A real life event has given me some insight into what can kill the audience experience in a bad presentation. I belong to a gym and go four to five times a week to dance classes. I am not particularly adept, but I am game and persistent. I’ve made a bunch of friends, women like myself in varying degrees of fitness who enjoy dancing around and loading ourselves with endorphins. We have our favorite teachers. Some are hard, some are really hard. Some are inspiring. Some exude happiness. Some are kind. There isn’t a bad one in the bunch.
And as happens from time to time, we had a substitute this last Saturday morning. We all knew that our regular instructor was on vacation so this wasn’t a surprise. We came hopeful but wary.
The sub was an attractive young lady. She started the class without introducing herself or asking if anyone was new to the class. Standard procedure for these classes. Her warm up routine involved a lot of arm waving, wrist rolling and little bit of walking side-to-side. The room responded with startled looks and raised eye brows. One classmate began exagerating every move: jumping instead of stepping, hopping rather that walking in a clear display of dissatisfaction and an obvious request for more activity.
The reason we come to this class is for a dose of hard work to fun music. This was not happening. Some patiently waited. This was the warm up after all. Things could only improve. Only they didn’t. Several people left. One woman, a very polite and proper lady, asked me if she thought it would be rude to leave. She slunk out feeling guilty. Gradually the room descended into chaos and rebellion. The instructor ignored the hostile atmosphere and continued to move slowly, often on the wrong beat through a series of plodding routines.
More people left. And then, abruptly, mid-movement she announced that she had to go teach her next class. What a débâcle. What happened next was a funny. The room coalesced around one classmate who had word that our regular teacher was not returning and we were stuck with the sub. Hell hath no fury…
This entire event replicated in miniature the atmosphere of a bad presentation.
First, our leader had done no audience research. She had no idea how advanced or at least how willing this particular dance class was. She assumed that because we appeared to be middle-aged, greying women, that we were lacking something vital. But we were accustomed to being treated seriously and were ready for a challenge.
Second, she hadn’t practiced. Plainly our sub didn’t know her stuff. She muffed a lot of material that we all knew well. We would have forgiven a mistake. Mistakes happen all the time. But in response to her lack of practice, we took off on our own, collectively without any discussion dismissing her leadership as irrelevant and her mistakes as inexcusable. It was stunning how little time it took for the class to realize that this situation was unforgivably bad.
Third, she made no attempt to connect with us. She didn’t tell us her name. She didn’t think she needed to welcome us to the class or as so many subs do, exhibit some humility and recogntion of our loyalty to our missing teacher. It seemed fairly clear after a while that she had no real desire to be there and that her experience with dance was minimal. Yes, this gym has many classes available and teacher often teach more than one class. The class that she was to teach after ours was more “prestigious” and attracted the “real” athletes. She was quick to dump us to move onto what she wanted to be doing. We knew right away where we stood in her estimation and we were angry about it.
It was interesting to watch the group dynamic and how quickly we all came to the same conclusion that this was a bad deal and we weren’t going to take it lying down. Her lack of experience and sheer youth worked against her in our midst. We became a powerful force against her. She had no chance of rescuing herself once she had lost control of us.
The message here is clear. Don’t let this happen to you. Do your research. Know who will be in the room. Prepare to meet their expectations. It’s about them. It’s not about you. Have some humility and honesty. Even if you aren’t completely up to the task, at least you can avoid a lynch mob if you interact with truth and humor. Ask for feedback. Be present. Be real.
Good news. Our regular teacher is returning. Next Saturday, there will be joy in the room.
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