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What to Do When Presentations Go Wrong

communication personal development
A woman making a presentation from the stage to a large audience.

If you stumble, make it part of the dance – Anonymous

By John Millen

At recent in-person training with 75 leaders from around the country, I had a technical failure. Near the beginning of my half-day workshop, the screen with my slides went intermittently dark.

I kept talking while adjusting the cable that I believed was the problem. My tweaks worked for a while, and then the problem reemerged.

By that time, the crowd and I were joking about ghosts in the room, bad karma, and other reasons this was happening. One leader sitting under the ceiling projector said, “I’m beginning to think it’s me!” We were in this together.

Meanwhile, I told the leaders I hoped this would be a good lesson about what to do when bad stuff happens during your presentation. I just kept talking and delivering what I knew they needed. People don’t come to see your slides; they come to learn from you.

While I was talking, someone texted the tech guy who came and fixed the problem. Just as the technician was walking out, with new confidence I walked to the rear of the room, my back to the screen

As soon as the door closed behind him – I’m not kidding – people started yelling and laughing. I turned around and saw that the screen had gone dark.

I finished that section of the program and gave everyone a break. During that intermission, we changed out the computer and the cable and reloaded the presentation. There was no problem the rest of the day. Whew!

Stuff happens: technical problems; excessive noise from other rooms; clanking lunch plates; power failures. I’m speaking or training most every week, so I’ve seen it all.

We’ve all been there. You’ve had technical or other problems during a presentation and if you haven’t, you’ve probably lived in fear of their occurrence. I’ve seen people completely meltdown, being visibly rattled by unexpected issues. It’s completely understandable.

Here are a few strategies that will help you to deal with the unexpected to control your anxiety and keep your composure.

1. Plan for the worst, hope for the best

We are going to run into issues and the best we can do is carefully consider what might happen and have a contingency plan. 

I have a close family member who is a retired Navy SEAL. He taught me the phrase they use for backing equipment needed in the field: "Two is one, and one is none." In other words, if you only have one copy of your slides and they are lost, you have no copies of your slides. Below, I talk about my safety net, the backup system I use while traveling.

2. Understand your audience

It might sound odd to you that I talk about understanding your audience. How’s that going help you when the projector breaks? Well, knowing your audience and what they need is the most important part of any communication.

If you know what they need from you, you’ll be able to continue delivering regardless of whether there’s a slide on the screen.

Most of my training audiences are given pre-work, including a self-evaluation form, which asks about their most important communication needs. When something goes wrong, I revert to focusing on one of their most important needs – it keeps them (and me) engaged in the moment.

3. Prepare and rehearse

Knowing your presentation inside and out is the single most important element for your confidence during a mishap.  Rehearsal plays a huge role. Many people don’t like to rehearse, saying that they want to be spontaneous during their presentation.

This is a fallacy. The speakers who seem most spontaneous are the ones who have done the most work before getting there. Like great athletes who practice relentlessly, strong presenters are free to adapt in the moment because they’ve built a foundation of confidence.

4. Do your homework

It’s important to understand the environment and the equipment you’ll be using. With rare exception, I arrive at the venue the night before and get into the room where I will be speaking. With the technician, I will check microphones, computers, projectors and anything else that could possibly go wrong.

You may not need to go this far, but do check the room where you’ll be speaking. There’s a great comfort in standing where you will stand and imagining yourself there having success, giving the people in the room an experience.

5. Create a safety net

Having checked the room and the equipment will give you confidence, but you should still have a backup plan. In my case, I use my small MacBook Air computer and bring a variety of cables and adapters.

In addition, I have a rugged external hard drive that contains my presentation and other materials, which, by the way, are also backed up online. I also bring my own wireless lavaliere microphone as a backup.

If worse comes to worst, I will call a break and let the audience know we will be back up and running in a few minutes. As you know, no one in an audience has ever complained about having a break. ;-)

6. Let the audience in on it

If you are tense during a mishap, your audience will be tense. They’re following your lead. They want you to succeed. They want to support you.

So give them the chance by making them part of the situation. That way their tension (and yours) are released while you all work together in finding a solution.

Laugh at yourself and they will laugh with you. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, you also benefit from employing the techniques of improv comedy.

7. Be in the moment and keep going

People don’t want you to be perfect. They want you to be real. What could be more authentic than having a presentation glitch? Given that public speaking is the number one fear, no doubt a presentation failure is the number one nightmare.

People can relate to and feel your pain. So do all you can to prevent problems but realize that they are inevitable and that you and your audience will survive. In fact, you’ll be more closely connected with the shared experience of struggle and success.

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