Suppose you gave a presentation, and nobody came?

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
— unknown

“S**t happens.”
— unknown (or Forrest Gump — take your pick)

An article by my friend, Greg Moore, reminded me of a SQL Saturday presentation that I was supposed to do in Philadelphia last year.  It was one of the first sessions that afternoon, right after the lunch break.

My total attendance for my presentation: zero.

I don’t remember how long I waited for people — anyone, really — to show up; it might have been about ten or fifteen minutes before I packed up my laptop and left the room.  I was disappointed and even a little hurt.  How is it that I drive four hours to give a presentation, and nobody shows up?  At the same time, I also tried not to take it personally.  I posted my experience to my Facebook page to get it out of my system, I pretty much said “stuff happens,” and I shrugged it off.

I found out later that a large number of attendees — I don’t know how many, but I’ll guess about half — left the conference right after lunch.

(For what it’s worth, I actually gave two presentations that day.  My morning presentation was well-attended, and went very well.)

I also did a presentation at my hometown SQL Saturday last year.  Unlike Philadelphia, people did show up — there were five people, not including myself, in the room.  But for all intents and purposes, the room might as well have been empty.

Those of you who know me or who’ve seen my presentations know that I do my best to get my audience engaged.  I’ll ask questions, I’ll ask for volunteers, and I’ll ask for feedback.  I don’t like to lecture — that is, talk at an audience.  My preferred modus operandi for teaching is to have a discussion where I act as a facilitator.  I want to make sure that I’m making my audience’s time worthwhile.

However, this was problematic at this particular presentation.  These people were the five most introverted people I’ve ever had for an audience.  They barely responded at all.  During my presentation, the only acknowledgement I saw were a few barely discernible nods.  I had to force someone to volunteer for my demo (and she did not even come to the front of the room).  Trying to get these people to respond in any way, shape, or form was like pulling teeth.  Despite asking if anyone had questions, the only questions I got was from the event photographer — who was a friend of mine — going from room to room taking pictures.  (He saw my dilemma and decided to speak up.  After my presentation, I flagged him down and said to him, where the hell were you earlier?!?)

I won’t lie.  I was very disappointed with my audience in that presentation.  There might have been five people in the audience, but for what it’s worth, I might as well have been talking to an empty room.

Greg cites an article by Catherine Wilhelmsen where she talks about a similar experience.  (Her article is a great read; go check it out!)  As it’s often been said, s**t happens.  Failures happen.  Sometimes, all you can do is take your lumps, shake it off, and move on.

(Speaking of which, check out my previous article where I talk about screwing up not necessarily being a bad thing.)

I used to teach part-time at a local business school (roughly at the community college level).  Every now and then, my students would show up late.  (That’s where I learned that the ten minute rule applied to teachers, too.)  More often than not, however, my students did eventually show up.

I often joke that if I hold a class, a presentation, or a lecture where nobody shows up, I’ll start talking to the empty room — and see if anyone notices.  Some people have told me in reply that it’s an opportunity to practice your presentation.

Sometimes, things happen that are beyond your control.  Often, your first instinct is to be disappointed and take it personally (at least I know mine is).  Whenever such an event occurs, ask yourself if you could’ve done anything differently to avert the situation.  If the answer is yes, then learn from it and remember it for the next time.  But if the answer is no, then there’s nothing you can really do.  In either case, just shrug it off, move on, and try again next time.

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