I was flipping through the channels last night and happened upon the Tony Awards, which focuses on live theater. I have a strange fascination with awards shows, so I kept it on long enough to see one of the most painful chokes by a presenter that I have ever seen.
Paul Rudd, an actor I didn’t know much about before the show, came on to co-present an award. I don’t even remember the category now. He co-presented with Lauren Ambrose who I know from the HBO show Six Feet Under.
Lauren opened up the remarks, and did a very nice job introducing the category. Then it was Paul’s turn. He started off his first sentence, then apparently couldn’t read the teleprompter and ended up sounding like a second grader trying to sound out words. He nervously joked "I really need my Lasik surgery" as he stumbled and stuttered through his bit.
For some reason, probably my highly co-dependent nature, I really felt Paul’s pain. Can you imagine flubbing your lines in front of the entire Who’s Who of your profession? And I thought my performance anxiety dreams were bad! Fellow actors, directors, producers and choreographers were probably laughing nervously among themselves. He did the best he could with the situation, but I bet this will have an impact on his career. Here is how you can make sure you don’t fall victim to a similar fate when doing an important presentation:
- Practice. This whole fiasco could have been avoided if he had stood on stage and practiced using the teleprompter. And this practice should have happened under similar conditions as those present in the actual awards: a dark theater with strong stage lights glaring in his eyes. If he had done this, he would have realized that he couldn’t see the type, and they possibly could have made adjustments to the font size.
- Pray for the best. Plan for the worst. If Paul know that his eyesight was not the best (his Lasik comments might just have been a nervous attempt at humor), he should have brought a pair of glasses with him. He also could have established a "secret pinch pact" with his co-presenter, so that if he had trouble she would take over. My Dad has been doing presentations his whole life, and he told me as a very young girl to "bring extra bulbs for the projector and a long extension chord in case they don’t have one." Those were the days before PowerPoint, so now I would say to bring two versions of your presentation on CD or flash drive in case your or your client’s laptop blows up. Garr Reynolds of the venerable Presentation Zen offers some more good tips for backing up your presentation.
- If you screw up, make light of it, but don’t grovel. Paul did a nice job of trying to cover his flub with humor. Under the circumstances, there was not much more he could do. When things outside of your control are crashing and burning (like technology), you want to keep it light, get through it as quickly as possible, and get off stage. If you are teaching a class or presenting to a large group, take a quick break to resolve the situation, then get back and take control. The audience doesn’t want to see you sweat and struggle with your technology. If you keep apologizing, you will lose credibility.
- Realize that the audience will blame YOU, not the person really at fault. Most likely, things were totally out of Paul’s hands at the awards show. They might not allow dress rehearsals due to lack of time. They might have switched things at the last minute. A new lighting grip could have shined a light into his eyes the wrong way so that he had a hard time seeing. But no one in the audience will recall "John the lighting grip guy" when remembering the event, they will remember the actor.
I hope that Paul Rudd has a healthy amount of self-esteem and will let this whole fiasco roll off his back. If he does, he will have mastered an important life lesson: you don’t always have control of what happens in your life, but you are in control of how you perceive it. He could turn this whole situation into a great personal and professional lesson, and help other actors avoid pain in the future. He could bring it up humorously at casting calls and show he has grace and humility when dealing with adversity. And he can call it up as a powerful muse when portraying a character that faces great embarrassment and humiliation.
I have yet to fall so spectacularly on my face during a presentation (and I have done hundreds) but I know that I certainly could. Do any of you have a humiliating presentation fiasco that you are willing to share for the benefit of everyone’s learning?