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Recovering gracefully when your presentation goes south



I’ve spent a good portion of my life on a stage—either as an actor or as a professional speaker—and, believe me, I’ve seen it all when it comes to things “going south.” Power goes out. Fire alarm goes off. Notes fall on the floor. Projector goes kablooey. When I was younger I dreaded the idea of one of these mishaps taking place during one of my presentations. Please, please, PLEASE let everything go smoothly, I’d tell myself.


Well, here I am: All those bad things happened at one time or another and I survived!

Certainly I’ve learned some lessons—the hard way—that I can pass on to you, dear readers. As a matter of fact, I did. That’s what this blog post is about: recovering gracefully when your presentation goes south. First, we’ll look at some overarching things to keep in mind when something goes on the fritz. Then we’ll look at some specific examples of hiccups and we’ll talk about how you should respond.


Ready? Let’s go.


First off, here are some broad tips for when things don’t go as planned:


Take a deep breath and remain calm


When the unexpected happens, our instinct is to panic. Shock can take over and our brain shuts down. Overcoming that instinct is hard, but not impossible. Plan ahead and make the first step in recovery to be taking a deep breath and remaining calm. This can help you think more clearly and stay focused on the task at hand.


Try to take a few seconds to compose yourself before you react. Right there—close your eyes and take a few seconds to take a few deep breaths. Don’t worry what the audience will think. They’ve all been in similar situations at some point in their lives. They’ll totally understand that you “need a moment.” So, take it!


Acknowledge the issue


If there's an obvious problem with your presentation, acknowledge it. By addressing the issue upfront, you can show the audience that you're aware of the problem and are taking steps to fix it. This can also help build trust and credibility with your audience.


For example, if your slides aren't working, you could say something like:

“Sorry about the technical difficulties. Give me a few minutes to get this sorted out.”


Use humor


This can help put both you and your audience at ease. However, be careful not to make light of the situation if it's a serious issue.


For example, if you accidentally spill water on your notes, you could say:

“Well, I guess that's one way to make sure my presentation is memorable.”


Don't dwell on the mistake


Once you've acknowledged the issue, it's important not to dwell on it. Instead, focus on moving forward and getting back on track with your presentation. Keep in mind that the audience is more interested in what you have to say than any minor mistakes you might make.


Engage your audience


Try to engage your audience with questions or interactive elements. This can help shift the focus away from any issues with your presentation and get your audience back on track.

For example, you could ask the audience a question related to your presentation topic or have them participate in a brief exercise or activity. This can help occupy the audience and give you a few moments to recover.


Have a backup plan


For example, if computers, microphones or projectors don't work, be prepared to give your presentation without them. Have a backup of your visual support (slides, handouts, etc.) on a thumb or cloud drive for alternative access. We'll dive into this further...keep reading.


Be kind to yourself


When something goes wrong during a presentation, it's easy to be hard on yourself and dwell on the mistake. However, it's important to remember that mistakes happen, and it's how you recover from them that counts. Instead of beating yourself up, try to be kind to yourself and focus on the positive aspects of your presentation. Remember that you're only human and that everyone makes mistakes.


For example, instead of dwelling on a technical issue with your presentation, you could focus on the positive feedback you received from the audience or the valuable lessons you learned from the experience. This can help you stay positive and build confidence for future presentations. Being kind to yourself can also help you stay motivated and focused on your goals, rather than getting stuck in a negative mindset.


Fiasco scenarios and how to manage them with grace


Now let’s look at some specific examples of presentation mishaps and talk about how to respond to them:


An emergency interruption (i.e. fire drill, power outage)

When an emergency happens, there are only two choices on the decision tree: Evacuate or don’t evacuate. And that decision is out of your hands. If you have to leave the building, leave your belongings and get to safety quickly with everyone else.


If at some point you are allowed back into the space you were using to do your presentation/training/meeting, in my experience, the best thing to do is to give yourself and everyone a bit of a break. Don’t dive back into your content immediately. This is where you say, “Let’s take 10 minutes,” and give yourself a chance to find your place in your notes and begin again.


