Thursday, July 5, 2012

How To Handle (Or Not) Distractions During Presentations

In a recent post, I mentioned that I was preparing an upcoming presentation.  I've now given that presentation and have a few observations to share.  The talk was an invited plenary at an international conference... a relatively small gathering of specialists in the field but one that was attended by many colleagues, students, post-doctoral researchers, and early-career scientists.  I was to speak for about fifty minutes, with ten minutes for questions.

In cases where I've been invited to give a presentation and especially if my expenses are being covered by the hosts, I feel obligated to put some effort into developing and delivering my talk.  Consequently, I prepared my presentation carefully and tried to strike a balance between showing some interesting data for those familiar with the specific topic and providing background for those less familiar.  My timing was planned so that I did not go over my allotted time.  I also included some "inspiring" words of encouragement/challenge to students and early-career attendees.  In other words, I took pains to prepare as much as possible to ensure I met the expectations of my hosts and the attendees for a plenary talk.

However, there are things that no amount of planning can foresee or avoid.  Such was the case here, which I will use to discuss possible options when things go wrong.

Before I get to the main problem, I'll mention a minor, but potentially disastrous problem that arose.  My plenary was scheduled for the second day of the meeting at 9 am.  I conscientiously provided my presentation for upload the afternoon before and checked through it to ensure the slides were all there and viewable.  I should mention here that the conference was held in a foreign (to me) location and at a venue somewhat remote from my hotel; getting to and from the meeting location was somewhat problematic and required some effort.  The morning of the talk, I arranged for a taxi to ensure I arrived on time and not drenched in sweat.  So far, so good.  The conference hall was filling up with the attendees (many of whom were coming to me to tell me how much they were looking forward to hearing me speak).

Then, about fifteen minutes before my talk, the IT person who helped me load my presentation the day before comes to me and says, "Do you have another copy of your presentation with you; we switched computers and no longer have the one we used yesterday?"  Fortunately, I had thought to again bring my flash drive, containing a copy of my presentation, with me that day.  If I had not, there never would have been time for me to return to my hotel and then travel back to the meeting venue before the scheduled start of my talk.  We quickly loaded my presentation, and I thought that this was my one glitch successfully overcome.

Not so fast.  Now we come to the real glitch and the conundrum I want to talk about.

As I was sitting there gathering my thoughts and waiting for the session to begin, another attendee comes bustling in with a bunch of gear.  He proceeds to set up a computer and large-screen monitor on the table in the front of the room, partially blocking the audience's view of the projector screen.  He also begins unplugging the computer with my presentation on it and connecting his computer with the onscreen projector.  As I watch, it becomes clear that he is one of the later presenters....someone just giving a short contributed talk...but who has some special thing he's doing that requires his own computer.  He is oblivious to the fact, however, that he's interfering with talks that come before his.

Finally, someone asks him to move his monitor so that it is not blocking the view and to disconnect his computer so that we can proceed with the plenary.  That should have been the end of it, but it wasn't.

The session chair proceeded to introduce me, and I walked to the front of the room.  I should mention here that there have been issues with the clip-on microphone so that everyone was forced to use a hand-held microphone.  This means that to speak, I will have one hand occupied with holding a bulky mic and also must be cognizant of the fact that as I turn my head to look at the screen or the audience, my voice will drop out unless I keep the mic perfectly positioned in front of my mouth.  The other unfortunate development was that I was coming down with a sore throat and cold and was afraid my voice would not last for an hour.  All of these distractions were beginning to weigh on me as the time for my talk approached.  But they were nothing compared to the main distraction.

As I turned to face the audience, I noticed that the fellow I mentioned before was on the floor at my feet fooling around with his computer, which was still connected to the large-screen monitor.  The audience could not see him or his monitor because he and his gear were on the floor in front of a row of tables (the room was arranged with chairs and long tables with tablecloths reaching to the floor).  I was basically the only person who could see him.  He was literally at my feet--within one or two feet of my position.

I began by thanking my hosts and started with my opening statement about what I would be presenting, when this guy begins gyrating around on the floor, scrolling through his slides, which are blaringly obvious (to me) on his large-screen monitor.  He is not sitting still, quietly looking at his computer screen.  Instead, he's agitatedly shifting from sitting to kneeling to lying on the floor.  Graphs, text, and various images are flashing on his monitor screen.  

I faltered, having completely lost my train of thought, at the sight of the images flashing at my feet.  As much as I try to ignore this distraction, I can't.  What should I do?  What did I do?  In the next post, I'll describe what I did and whether I would do anything differently if I had a second chance.

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