How to tackle a presenter’s worst nightmare

What is the worst possible thing that can happen to you during a presentation? Yes, that’s right, you stand up and realise that you’re not wearing any pants. But those horrible moments quickly dissipate when you wake up. In reality, one of the most unsettling experiences while presenting can be to see a member of your audience starting to nod off.

No matter how creative your slides are, how carefully constructed your message is and how often you have rehearsed your delivery, sometimes you find a few eyes roll back and a few heads drop down. As a presenter, I used to find this quite demotivating and would often either cut my presentation short or try to wake these sleepers up.

But I have learnt a few lessons in dealing with these sleepers and, today, I’m going to share them with you.

Lesson 1: Let them sleep!

When a member of your audience starts falling asleep, it can be very unnerving. Often, we end up focusing on the sleeper rather than on the other members of the audience. I have seen presenters speak louder (guilty), make an unexpected noise (guilty), or call them out (guilty) in an attempt to wake up the sleeper. Although some of these techniques may work (and some could be embarrassing for both sleeper and presenter), it’s often likely that you will see them nod off again in a few minutes.

It is better to simply accept this fact and let them sleep. Someone falling asleep during your presentation does not necessarily mean you are a bad presenter or that your slides are boring. They may have had a long day, a sleepless night or a big lunch. Therefore, instead of focusing on the unconscious members of the audience, it is better to direct your attention and energy to the conscious.

Lesson 2: Leave a conclusion slide

If you have ever had someone fall asleep during a presentation, you would have noticed that they miraculously wake up just as your presentation ends. Most sleepers usually wake up to a “Q&A” or “Thank You” slide, which leaves them equally befuddled.

So what can we do to help them get up to speed? Why not leave up a conclusion/summary slide? Sleepers (I assume) feel guilty and embarrassed by their nap, and even think no one noticed. Well, since we are going to be keeping up that charade, let’s give them something to take into the post-meeting discussion. By leaving your summary slide on the screen, you give the sleeper an opportunity to take the core messages of your presentation with them when they leave the room (as a side benefit, this also helps the other members of the audience recall the key aspects of your presentation).

Lesson 3: Analyse your presentation

A member of your audience falling asleep should not be taken lightly. It is useful to try and understand why this person dozed off and possibly try to avoid similar situations. For instance, was your presentation just after the lunch break? Or maybe you had it scheduled for a Monday evening after a long day of meetings? Or maybe your audience was not very technical and your presentation was?

If you cannot fathom a reason, apply Sherlock Holmes’ adage of “By eliminating everything that is possible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be true” and accept that your sleeper simply had a poor night of sleep and it had nothing to do with you.

As a presenter, it is your job to adapt to your audience and ensure they receive your message, whether they are awake for the entire presentation or only for 2 or 3 slides. However, most of the time, a carefully prepared, creatively designed and well delivered presentation will keep your audience engaged and alert.

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Have you ever encountered a sleeper? If you have any other ideas on how to deal with sleepers, please do share them in the comments below.

2 comments

  1. Rangani

    Thanks for the wonderful article.I also find that sleepers make the presenter uncomfortable and I often loose the confidence. Nevertheless try and keep the audience engaged can also solve the problem.

  2. Show & Tell

    Thanks for the thoughts Rangani. You are definitely right, it is a blow to the presenters confidence. Engagement is sometimes a limited option when you are at a board meeting or a corporate presentation, then you need to simply power through.

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