Too worried about procastinating colleagues on shared presentation?
April 5, 2016 10:04 AM   Subscribe

I work in an insular and highly specialized field. One of the most significant international conferences for my field and sector begins in fewer than 10 working days. My team (including myself, a peer, my boss and his bosses) are slated to present at this conference. No one is scheduling time to work on this presentation, I have no idea what to expect at our presentation, and I do not have the power to induce the other participants to begin working on the presentation.

My group started a very large and unique project for our field and sector several months ago. Given the project's novelty and significance to the field our executives went ahead and submitted a talk proposal which was accepted about 5 months ago. My colleague who has been leading the project was apprehensive about this, but within our team we seemed to reach a consensus that we were all OK presenting on failure if needed. Ostensibly, my team and our executives will present this work as a group, we're all billed as presenters and that's been the articulated plan for more than six months. Predominantly the work has been done by my team member with significant work done by myself and our team lead. Direct executive participation has been rare and only at a high level.

Presenting on failure is all fine and good, but now I'm worried we'll fail to present at all. Or worse yet, totally fail at presenting. Neither member of the leadership team can find time to put a cursory meeting on their schedules to work on this presentation and we have less than ten working days to prepare it. It will take mass rescheduling to get all of us in the same place for 45 minutes even for one day between now and then.

Meanwhile, the leading exec in this situation is already planning our post-presentation drinks and dinner.

My immediate team and lead are taking no evident action to prepare for this presentation. When I've asked if we would be doing prep any time soon, or if he has heard anything from his bosses on the presentation, the answer from my lead has consistently been "I've been wondering that too."

I am young and inexperienced in this particular sort of interpersonal navigation. In school I would have said "You know what? I'll just do it." I know if I had to do this presentation alone, I could hammer it out and be ready to go by the scheduled time. It would be a nightmare, I would have to drop other obligations, but I might be able to do it. But here this is not an option.

The audience for this presentation will likely be C-level executives and their proximal teams. Any one of my team may work for folks in the audience in the near future and vice-versa, so reputational harm could be significant if we present shoddily enough so there is some appeal in totally pulling out (even though our headshots and bios are already advertised on the conference page and probably already in the printed programs).

The key questions:
- Am I worrying over nothing? Is this normal? Is this healthy?
- How might I induce my colleagues to take actions which comport with providing a well-planned and useful one hour session for a professional audience?
- If I can't induce them to take any particular action, which seems possible as the juniormost team member who has already been prodding for us to come together and work on this, how can I convey my dissatisfaction over their handling of planning our joint presentation without being overly critical of their leadership styles or otherwise alienating them?
- Should I already be looking for another job because these folk are such jokers?
- Assuming I get through this OK and don't quit my job, how do I keep this from happening next time? (Or is it futile to think I could?)

I am already working on accepting that there may not be any way to get them to do anything at all. I am working on accepting that the presentation may be humiliating or we may have to pull out and I am preparing to provide a story other than speaking my mind (i.e. "those f-ing mother f-ers are a bunch of f-ing s-heads" ) when or if colleagues at the conference ask me "what the heck happened there?"

Difficulty level: I have clinically significant anxiety disorders and mood regulation issues (my team lead and one of the execs know this). These issues are managed OK right now, but stressors naturally make this more difficult. I do not currently have a therapist or any external mentor who would be able to advise here.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You didn't submit the proposal to do this presentation, nor are you the lead on the project. If your lead/boss is not doing anything about it and has not asked you to do anything specific about it, you aren't in a position to do anything here and should focus on other things.
posted by scrittore at 10:22 AM on April 5, 2016 [16 favorites]

I'm also in an insular highly specialized field. I present at large, major conferences. For us, this is normal. Presentations are worked on on the plane ride there, or the night before. Working on a presentation more than a week before is sort of unheard of, unless it needs to be vetted for clearances or whatnot. And getting together to go through presentations is not done, especially with large teams. Again, no idea what your field is - but for mine and other similar fields, I would not be concerned at all at this point. Talks are dropped, too - for my field, this isn't a career- killer, at all. No one ever asks about dropped talks, or if they do, it's more of gentle teasing.

If I were in your place, I might get together with the team member who's done the primary bulk of the work, and send out a group of slides with the meat of the research you've done to the rest of the group. Nothing polished, but if you're one of the main ones with hands-on work, you can both probably do this better than most. And then a quick hey, here are some slides we've thrown together - what else do we need?
posted by umwhat at 10:25 AM on April 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

I've dealt with this before working in research center with university faculty. I would always stress about the presentation weeks beforehand. My faculty members would usually work on their parts of the presentation on the plane, or the day of the conference. I am a planner, and this would drive me nuts. But you know what? They always gave brilliant presentations. Even though I thought it would be a mess, they would make up for poor planning by being charming and engaging.