So, what if the power goes out? If there is no immediate threat to safety (and you aren’t cast into the dark), here’s where you can decide: keep going, or take a break.


Once when I was working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the power when out and within a few seconds, the emergency lights came on. Somehow everyone in the cast decided to just keep going. So they did and the audience gladly followed along. Within 5 minutes the power was back on and the actors hadn’t missed a beat.


Time shortened (thought you had 60 minutes, now you have 5)


This happens all the time—especially when you’re presenting to an executive team or the board of directors. (See Presenting when the stakes are high.)


In fact, if you’re making a presentation to a leadership team, you should assume you’re not going to have the full amount of time you were promised. It never fails: Board members will come up with probing questions during the presentations before you and they’ll run long. Your time will get crunched. Bank on it.


To adapt to time constraints, consider the following:

  • Prioritize your content: Identify the most important points you want to make and present them within the first 30 to 60 seconds. Keep it high level and cut superfluous details. Leave some time for questions (which will also help you identify what your audience is most concerned about).

  • Adjust your pace: If you have less time than expected, you may need to move more quickly to cover all your material. Practice your presentation at a faster pace so you're comfortable with the increased speed.

  • Use visual aids effectively: Visual aids such as slides or videos can help you convey information quickly and efficiently. Make sure your visual aids are clear, concise, and relevant to the points you're making. Consider handing out copies of your visuals, charts, and data so they can review them at a later time in more detail.


Lost visual support (projector broken, room doesn’t have equipment, file corrupted, etc.)


Once again, if you give enough presentations, this will happen to you. Count on it. Murphy’s Law.


To adjust to technical difficulties, consider the following:

  • Inform the audience: Let your audience know you are having technical difficulties and how long it might be. Give them a break for a few minutes, and let them talk amongst themselves. And keep them updated. Not having a group of eyes staring at you does wonders for your stress.

  • Ask for IT help: Always ask for professional assistance. If your venue has no technicians to assist, ask the group for help. Borrow a laptop. Replace batteries in a clicker. Find new bulbs for the projector. Do what you can.

  • Go with what you’ve got: I remember once my projector had a glitch in the cable and it gave every slide a green tint. What did I do? I gave a green-tinted presentation! It wasn’t the end of the world. We could all laugh about it.

  • Use alternative visual support: No projector? Ask for a flipchart or a portable whiteboard you can draw on. You can also print off copies of your visuals and hand them out. I know one presenter who printed off their slides and posted them around the room. They then walked from slide to slide to make the presentation.


Side note: More broadly, please remember that visual support is just that: support. It is not your script. I don’t know how many presentations I’ve endured where the speaker just calls up each slide and then reads off the slide. If your intended slide presentation won’t work because of some technical issue, consider deeply if you need it or not. In my experience, nine times out of ten, you can present without any additional visual support. In the end, the audience will be focused more on you!


Embarrassing moments (tripping, spilling, wardrobe malfunctions, etc.)

Life happens. You walk out to the lectern with toilet paper stuck to the heel of your shoe. You trip ascending the podium and your notes go everywhere. Your zipper’s down. You have a stain on your shirt. You tip over the bottled water.


It’s not the end of the world. Just keep going. Laugh at yourself along with the audience for a bit. Acknowledge what happened and move forward. Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for something like this. As I said, life happens. And don’t forget, you can take a break! Saying “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back” is completely acceptable.


Wrapping Up


“Let’s try this again, shall we?” Mishaps happen. There’s no such thing as the perfect presentation—or a perfect presenter. Only presenters who try to get better each time they present, no matter what happens. In times of mishaps and fiascos, give yourself some grace—and prepare in advance for every eventuality by putting the suggestions in this post into practice. By following these tips, you can recover with poise from almost any presentation mishap and keep your audience engaged and focused on your message.


Did you like this post? You might also like How to keep your presentations fresh


Want to take your presentation skills to the next level? Check out NobleEdge’s The Art of Skilled Presentations leadership workshop. Participants practice and present real content and receive supportive and individualized feedback and coaching. Individual and group sessions are available.

Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.

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