Last month I had the pleasure of being the Monday morning keynote speaker for PowerPoint Live 2004. I flew into San Diego a few days early for some R&R and the weather was… well it was San Diego. I had been looking forward to speaking at this particular conference because instead of having an audience of sales people, business execs/managers and the like, this group was comprised mostly of corporate and independent presentation design professionals. I’ve always had a special kinship with these folks because we share some common career roots. It’s often thankless work performed by talented people on ridiculously short deadlines and is much too often an undervalued role in most organizations. But things are changing and this conference was clear proof.
Rick Altman, the conference producer, had done his job. Hundreds of attendees began arriving filling the registration area with an enthusiastic buzz. The signage created more anticipation and all the pieces were in place for a great conference. Now it was up to a few dozen of us who had been asked to speak to do our part. But like the unseen contribution of presentation professionals, there were others working silently behind the scenes to make this event successful.
I tend to go through my own version of a “pre-game” warm-up. The evening before speaking, my mind is already churning through the range of issues I may run into while I’m setting up the next morning. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether you’re at the Moscone Center in San Francisco or the Javits in New York, you can expect the setting to be different than what you were expecting. Screen left? Right? Center? Chairs right up to my toes in front? Lights that seem to have an extreme dim and extreme bright setting but nothing in-between. Cords taped down with miles of duct tape making change near impossible. I suppose the one thing I’ve learned over the years is to be as adaptable as I can be. My own personal discomfort can never impact my audience’s experience.
7pm, Sunday October 10
While sitting in the hotel restaurant Sunday night having dinner with my wife, I saw a group of folks from the Presentations Council of ICIA. I recognized one of the group members, Todd Dunn. Todd has his own AV support and technology company and I found out that he would be doing much of the technical speaker support for the event. Before we parted for the evening, Todd and I agreed to meet early the next morning. Already it was a relief to know that I wouldn’t be working with someone who just got promoted from valet parking to the hotel AV department.
7:10am, Monday October 11
I’d gotten up early, caught a quick breakfast and even managed a brisk walk before getting to the meeting room a little after 7am. Todd was already there. Since this was the first event of the week, he had been running cords and setting up equipment for a while. As soon as I put down my briefcase, Todd came over to see what my needs were going to be for the morning.
“Well, first, I’d like to set up my laptop on one of the chairs directly in front of me (instead of at the podium) and use it as a stealth teleprompter. Then we will need to check out line-of-sight issues with those circular tables way off to my right side. I’ll also need to have VGA support where my laptop is going to be sitting in the front row. I guess that also means I’ll need power there too.”
This is always a moment of truth for me. If you were at one of the big conference centers, these types of requests may prompt a call to the convention support supervisor who calls the AV support manager who in turn dispatches the AV professional who then tells you that he doesn’t do power cords. There’s another union that handles that stuff, all before disappearing into the crowd 5-minutes before your set-up is complete.
No such challenge here. Todd was a real pro. He understood that he was there to serve and support. I’m sure he’s worked with hundreds of presenters over the years and has probably learned that their requests, although sometimes a little screwy, are important for some reason to the presenter. We were now down to 35-minutes before hundreds of attendees would fill the room, but he stayed cool under pressure. I knew I was not the only one making demands for his time but he handled each request with calm resolve. He even made some tactical suggestions that made things even easier for me which was very much appreciated. Even my concerns for those sitting off to the far right didn’t go ignored. I noticed as he approached one of the conference leaders gesturing to the tables in the south forty suggesting they get moved to a more appropriate location.
7:50am, Monday October 11
With a huge, bright image now projected over my shoulder, Todd walked over with the cordless lapel microphone and began to “suit me up” for the big game. Although I’ve had AV folks in the past talk to me about cordless mics much like a kindergarten teacher may instruct a child on how to feed the classroom gold fish, there was no condescension in his voice. He quickly showed me the key switches on this particular receiver/transmitter, clipped on the microphone and even threw in a few final words of encouragement. It took another 30-seconds for a quick sound check and his work was done.
7:55am, Monday October 11
“Jim, Rick (the event sponsor) has another presentation he needs to give briefly before you start this morning. I have it on a USB drive; can we put this on your laptop?” I had no problem with his request because I knew that he was there to make this whole presentation/speaker process as seamless as possible for everyone, not just me. “Is there anything else you need?” he asked.
I hope you are as blessed to have AV support folks as helpful and cooperative as Todd was for me that day. The very next morning I had a smaller workshop I was doing and there was Todd again. He had made a note the day before that I would need an audio feed from my laptop to the house and he was ready to patch me in. He also quickly noticed that the image being projected on the wall was having some synchronization issues. Newer laptop. Newer projector. Go figure. But with seasoned efficiency he quickly reset my display options and got me ready to present. I’m pretty sure I would not have gotten that issued resolved by presentation time.
Lessons for Presenters Everywhere
Todd may think that he is in the technology business but he’s in a business much more important to me. His stock and trade is in “peace of mind” for harried and sometimes anxious presenters. When those of us who are upfront are not ready to go when our audiences are, our execution nearly always suffers. And don’t miss this, audiences know when presenters are not ready and wonder silently if they’re going to get short changed over the next hour or so.
During breaks, I had a chance to talk more with Todd. I’m not sure what his business card says, but he is much more than an AV professional. He knows (before the presenter probably does) what the reaction of an audience will be to a sea of bullets read one by one. He’s seen it a thousand times. He’s had the experience of watching presenters brandish an RF remote like a phaser weapon (elevating their technology to a much too visible role) and presentation “gimmicks” that fail to connect in a meaningful way with the audience.
Yep. People like Todd are a wealth of information and you’re missing something if you don’t ask for their advice from time to time. It’s not that they don’t like to offer it, it’s just that they so seldom run into presenters who bother to ask.
Tips for working with AV Professionals
The AV professionals are an ally, not an adversary.
As presenters, we may think we’ve seen and experienced it all, but guess what? They’ve seen more. Talk to the AV support teams well in advance of crunch time. Set up a time to discuss what you need and discuss what the stock room set-up will be before you walk in the door so there are no surprises. Then find a time when you can meet them on presentation day. In your greatest time of need, these are the go-to folks who’ll save your bacon.
Surprises are not fun for presenters but even less pleasant for AV support teams.
If you have specific needs, make those know well before the event and, if you’re smart, you’ll confirm them in writing. They are making up equipment and room requirement lists well ahead of the actual event date. We presenters are an interesting bunch. We may think that this is all about us but there are actually bigger issues in play that are not always apparent. Equipment needs to move around during the day and last minute requests may not be honored leaving you with some tough last minute decisions.
Keep your head and things will go better for everyone.
Many presenters have become so casual about presenting that onsite challenges are all too often our own darn fault. On some occasions, however, stuff just happens. The quickest way to lose the proactive support of your AV support team is to take out your frustration on them. If your #1 choice is an absolute impossibility, trust their counsel for option #2. Take a deep breath. Get the blood pressure down and relax. Five minutes before you speak, things may be going to hell in a hand basket but all your audience will know are the signals you send them, so suck it up and act like the presentation pro you are.