Last Thursday, I checked out Speechless Live in San Francisco with some of my fellow Bay Area comic friends. It’s an improv show where people give PowerPoint presentations in randomly selected formats based on topics blurted out by the audience. Formats vary from TED Talk, to Wedding Toast, to Startup Pitch. The twist? The presenter has no idea what slides they’ll be using.
I gave it a try, and my assignment was toasting a couple getting divorced. I started strong, but ran out steam around the two minute mark.
Having faked my way through a fair share of presentations, this was hardly the worst.
It was 1997, Seybold, a huge publishing trade show at Javits Center in New York. My friend Jason and I were there as contractors doing filler presentations for different companies. I was working for Apple and he was with some telecom company promoting some broadband like telephony called ISDN.
Jason wanted to schmooze some woman at Xerox and asked me to fill in for him. I said yes, but I didn’t know anything about his topic. He said, just read the slides and you’ll be fine.
I slogged through his deck slide by slide, bullet point by bullet point. All through the talk, I could hear a whirring sound like someone playing with a dental drill. It was coming from this cranky dude in the front row who was giving me the stink eye. He had one of those mechanical prosthetic arms with a rubber hand. For some reason, he wouldn’t stop moving the fingers. It sounded like it needed oil. For the rest of my preso, I couldn’t stop looking at him and his hand.
Most of the audience split way before I was done, but he stuck around. As he approached, I thought, “oh shit, he saw me staring.” Before he could said anything, I said, “look, I’m sooo sorry…” And he cut me off, and growled, “You sure are! I had an ISDN line installed 6 months ago, and it’s still not working.” Relieved he didn’t notice my staring, I just gave him a big dopey smile and thanked him for his feedback.
I still go in front of people unprepared, but now I know to look slightly over people’s heads instead of making direct eye contact.