Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Speaking Disasters and Lessons Learned

Scott Bekun is writing a book for O’Reilly Media, due out in October, called Confessions of a Public Speaker. He’s asking for stories of public speaking disasters. I couldn’t help but add a couple of my own.

Story 1: Always Carry a Thumb Drive

I was doing a day-long session on Community Design and had prepared an extensive set of PowerPoint slides with copious notes on my Mac laptop. But when I got to the venue a few minutes before it was set to begin, we realized that my laptop would not work with their projector, and I had to move the presentation to their PC computer. We all looked at the two computers with a feeling of doom and impotence. How to get the file from one to the other?

One of the conference techs ran off in search of a burnable CD. Another went looking for an ethernet cable. I stood there frozen in fear.

Then someone from the first row of the audience stepped up and said, “Excuse me, would this help?” and handed me a small USB thumb drive. We transferred the file and all was well.

Now, when I speak, I have a handful of those thumb drives in my backpack, just in case.

Story 2: Make Sure They Know What You’re Talking About

In 1997, after I’d been working at the highly influential HotWired website for a year or so, I went back to my alma matter to give a talk to a web design class about working in the nascent web industry.

I stood in front of the class and told what I thought were highly entertaining stories about life at HotWired for a half hour. When I finally stopped and asked if anyone had questions, one hand meekly raised in the back.

The question was, “What’s HotWired?”

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.