer some support, Tom. What could be a more difficult situation to be in than communicating to a room full of communication professionals? Whether or not you had been able to follow all of the ‘lessons learned’ in your post, it has been my experience as a conference speaker that there are some situations where one is just set up for feedback failure.

    One of those situations is when everyone was expecting someone else and is disappointed by the no-show. You get to inherit a bunch of conference attendee let-down that has nothing to do with you, and as soon as you stumble just a little, the audience attributes their bad feelings to you. I’m with Donna – you know your stuff, and all my interactions with you indicate that you can and will succeed in this sort of thing in the future. Hang in there!

  2. Tom Keefe

    Thanks for talking me off of the ledge, Donna (just kidding, everybody)! I deeply appreciate your encouragement.

    Yes, I will be a better presenter whenever the next opportunity arises. However, that’ll have to wait until I complete my current assignment as play-by-play announcer for Ron Wright’s park district softball team: The Tacoma Train Rex.

    Just kidding; Ron wouldn’t return my phone calls.

    (Hey, I’m starting to feel better already; blogging CAN be therapeutic, after all.)


  3. Donna Papacosta

    Tom, I was in the audience in Vancouver. I think you are being too hard on yourself! I admire you for stepping in at the last minute. That was brave. (And I think all of us have at least one presentation where we could have done better.) Look, you have taken this experience and turned it into something you (and now your blog readers) can learn from. Having spent some time with you at the IABC conference, and as a reader of your blog, I know you’re warm, intelligent, witty and you have a lot to say. NEXT TIME you speak at IABC you’ll be terrific because you’ll let the real Tom shine through, right?

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