I realized that people who are used to giving presentations, and can do them well are more likely to "show up and be brilliant." Whereas I need to plan out every aspect.

So, my advice would be to see how it goes. They might surprise you. And depending on what you want to accomplish, the cocktail reception might actually be more important than the presentation.
posted by chevyvan at 10:26 AM on April 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Some folks who are very senior can pull a presentation out of their hats. Like, minimal prep needed - they can just get up and talk. I work with several folks like this. They just know their stuff well enough, and are articulate and smart enough to improvise. Or to only need minimal prep. Any chance your colleagues are like this? The senior folks I know like this tend to do their slides, if they need them, during the flight to the conference. It's entirely possible they are comfortable just getting up and talking. Really.

If I was you, I might take some initiative and put together a draft PPT and send it around - or an outline of the presentation. Assign yourself one piece and prep the hell out of that piece so you'll be ok. Maybe you cover the intro and the problem. Then you turn it over to senior A to talk about how you conceptualized the solution, senior B to talk research/analysis, project lead to talk about implementation, and senior C to talk about lessons learned. Or whatever's appropriate, you get the idea.

I wouldn't take this as a sign to look for another job - unless you really don't like the type of environment this is. That's a different question! But no, it's not totally unusual or dysfunctional.
posted by john_snow at 10:26 AM on April 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

oh, and seconding - prep for group presentations, in my field, is done by email or possibly as a 5-10 minute discussion in an already-planned team meeting. No need for a special meeting to plan and discuss.
posted by john_snow at 10:28 AM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have been through this many times. I have had knock-down-drag-out arguments about lack of planning on projects and presentations. Conclusion: it is very, very difficult to induce someone who tends to procrastinate or sees other things as higher priorities to do the work at the speed that would make you feel comfortable.

I have two things on my white board to help me deal with these types of situations:
#1: Work around
#2: Why is there a problem?

#1 is a reminder to figure out what I can get done without confronting the late-planning / other priorities person. So, in your case, can you circulate an outline to get the conversation going? Are there things you can do to make progress that don't require (a) you taking over the whole project? (b) getting people to plan?

#2 is a reminder to figure out why I am freaking out about it so I can articulate my concerns in a meaningful manner to a superior. In other words, break down the worry. In your case, maybe this means that some particular area of the project needs input from one person or the other, but other areas aren't as critical.

In the end, it is a lot of managing up, nudging, etc., but it pays off, as you are getting to a place where you are comfortable *and* showing initiative in the process.
posted by chiefthe at 10:28 AM on April 5, 2016

Email to project lead (cc team): "Please tell me my role in the presentation, because I know time is getting short and I want to be sure to do my part in the preparation". You've been doing this kind of pushing already, it sounds like. So in that sense your butt is covered, your local people know it's not your fault. Your job is not at stake here.

And yes, a shoddy presentation might look bad for your boss and the team lead, but as the most junior person, none of the organizers/audience will perceive it to be your fault. On the other hand the presentation might not be shoddy - senior employees really do just stand up and talk about what they've done, with minimal preparation and an moderate amount of panache. The key thing is, if that is not you (i.e. you're not a practiced speaker and an expert on the subject matter) don't get roped into a last-minute presentation. Be there to support the team but don't stand up and talk.
posted by aimedwander at 10:29 AM on April 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think you're worrying over nothing. If you're not the project manager or executive sponsor, I'd bet you won't even get a chance to speak. Find out if you will even be speaking at this thing and prepare accordingly for yourself and let the other folks do their own jobs.

Next time something like this is proposed, right up front ask what your role is, and ask if any meetings will be needed to pull together the presentation.
posted by cabingirl at 10:52 AM on April 5, 2016

Email to project lead (cc team): "Please tell me my role in the presentation, because I know time is getting short and I want to be sure to do my part in the preparation".

I prefer to offer help and to show a bit of initiative by being specific: "Is there anything I can to to help prepare slides/demos for the presentation? I've mocked up a few slides that I think might be worth discussion. What do you think of this?"

My general principle when someone is struggling/procrastinating/late: offer a hand, don't demand. They're struggling too, remember.

If you get uptake, great, if not don't sweat it until asked. It's not your rodeo, and you've done all you can.
posted by bonehead at 10:54 AM on April 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

An hour? Most of the folks on your team can do that standing on their heads.

Ask the team lead what you need to be delivering and then deliver it.

I work in consulting and most of us use and re-use presentation slides, and it's not unusual to put them together right before the presentation.

It's no big deal. Are YOU presenting or will this be the executive leadership? Work on your part, if you have a part, and let them do what they do.

You will be amazed at how smooth and sophisticated it is.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:09 AM on April 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

You are definitely beanplating this!! Considering pulling out of the conference or quitting your job is extremely drastic. As others have said, senior executives typically pull this stuff out of their hats at the last minute. Plus, if it is a disaster (which it won't be) it's going to be on them, and not on you. If you think there is some specific aspect of the presentation you will be in charge of, then work on your part.
posted by yarly at 11:54 AM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Man, in my experience this is a great opportunity to impress your superiors, if you're able to step in to help.

