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The mustard must be last: Why details and habit matter

My first real job was at a fast food restaurant. I still remember being surprised about how picky they were about the way the hamburgers were put together. One part that stuck with me all these years was the importance of putting the mustard on last; on top of the ketchup and the pickle slices. This supposedly keeps the mustard from coming into contact with the meat which, we were told, burns it chemically and gives it a funny taste. Who knew?

They were equally as strict about the way burger flippers did every part of their job. There was a specific spot for both the spatula and the scraper. Ketchup and mustard squirters were always on the left with mustard on the outside. Pickles and onions always on the right. Frozen meat patties were always put down on the grill back to front, left to right in straight lines and there were marks etched metal to indicate where the greasy ranks were to be formed. There were charts to memorize, competency quizzes to pass.

This almost military precision might seem silly, but being forced to be highly regimented in something as simple as making a hamburger was actually very useful. It was great when you were suddenly in the middle of a huge Saturday afternoon rush and everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. It almost became unnecessary to think about what you had to do next. As things got busier, and the shift ground on and on, it was possible to enter a zone where the entire process flowed effortlessly out of a combination of muscle memory and mental habit. It also meant that anyone could step in for anyone else and anytime and know exactly what was happening and be able to keep things going without missing a beat.

What the heck does this have to do with presenting?

In the grand scheme of things, providing a good presentation experience is almost always more important than providing a good hamburger. So if someone is willing to put all that time, effort and thought into the process of serving up a fast food, shouldn’t you be willing to apply a little additional rigor to thinking about how you go about preparing to do what you need to do as a presenter (or as someone charged with supporting a presenter)?

Are there parts of your preparation process that you haven’t given any thought to at all?

There’s a crucial file on your laptop, the PowerPoint for Monday’s presentation. Do you know exactly where it is? Is it on your desktop? If it in a folder, which one? Can you instantly and easily distinguish it from any other file that might be in the same folder? Are you absolutely certain you have the most current version? If you’re not available, will anyone else be able to find it?

Do you have a documented (or at least habitual) setup routine that will help save your butt when everything else is going completely to hell in a hand basket? Like that time. You remember. The snowstorm? The delayed flight? Getting to the hotel two hours before call time? Stiff necked, sleep deprived and brain dead but the show still had to go on.

Have a plan. Know how to find exactly what you need exactly when you need to find it. Have a documented routine that leverages serious consideration about the most efficient, fool-proof way of doing things. Make sure everyone on your team understands the importance of adhering to these procedures.

Or be prepared to find yourself going from the frying pan into the deep fryer.

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