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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.




I wish you hadn’t said that…

Here are some examples of what you might call “unintentional foreshadowing”:

  • We don’t need to tape down that cable. No one’s going over there.
  • I’m pretty sure everyone has that font.
  • It’s a brand new projector. Why should we spend that much money on a backup bulb?
  • They had a pipe burst the last time we did a meeting there. There’s no way anything like that can happen again.
  • Don’t worry, this guy is really good, he doesn’t need rehearsal.
  • Of course she’s using the official slide template you sent her last month.
  • Just leave it there, no one is going to mess with it.
  • I’m sure it’s safe to use that indoors.
  • Don’t worry, it’s supposed to do that…

Did any of these invoke a sense of foreboding for you? Does the sound of someone tempting fate set off alarm bells?

Phrases like “I’m pretty sure”, “there’s no way”, “don’t worry”, and “of course” can be your friends. Recognize these little understated warnings for what they are, determine if the easy dismissal they represent conceals a genuine risk, and do a little preemptive follow up if necessary to head off any problems.

Have you ever said or been within earshot of someone else saying something that turned out, in retrospect, to be unfortunately prophetic?






Bump starts work until they don’t: the danger of using workarounds

Finding a quick, easy workaround for a problem can get you out of a jam. Just be sure to go back and find a more suitable long-term solution before the quick workaround becomes its own problem. My first car and its wonky starter is the perfect example of this principle. It was a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, generally blue in a splotchy, patchwork sort of way. Its hippie years were long behind it but I loved it dearly.

At some point the “bug’s” starter went bad, so turning the key no longer started the engine. Being 17, all my extra cash and spare time was earmarked for far more import things so I adapted and made do because I still had places I needed to go and things I needed to do.

My workaround isn’t used much these day because it requires a manual transmission. It’s called bump starting and it’s actually fairly simple. Get the car rolling at a reasonable clip, usually by taking advantage of a reasonably steep hill or a bunch of burly friends, and pop the clutch while in first gear. There will be a bit of a jolt (a bump if you will), the engine will turn over and catch just as if you had a functioning starter.

I was pretty pleased with this workaround. It was cheap, it didn’t involve wasting a lot of time getting the car into the shop, and it was kind of fun. I just needed to make sure I parked on a hill or near a bunch of people willing to give me a push. Bump starting worked very well until it didn’t.

It stopped working for me on a rainy day out in the middle of nowhere. I was stuck at the bottom of a short, steep hill because I hadn’t been able pop the clutch with just the right timing. I was already late for my shift at work and miles from a pay phone. Long story short, I had a long, wet walk, I almost lost the job and I needed to ask the parents for a ride (just what every 17-year-old with his own car loves to do).

Using the bump start workaround was great for getting me through the period immediately after the starter failed. My big mistake was letting it become a long-term strategy.

I have seen this same sort of thinking cause serious problems with a number of presentations. For example, when your calendar is packed solid, it’s tempting to wait until you’re on the plane to work on the presentation. This works for you once, then again, and then it becomes standard operating procedure until it causes the inevitable disaster.

The same principle applies when you are actually working on slides. For instance, how many times have you quickly applied an underline to a less than sign to make it into a less than or equal to sign instead of taking the time to insert the correct character? Works great until the slide is moved to another presentation or the master gets reapplied and all that underlining goes away (a disappearance that often goes unnoticed until it’s too late).

The bottom line is that short-term workarounds can get you through a pinch but just make sure that you don’t let them become the long-term way of doing things. Find real solutions that don’t leave you at the bottom of the hill, in the rain about to lose your job.


Go ahead, I dare you…

Why do rehearsals almost always tend to assume that everything will go perfectly from a technical perspective? Conscientious speakers exhaustively practice the delivery of their presentation and will usually be sure to practice answering difficult questions. The only problem is that there are many other things that might go wrong during a presentation that have nothing to do with how they are delivering the content — things that can completely derail a speaker who isn’t prepared for the unexpected.

Earlier in my career when I part of a corporate internal speaker support team, depending on the temperament of the speakers I was working with, I would simulate a projector or sound system failure. It’s not something I would do frequently and I would be sure to do it only during the more low-key, informal rehearsals. It was a terrific reminder for the speakers and it gave us a chance to talk about exactly how we wanted to handle it when these sort of things happened during the actual presentation. If you are in a position that allows you to take rehearsing to this level of realism without limiting your future career options, you should look for opportunities to practice these sort of mishaps.

Go ahead, I dare you…



Ten Presentation-Related Websites You Should Be Visiting

billOkay, if you’re going to be online, at least spend your time on sites that that can offer more than Aunt Millie’s cat pictures or the latest Bill Lumbergh meme. Here are ten sites that we know will give you a good return on the time you spend browsing them:

This site, maintained by Microsoft PowerPoint MVP Geetesh Bajaj, is packed with great information, tutorials and news. Geetesh spends plenty of time looking at what’s coming next and lets his readers know what to expect. His interviews with industry leaders are especially useful.


Tips, tricks and podcasts from one of the most creatively engaged presentation design studios out there. Beautiful website.


Nuts & Bolts
Nuts & Bolts Speed Training focuses on making PowerPoint production faster and more productive. If you’re often under dire deadlines, you’ll find plenty of help here.


Six Minutes
Another site with enough material to get lost in for quite a while. This one is targeted more to public speaking and presenting rather than actually creating the slides.


The Presentation Company
Interesting blog by a company that trains presenters to be better visual storytellers. Gets into both the nitty-gritty details of using PowerPoint as well as larger, more strategic presenting issues.


Edward Tufte Forum
Edward Tufte is one of the first and most influential designers to point out the need for, and the importance of, data visualization that is elegant, effective and beautiful.  This is an old school, moderated discussion board. Tufte opens a topic for discussion and others can contribute their thoughts. If information design is your thing, you have to spend some time here.


PowerPoint Microsoft Community
Another message board, this one run by Microsoft specifically for PowerPoint.  This is primarily a technical support forum so the focus is on figuring out how to get PowerPoint to do what you need it to do and on fixing things that have gone wrong. It can be useful to drop in once in a while to browse the most recent topics because you can often discover a trick or a fix that you don’t even know you’re going to need yet. Microsoft support engineers and PowerPoint MVPs are often active in this forum.


Tony Ramos
Twitter account of graphic designer and presentation consultant Tony Ramos (AKA The Presentationist). Tony is really good at finding internet tidbits that are of interest to anyone involved in making presentations. More importantly, when he goes off topic, you’re usually glad he did.


PolicyViz and HelpMeViz
In addition to his day job, Government economist Jonathan Schwabish conducts workshops on data visualization and presentation techniques. He also offers these two terrific sites dedicated to helping everyone improve their data visualization skills. PolicyViz has lots of great content including articles, style guides and podcasts. HelpMeViz is, I think, unique in that it invites designers to submit their visualizations for comments, suggestions and revision by Schwabish and visitors to the site.