Approach your boss with an offer to spearhead the efforts. If boss approves, your strategy should be along the following lines:
- Get a skeleton agenda together, as discussed briefly with your boss.
- Develop the skeleton, putting together slides as best you're able.
- Chase people down for their input on what needs to go on their slides. Do as much as you can. Wash, rinse, repeat.
- Pull together slides, format and edit.
- Meet with boss to get comments on presentation
- Do revisions, chase people for more info, wash rinse repeat.
- Send final draft to boss, cc team, for their further work. Aim for minimum 2 days before presentation.
- Be available for any further gofer-ing or editing.

Seriously I have won mega points from all my former bosses for being the one to spearhead the efforts for a collaboration, both reports and presentations. We're talking glowing letters of appreciation that get brought up in annual reviews, and get my name remembered.
posted by lizbunny at 12:10 PM on April 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree with a lot of the above: last-minute prep is normal, an hour presentation is a breeze if you know your topic well, conferences are inherently more social than they are truly informational, etc.

I'd also add that you could prepare a simply 10-slide deck with broad bullet points and then send it around to the other participants as a start. Might be a good chance to show some initiative. It's definitely not you doing all the work.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:11 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing, get together the outline, and some sample slides. If you're using some standard slides (statistics, charts, etc) throw those in there. Use one of your fancy templates.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:35 PM on April 5, 2016

The question you need to ask is "Who is creating the presentation materials?" In this situation, I'd expect that whoever is leading the project to draft the deck (or delegate that job to someone).

It's possible, that your leadership expects someone closer to the project to draft the materials. That's usually how it works where I work. Someone at the researcher/analyst level writes the first few drafts and then senior leadership refines the final draft in the few days before a presentation.
posted by 26.2 at 1:16 PM on April 5, 2016

You're worrying over nothing, and if you're the most junior person on what sounds like a five person panel you probably won't be presenting or speaking at all. Have they for sure said that you're going to be part of this presentation? Because it wouldn't be unusual at all for only the higher-ups to do the presenting on something like this. An hour long presentation is usually for the big picture stuff, not the nitty gritty details of how the work was done. Trust your bosses to know their audience. If they need any specific data from you to create their slides they'll ask for it. (And yes, probably at the last minute. I'm also from academia where, as people have mentioned above, most presentations are put together on the plane ride there.)
posted by MsMolly at 2:08 PM on April 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Enjoy the HELL out of the post-presentation dinner. Go ahead, order the lobster.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:19 PM on April 5, 2016

From the OP:
I would like to thank everyone for their help with getting a larger frame of reference for this situation as that has been tremendously reassuring.

I have firmly ascertained that I am indeed "too worried" from these responses.

The core takeaway for me here seems to be to reduce the role ambiguity by specifically asking what my role is in this presentation.

Initially, my assistance had been requested (i.e. "we would really like your help doing this presentation") but it has been radio silence since. Within my team, we typically work tightly together to prepare materials for (and solidify talking points for) our internal presentations so taking a seemingly more relaxed approach for public presentations contributes to my uncertainty.

I am not confident the execs actually do know enough of the material here to do the presentation for an hour standing on their head, but based on the benchmark experiences given here I will leave it to them to seek assistance if they need it and otherwise will step back to observe how they prepare and the type of results their process yields.

Thanks again everyone, your perspectives really helped to take the edge off my apprehensions.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 3:41 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am not confident the execs actually do know enough of the material here to do the presentation for an hour standing on their head

If it were me and I had some work time to work on this and I was concerned I might make up a list of talking points which might be complex (i.e. assembling some data to answer common questions, making a bibliography, something) so that I felt that I was contributing or had something to say if suddenly focus was turned on me.

While I don't disagree with what people have been saying (I did a group presentation with two other people for an hour a few weeks ago and we did pull it all together in the last 48 hours and it went well, but that's me and I am not you) it's also okay for you to want to know what your role is so that you can accomplish that in a way that makes you comfortable. There is nothing at all wrong with you wanting to plan in advance, and if one of the people on my panel had wanted to talk about our presentation earlier (or determine their role, or whatever) that would have been okay also.

So, it sounds like you're coming to a good place on this I just wanted to pipe up and say "Hey it's okay to want to do well on an important presentation and try to do what you can to do that" and now it sounds like you've got some next steps so you'll feel more solid with your role and you can leave other people to get their acts together however works for them.
posted by jessamyn at 4:02 PM on April 5, 2016

I would definitely follow lizbunny's advice about putting together a skeleton deck, call a meeting to edit, and repeat until the deck is fabulous. The others will appreciate your leadership and initiative.
posted by toomanycurls at 11:43 PM on April 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

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