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Case Study: Technology Fails

Last week, a colleague had an unfortunate run-in with technology at the start of his presentation. What’s one piece of advice you’d share with this subject matter expert?

The Scenario

“I had been asked to deliver a 30-minute lecture on the anatomy of the eye and I was concerned about two things:

1)      How on Earth would I fill up a 30-minute block of time on this subject?

2)      How on Earth am I supposed to present on this topic when there will be eye surgeons in the audience? They’ve forgotten more about the eye than I could ever teach.

I put together a slide deck and I rehearsed my session. I probably delivered this session in front of the mirror about 10 or 15 times before I had to take the stage. Not wanting to read the text on the slides verbatim, I wrote out a script for each slide on a piece of paper. If I got lost (or if I was hit with a sudden bout of stage fright), my plan was to simply refer to this paper in order to get back on track. It was written in the way that I talk, so if I had to read it, I was hoping it would at least sound natural.

The moment of truth arrived. The session moderator introduced me. I took the podium.

The Moment Technology Fails

The computer on which my slides were loaded had “gone to sleep”, but I had the password to log back into the computer. I entered the login and the computer told me: “Invalid password.”

I entered the password again, and I got the same message. I was starting to see a disturbing trend. Technical staff from the conference rushed the stage. Everyone was trying to figure the problem out. Nobody was having success. I grabbed my own computer which also had the PowerPoint file. I entered my login.

Invalid password!

The session moderator announced a 15-minute break. After more fiddling and anxious moments, we were able to bring up my PowerPoint slides. The break ended.

Thrown off by the technical difficulties, I referred to my script to get started. I found that I couldn’t look away! The script was like a beautiful siren, singing me a song as I navigated the treacherous oceans of the presentation.

Twenty minutes later I was done. I had read my script verbatim from start to finish.

Not my finest (one-third of an) hour.

Expert Advice on Dealing with Technology Fails

Below, two experienced learning and development professionals offer their insights. What would you say? Use the comments section below to share your own thoughts about what to do the next time an SME finds themselves in a similar situation.

Priscilla Shumway, Senior National Trainer, The Bob Pike Group

First: Start with humor: Ask the audience: How many of you have ever experienced technical problems such as this? Anyone care to share a quick episode? (Do this while the techies are trying to fix it.)

Second:  Explain that the purpose of the session is to review the anatomy of the eye and that you’d like to honor the experience and knowledge in the room. Ask the audience to turn to the person next to them and come up with their top three facts that they would present if they were up on stage. This would buy time and involve your audience while the technical issues are addressed.

Take comments from 4 or 5 pairs. If the technical problems are not fixed at that point, take a 115-minute break.  Once your slides are back up and running you can go through the slides and recapture what the audience said, using names of audience members who stated that fact. For example: “As Dr. Morris stated, here is…”

Third: End with humor. “Thank you all for making my presentation even more stellar than it would have been if all the technology had been working!”

Michelle Baker, Founder & Strategist, Phase(Two)Learning

Yikes! Doubts about subject matter expertise and technical difficulties.

I think most of us have been there. Although it seems hard to believe, I think overcoming a technical mishap is easier to overcome.  Typically, an audience is more forgiving because most can relate to the love/hate relationship with technology!  The tougher scenario is wading through content when there’s a little voice of doubt speaking into your ear.

First: Stories are more memorable than facts.  Sure, storytelling is a fine art, but it’s one that can be mastered. When you are faced with facilitating a session that is outside your scope of expertise, look for stories that support the facts you are presenting. Find an example. Find a success story. Find an organization that is doing something interesting that you can share with the group. It’s easier for you to remember what ABC Company did than it is for you to learn 1001 things about a subject (that your audience probably already knows).  As you share the story, point out the relevant, key facts that align with the topic.

Second: Throw it back to the group.  This is tricky, especially in an auditorium. On the other hand, this can be an effective way to make a presentation interactive and take the focus away from the facilitator! After sharing your key points (with or without looking at your notes!), ask a reflective or discussion-based question (for example: what does the Bowman’s layer have to do with cornea transplants?). Give the audience a few minutes to discuss and then debrief in the larger group.

Third: Start and end on a strong note. Kick off the session with a strong introduction. End with a memorable point or story. Reinforce the benefit of what you’ve shared. Above all, have confidence!  A presenter with confidence will always have more credibility.


How do you deal with technology fails? Do you prepare for this in advance?

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