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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

A Day of Disasters

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Extension educators preparing food for a workshop on knife skills

If you’ve been communicating in a professional setting for any length of time, you surely have a “disaster story” – a time when everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

In the chapter on planning and logistics in the upcoming Academy Guide to Nutrition Communication I give this advice: “expect the unexpected.”

Prepare – to Prevent disasters, to have a “Plan B” when they occur, and above all, to maintain a Positive attitude – 4 P’s.

I invited Amy Habig, MPH, RDN, LD, Program Specialist, EFNEP, The Ohio State University, to write a feature story for the book.

Here is her story, A Day of Disasters, in her own words:

“When we started planning a training for our new curriculum, we were eager to devote an entire day of (hands-on) training to food preparation and knife skills. Three people from our state/regional staff brainstormed what we thought would be a fun and enriching agenda. We invited a professional chef to lead a knife skills training in the morning. This would give our staff the opportunity to properly cut a variety of fruits and vegetables that are used in the recipes in our new curriculum. For the food preparation portion of the training, we developed a PowerPoint presentation and recruited several individuals to facilitate and model food preparations at the training.

I worked diligently to practice my presentation, plan logistics, coordinate with my colleagues, and pack everything on my checklist. I was feeling good. I arrived to the training site eager to start the day. Then, as I was walking into the training site, my phone rang. One of my colleagues called to tell me our grocery order had been cancelled. She was at the store scrambling to find all the items on our grocery list (including ~10 different fruits/vegetables for each of the ~30 attendees to cut in the morning, and ingredients for 5 food preparations). I called several other colleagues and asked them to help her shop.

Since the first agenda item for the day required the fruits and vegetables, several of us at the training site devised a new plan of action for the day. One person set-up the cooking stations for several of the afternoon food preparations, while another person set-up the audio visual equipment. We talked with the chef and decided to do part of our PowerPoint presentation while we waited for the groceries. When the groceries arrived, several people carried them in on carts and then washed, sorted, and distributed the produce among the tables at the training site so the chef could start the knife skills training.

We got through the grocery “disaster” and then started the food preparation section of the training. One of the recipes was for oven-fried fish, which as the name implies requires an oven. Much to our surprise, the oven at the training site did not work. We improvised by cooking the fish in an electric skillet. Fortunately, it worked! The fish was saved!

When it was time to start the next food preparation, a huge storm rolled in and killed the power to the room for about 10 minutes. We obtained help from the event staff and they were able to get everything working again. To avoid wasted time, we set-up for the remaining food preparations while we were waiting for the power to come back on.

After the training, I created a list of suggestions for improvement. We were going to implement the same training again in a few months, and DID NOT want to re-live some of the same “disasters.” We utilized my list of suggestions and feedback from attendees when planning and implementing the next training. It went MUCH smoother! A few helpful strategies included: expanding our committee to include a few more individuals (including our professional development coordinator who could help with some of the logistics), purchasing the food and setting-up the room the day before the training, using a training site that we were more familiar with, and converting the PowerPoint presentation into online modules to allow more time in the agenda for unexpected issues.

Although we encountered several “disasters,” everything seemed to work out okay in the end. (We were even actually able to end the day on time!) I wanted to cry at a few moments in time, but I resisted those urges and remained positive. These experiences – albeit stressful – allowed us to learn valuable lessons that have helped us offer better trainings for our staff.”

Here’s how I close the chapter:

When things go wrong it is a challenge to remain positive, but it is essential to maintain your composure. When you take the stage you communicate more than your planned message by the way you present yourself. And nothing tests that like the stress of something going wrong. When bad things happen, communicate professionalism and confidence. Diffuse the stress with calm. Your response will be contagious. If you are upset your audience will become upset. If you maintain calm, so will they. If appropriate to the situation, display a sense of humor.

In many situations the “disaster” is relatively short-lived even though it feels like an eternity while you’re in the middle of it. Consider how you want to be remembered when audience members are reliving the incident later. With the potential of observers taking video and posting on social media, display behaviors and an attitude that you would be proud to watch later on YouTube. Keep in mind that everyone is affected and try to create the best possible outcome for all. Maintain a positive attitude.

What “disasters” have you overcome? Share your stories.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

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