When a presentation bombs

I gave a short presentation last week that was not as awesome as I had intended. In fact,  it would be fair to say it bombed. I have (mostly) recovered, but have been reflecting on the experience of not presenting well. More often than not, my presentations go well enough, but sometimes they (I) go wrong. I am thinking mostly about live presentations of one sort or another—a talk, a lecture, a pitch, a viva, an interview—the type of thing that gives you no second chance to revisit the unfinished business of stuffing up.

The title for this post came from the comment of a participant in the Academic Identities Conference cultural history research project, who described the experience of giving a paper that did not feel successful (“a bit of a bomb I thought”) and said: “I didn’t really know how to meet the audience.” Jeanette Fyffe and I are thinking through this wonderful idea of ‘meeting the audience’ for a symposium paper at this year’s conference in Japan.

I still flush with shame at the memories of some poor presentations I have given during my academic career—an early conference paper where I read from my carefully prepared script but had minimal interaction with the audience, a more recent conference presentation that I rushed through, an interview where I spoke for too long—this list could go on.

While writing this post, I popped down to the kitchen and encountered some inspirational posters on success and preparation (which always seem to read as non sequiturs) alongside hazard notifications:

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As with failure or rejection, much of the discussion about presenting poorly is framed around how to do better next time. There seem to be a finite number of reasons given for a failed presentation—lack of preparation, anxiety, lack of confidence—that can be ameliorated for next time.

I am more interested in the reasons why a seasoned presenter, who has presented well in the past, does not do well. Here’s the list of risk factors I came up with from my own experiences:

  • presenting in a new context
  • more formal or less formal than anticipated
  • time pressure (particularly shorter or longer than usual or expected)
  • a new mode of presentation
  • an unknown audience
  • not caring enough or caring too much
  • being distracted by external stressors
  • trying to do too much other stuff in the lead up to the presentation

I reread Michelle Jamieson’s article Sitting with Failure (which I linked to in a previous post on failure) and this resonated:

Rather than thinking in terms of success and failure, I encourage you to relate to your work as a practice…  In this sense, there is no point of arrival or ultimate goal outside the experience you are currently presented with, and present to. From here, it easier to accept mistakes as something to be with, rather than something to overcome.

I have another presentation to give this afternoon, and can certainly tick some of the risks on the list above—school have just called to say my daughter is in sick bay (shout out to my parents who are picking her up). But I am more practiced than last week, and will aim to sit with this experience, come what may.

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