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The Thrill of the Keynote. The Agony of the Freeze.


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At CES this year, Michael Bay (the famed director/producer who brought us blockbusters like Transformers, Armageddon and the like) lived through what most people dread even more than death – a highly visible brain freeze on stage, causing him to abandon ship and walk off stage.  It became such a “moment” that even Tina Fey weaved it into the Golden Globes joke lineup.

Before we start hurling insults and judgments, let’s be very clear: under similar circumstances, anyone could find themselves in this position.  I’ve seen more than one of these melt downs, and it happens to some very unlikely people.  The question is, what can we learn from it so we avoid the same fate?

1) Teleprompters Are For News People.  In the post-game analysis, Bay basically said that he and the teleprompter went their separate ways at some point during the first few minutes of the talk, and the rest is well… cringe-worthy.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Teleprompters are for people who read the news.  There is a real art to being able to deliver a message via teleprompter and unless you are one of those exceptionally gifted people who can look natural and connect with an audience while reading a scrolling screen of text, you have no business using a teleprompter.  Nor should you be memorizing lines like an actor preparing to act.

If we are to present a message to an audience with any degree of feeling, creativity, and joy, we have to make that message brain-friendly.  Think about it: is there anything more stressful to the human mind than standing in front of a massive CES audience, cameras turned on, and the world live-tweeting your every word? For most people, answer is a resounding No!

Half the battle of a successful presentation is preparing content and flow that is so dead simple, you brain can retain it even under duress. Flows that are brain-friendly include things like:

1)   Rules of 3

2)   Problem/Solution

3)   Story with a beginning, middle, end

4)   Good news/bad news

5)   David/Goliath

These formats sound basic, but when they are done right, they can be riveting—and just as important—easy to remember when you’re sweating under the heat of the stage lights.

2)  Remember the Motivation. When we get overly invested in saying exactly the right words, we forget the whole point of the presentation.  Audiences don’t care about a perfectly structured sentence. They want to feel something.  Michael Bay most likely beat himself up for not getting a line right, or skipping a line, and got so consumed in self-recrimination (or blaming the teleprompter for not working) that he completely lost sight of the most important thing – meet the audience’s need to understand how he, as a director, tells great stories.  In fact, he was so lost in this mental exercise that he wasn’t able to answer softball questions like “How do you come up with these unbelievable ideas?”  If he had reconnected with the real driving motivation of his speech – to delight the audience with stories of how he does what he does – he would have easily recovered, laughed off the flub with the audience, and moved on to the next thing.  In fact, it makes me think that the prepared answers were probably over-engineered to the point where they lost all meaning to him.

3)  Work With Your Triggers.  In that moment caught on film, something triggered his brain to freeze, apparently the teleprompter issue. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something else as well.  Maybe seeing the sea of faces.  Maybe someone in row 2 gave him the stink eye, and it threw him off.  Maybe he read a nasty email a few moments before taking the stage. Note: NEVER check email, the news, or Facebook before presenting.  Being fantastic on stage means operating at peak energy levels, and nothing takes you down faster than bad news.

But make no mistake, we all have triggers, and it is our responsibility to get to know them, and to work with them until they lose their power over us.  My worst trigger used to be “the heckler,” until I worked with it and figured out how to declaw even the worst offender.  (In fact, it warrants a blog post.  Stay tuned.)  I worked with that trigger to the point where now I love it when there is a heckler/skeptic in the audience. I love the energy and edginess it brings to the presentation.  But had I not had an experience similar to Michael Bay’s, I never would have had the opportunity to really face the demon head on and deal with it.

So, to Michael Bay, I say this is the beginning of some really important work, not hardly the end of your big-stage tech event career.  And to the rest of us, judge not, mock not.  Act as if this were your embarrassing moment and learn all you can from it.  Your future audience will thank you.