Today’s guest post is from Jen Hamilton, a.k.a. superwoman. Jen is an experienced evaluator, the communications committee co-chair for the Eastern Evaluation Research Society, and, perhaps officially now, an evaluation blogger. Check out Jen’s previous posts about the magical ingredient in potent presentations and evaluation theory. Enjoy! Ann Emery

After writing my previous guest post on conference presentations, I’ve been thinking about them a little more.  Specifically, what to do when something goes wrong. I don’t mean a glitch, I mean, horribly, terribly WRONG.

There’s the usual suspects when you think about what might go wrong with your presentation. You forgot your flash drive on the plane, your socks don’t match, you forgot to wear socks, the projector doesn’t work, nobody except your mother is in the audience, EVERYONE is in the audience—the list goes on and on. The over-riding worry is that you are going to come off looking like an unprofessional, inarticulate doofus in an ill fitting suit.

I’m here to tell you that these worries pale in comparison to the worst presentation I’ve ever seen, and how the presenter turned it around.

This was in 2009 at a professional conference, and the room was full. Not just of regular geeks like me, but also with big famous geeks who have stuff named after them. The presentation started well enough, the equipment worked, the presenter was wearing socks, and was reasonably articulate. And then he flashed on the screen a slide that made the whole room gasp. From this slide, even I could tell that the study that he had designed, and worked so hard on, had a giant, fatal flaw. He had made a whopper of a mistake in the design of the study. I saw it. I looked around, and could tell that EVERYBODY had seen it. I considered sneaking out of the room so I wouldn’t have to watch the inevitable bloodbath.

A big famous geek raised his hand, and the surprised presenter was soon sporting a horrified expression, as the magnitude of his mistake sunk in. Everything he had done was tainted. And here is what he did. Instead of explaining and getting reflexively defensive, he said. “Oh, boy. Look at that,” pause, “That’s a problem, isn’t it? I can’t believe I missed that.” Instead of smelling blood, the audience rallied to his defense, pointing out (kindly) how it was easy to miss, and then they started brainstorming ways to fix it. Basically a room full of smart people were working together to salvage his study.  It went from a presentation to a brainstorming session. The presenter was furiously taking notes. It was uplifting, and not only that, I learned more from the brainstorming than I ever would have from the original presentation.

So. The lesson is –don’t ever get defensive. And don’t worry about the socks.

— Jen Hamilton, @limeygrl