Lessons Learned from a Technically Disastrous Keynote

Tldr; My first keynote was a massive technical disaster. Four laptops and 3 projector breakdowns later, it was complete. However, using principles I learned from “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte I made it through…and I think people even enjoyed it! Jump to the bottom for the five lessons learned.

Last summer I had the honor of being asked to present the keynote for the 2014 Codestock conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. I couldn’t have been more excited about the opportunity and the message I wanted to deliver: Becoming an Outlier. I walked into the auditorium a full hour before my talk so that I would have ample time to complete a tech check. It turned out, an hour wasn’t near enough time.

My laptop decided it wasn’t interested in syncing with the projector, instead producing a fuzzy postage stamp style display in the center of the screen. We toyed with settings for 30 minutes to no avail. Time was running out. It was time to start calling for backup machines. Thankfully multiple people came to my aid. The first machine was so old that it couldn’t play my full HD video without severe stuttering. The second lacked Powerpoint. And finally, the third machine we tried in a 15 minute fury looked promising by initially displaying the slides and playing the video. I sprinted to the back room to finish configuring the machine with the necessary fonts and source files.

I was nearly done with this configuration when the machine crashed with a blue screen of death. No one wants to see this 5 minutes before a presentation.

Blue screen of death

The owner assured me we could get it booted and finished installing the font in time – after all, it had an SSD. Sure enough, with about a minute to spare, and just as they began reading my bio, the machine was ready! Whew.

I stepped on stage and raised my hands in the air in excitement when the Mac projected successfully to the screen. “We’re going to do a keynote!” The crowd could certainly see the relief and excitement on my face. The presentation started great, but smooth sailing didn’t last long. I heard a gasp and some giggles from the crowd. I whirled around to see that the projector had gone black. Ouch. The machine was fine, it was the projector itself. But I was determined to stay upbeat and share the message so I forged ahead. The projector proceeded to come back on, then die out again a couple more times throughout the presentation. But I smiled, laughed it off, and continued speaking without it.

Codestock crowd

Lessons learned

  1. Prepare a plan to handle broken tech. If a failure has happened once, it will likely happen again.
  2. Do your tech check as far in advance as possible. You need more time than you think. Trust me.
  3. When things go wrong, smile and laugh. It relieves tension and helps clear the head. It shows the crowd that you’re not rattled and thereby puts them at ease. This little trick should help keep you at ease as well.
  4. Remember that the crowd is rooting for you to succeed. They are sitting there and have no interest in wasting their time. Roll with the punches and forge ahead.
  5. Frame the unexpected as an interesting plot twist rather than a failure. You have a choice in how you respond when caught off-guard. This applies both on stage and throughout life. Remember, the crowd wants to see you succeed. No one wants to sit through an hour of embarrassing failure. The crowd will feed off your negativity or your positive vibes. No matter the circumstances, the crowd will look to you to help frame the experience. Present with enthusiasm, no matter the struggles along the way.

Finally, remember, you set the bar for any reactions. No one will be more excited about your topic than you.

11 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from a Technically Disastrous Keynote

  1. I attended that keynote, and you’re right – tech breaks, and laughing it off and pushing through is the best approach.

    And it was a great keynote, by the way…

  2. The rolling with the punches is definitely key. When I teach, no matter how much I prepare, I will bungle something when working a problem in front of the class. There will always be a student that will correct you. Own it, make it part of the experience, and keep going. I think it’s even better for the audience when a humanizing moment happens and they see it’s not a big deal.

  3. Also for Pluralsight subscribers who are giving or want to give a talk in front of a developer audience, I can recommend Rob Conery and Scott Hanselman’s speaking fundamentals course which covers the subject in depth. If you don’t have a pluralsight subscription you can still watch “get involved” for free, which covers some of the same content but is a lot shorter.

  4. When I speak, I always have hard copy of either slides, notes or manuscripts just because of this. Some presentations won’t work well without the slides because there’s a visual that’s essential, but in many cases I’ve encountered, the slides are not essential, just (very) nice to have, and then at least you have the option to just start the talk without the tech. If the tech comes online after you start, great, but if not, no big deal.

    Generally, I try to prepare with the assumption that technical bits will fail, because while it doesn’t happen all the time, it does happen often enough that the little extra work pays off big when it does: both in your stress level because you’re prepared for it, but also in jokes you can make when the video goes kaput (because everybody gets that these things don’t always work right). If the talk is being videoed shown on a big screen (as often is done in keynotes), if you have hard copy, and have a slide that you’d really like to show, *sometimes* they can even zoom to show the hard copy slide you have. It’s not beautiful, but it works, and a little kitchy-cool when it does. Bonus points if you print your backup slides on larger format paper (like A3 or whatever the double-size-letter paper is in the US [ledger?]) for this case.

    1. Excellent points Drew! I’ve honestly never printed my slides since I tend to speak in rooms full of people with laptops! I figure the worst case scenario is I place my slides on someone else’s machine. And I agree, you have to be prepared to live without your slides, though sometimes, that’s highly impractical, especially if you rely heavily on visuals to get your point across. That said, if you give me a white board I can do any of my talks…albeit more slowly. 🙂

  5. Knowing you, Cory, I am sure that everyone was entertained…and yes, sometimes you just have to laugh through it. 🙂

    I quote Winston Churchill: When you’re going through hell, keep going!

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