What to do when it all goes wrong during a presentation

Whether you’re just figuring out how to work a projector or are a seasoned presentation pro, chances are something will go wrong when you’re making your presentation. Technical difficulties that mess up your slides, a brain fart that makes you forget what to say, audio issues that render you mute – they are all common problems when making presentations.

Luckily, at Show & Tell, we’ve got your back. Here are six problems you may run into – and how to address them.

1. You forget what to say

It happens to the best of us. One moment you know what to say and the next your mind goes blank. Don’t panic! Remember, no one else but you knows what it was that you meant to say so they won’t notice if you say something else, as long as you say it with confidence. Take a cue from your slide and construct something that sounds sensible (one of the perks of delivering a presentation rather than a speech is that you have slides to prompt you).

I’ve had friends who are good at thinking on their feet deliver excellent presentations, come back and tell me ‘I just made a completely different speech from the one I prepared.’ None of us in the audience were any the wiser. Of course, that’s not to say every presentation you make should be improvised. The best way to avoid forgetting is to practice, practice, practice. Get so familiar with your material that you just flow.

2. No one laughs at your joke

You brought your best material to this presentation, but no one so much as cracks a smile at your jokes. Now you’re embarrassed and you’ve lost your rhythm. What should you do?

If you’re joke doesn’t get a response, don’t let on that it was intended to. Pausing for your audience to laugh or looking around eagerly for signs of enthusiasm will only make things awkward. So flow right along with the rest of your presentation. And remember: your audience may not be rolling on the floor clutching their sides, but they may still be appreciating your humour.

Alternatively, Rory Vaden (Runner-Up at the 2006 World Championship of Public Speaking) suggests using ‘saver lines’ to diffuse the tension created by an un-funny joke – lines like “Some of these jokes I tell are just for me”, “That’s okay, I can wait” and “Is this mic on?” If your initial joke didn’t get a laugh, it’s likely these will!

3. Your slides get mixed up

Oops, that wasn’t the slide you meant to show. Whether it’s pressing ‘end’ instead of the right arrow and skipping to your last slide or clicking the wrong button on the presenter remote, you’ve probably experienced the issue of the wrong slide popping up.

Again, don’t panic. Make a joke (“I told Bill Gates to remove that button!”), calmly offer an apology to the audience and sort the issue as speedily as you can. If it takes time, sum up everything you discussed thus far so your audience stays engaged.

To avoid this issue cropping up again in the future, get familiar with your presentation software, slide navigation options and the buttons on the presenter remote beforehand.

4. There are audio issues

Sometimes, you’re on a roll. You’ve practiced thoroughly and your delivery is coming across flawlessly. But suddenly, the microphone acts up, muting you or stuttering between high and low volumes.

I’ve personally seen this happen to world champion speakers and celebrities. And it’s awkward.

But not to worry. Take a cue from these pros and keep calm, apologise for the technical fault and seek the help of the person in charge of audio. Then, if the audience is small enough to justify it, talk louder until your audio person gets things working again. Plus, make a mental note to test the audio setup before getting on stage for your next big presentation.

5. Someone asks a tough question

So you made it to the Q&A session without a hitch. But just when you’re breathing a sigh of relief, someone asks you a tough question. Whoops, you never anticipated that one.

Don’t worry. Maintain your poise, smile and say “That’s a great question.” This will give you some time to rack your brains for a coherent response. If nothing emerges, simply state that it’s something that you’ll have to look into and if they give you their card after the session you will be happy to contact them once you have the answer. The audience will appreciate your sincerity and effort to clarify doubts with accuracy.

Alternatively, you could deflect the question to the audience. Follow up “That’s a great question” with “And I’d like to pose it back to our audience members. What do you think is the correct response?” If you have some bright sparks in the crowd, they just may get you out of the tight spot. If no one serves up anything valid, revert to Plan A and admit you’ll need to do some further investigation.

6. No one asks any questions

You’ve just delivered an intriguing presentation (at least you thought it was), but your question on whether anyone has questions is being met with blank stares. Did they understand everything you said? Or has your delivery made them comatose? Whichever it is, the awkward silence is building.

Before it gets too quiet for too long, pipe in with some anticipated questions just to get the ball rolling. Tell the audience that you typically get asked ‘ABC’ and the answer to that is ‘XYZ’. If the silence continues, don’t make a big deal of it – simply say that the audience is welcome to contact you by email if they do think of any queries on the topic. Some people may have burning questions but simply be too shy to voice them. So give them an avenue to reach you.

The bottom line is: you can never guarantee that your presentation will be flawless. Despite how well you prepare, there are many factors outside your control. But you CAN decide to take on challenges as they come and have fun. The less wound up you are, the more confident you will appear on stage, and the less of an issue any emergent problems will be. Maintain your poise and the audience will follow your direction.

Now go be awesome.

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