Fallout and Lessons from the Podium

September 2016

Photo: Thinkstock

Photo: Thinkstock

The tweet seemed to come out of nowhere, though it actually came from a panelist about six feet away from me on stage. Last year, I was moderating a session on news media at a national cybersecurity conference, and I mentioned once sounding like an idiot after being quoted verbatim by a reporter. That part was quoted, but not the reasons why I said I sounded stupid.

It hurt, especially after it began to be retweeted, mostly by people I do not know. By the time I got back to my hotel a few hours later, my hopes that the tweeting had died down had not come true. I don’t have much of a presence on Twitter, but the person who broadcast my ill-formed words did.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you being the butt of a joke is not all that bad. It is, at least for the short time it’s in full play.

With that experience in mind, I again moderated another panel at this year’s national conference, with this session videotaped for future broadcast. I readied as I had before, but this time I stuck to prepared remarks when it came time to deliver them on stage. There was no spontaneity for fear something I said would be taken out of context. My personality was muted, and I think to some degree my presentation suffered. Audiences want candor and they want speakers with spunk. The responses from the panelists were excellent (and widely retweeted), but the moderator sets the tone and mine was far too mono for me.

Among the lessons learned:

Be cautious but also be yourself. When giving a presentation, be aware everything you say is being taken in. Your words, your wardrobe, your body language and facial expressions. Those who’ve been burned cannot help but fear their words will again run in the wrong direction. But if you are too polished and too rehearsed you’ll come off as inauthentic. Instead, find that space between guarded and guileless to work within.

Be prepared for questions and criticism. The author Cheryl Strayed was once asked what she feared most during a book tour for her memoir Wild. “The audience Q&A,” she responded. She never knew what someone was going to ask, only that someone would come up with a question she wasn’t prepared to answer. If you plan to present, think of every possible question or critical remark an audience member can make, and have a general response at the ready.

Keep your cool. Kindness is not everyone’s default setting. As much as it hurts to show restraint when someone insults your work or challenges your qualifications, do. Otherwise, you fan flames that take much longer to extinguish. And it’s both awkward and uncomfortable for everyone around you. If someone is getting out of hand, tell them you’ll speak with them after the talk and then move on. And, of course, speak with them afterward – they may have a good point that just wasn’t well executed.

Be nice. Most of us treat people as we wish to be treated. Unless it’s the internet. There are people who still believe in online anonymity, even though there are numerous ways to find anyone behind an alias, especially a malevolent one. If you’re correct or just, someone will come to your defense online. And if you are being badgered in person for something said in a presentation, someone else in the room will likely try to tamp down the growing rancor in the room.

This brings me back to that tweet last year calling me out for something I said during that panel discussion. The panelist who started the tweet bash (and, to be fair, it was a very mild bashing by most people’s standards) was also presenting at that conference a day later. So I went to his session, my smartphone poised from my second-row seat. Soon as he finished, I sent my tweet.

“Wanted to get back at [him] for earlier tweet. Alas, his presentation was excellent.”

That tweet got a little traction. And it also generated an apology. In under 140 characters, he wrote, for everyone to read, that my act of kindness showed him how mean he had been.