Keep Calm and Slide On: How to keep your cool when things go awry during a presentation

Written by Kimberly MacArthur Graham on October 24, 2014

Recently, I have had the pleasure – no, really! – of giving three presentations in as many weeks. One was a webinar; one was a more formal classroom-style seminar with slides; and one was a more interactive, conversational format. In truth, the third gig was supposed to use slides, too, but well. . . there was no projection equipment. A sad fact which we accommodated with less than half an hour of notice. What did we do? We kept the smiles on our faces – all of us, presenters and hosts – , printed copies of the slides as hand-outs, and treated the equipment no-show as a shared joke.

 And guess what? It worked. In fact, the event was such a success that they can’t wait to have us back.

 No matter how much you prepare for a presentation, things can still go awry. So part of your preparation better be coming up with Plans B, C, and D. Here are 3 things to remember that will help you keep your cool instead of having a meltdown.

  1. Unplug from Life-Support. | Technology should be a tool; not a crutch and DEFINITELY not a life-support system. As our experience illustrates, you never know when technology will fail you. (Many of us would swear we can predict it will be precisely when we most need it!). So make sure that you are ready to deliver a lively, interesting presentation without any visuals, video, or cool gadgets. Know how to modulate your voice and use your body and eye contact to engage people on a personal level. This is a much more effective way to present and a great skill for any type of conversation or meeting.
  2. Leave Scripts to the Stage. | Memorization is for times-tables and professional actors; presenters should know their material and subject matter inside and out, but must be flexible enough to speak about it in a variety of different ways. If you try to commit a word-for-word script to memory, you are dependent upon having an interrupted flow of thought and speaking. This is unrealistic and when your string of internal cues is inevitably interrupted by a question or a cell phone, you may be completely derailed. Instead of memorizing, create an outline of the main points you want to hit, and worry less about precise wording or, within reason, exact ordering.
  3. Let Your Expertise Flow. | Remember that you have been invited to present because you are an expert that people want to learn from. And they don’t want to be talked AT; they want to go away with interesting, useful, and often, specific information. In my experience, it’s more important to allow adequate time for questions, either during the presentation in an interactive format or at the end, than to squeeze in one more slide or anecdote. You may be surprised at what they know, don’t know, or want to know.

All three of these bring us back to the single objective of every presentation: to have a fulfilling conversation with an engaged audience that invites you back. From a sales perspective, your goal is to demonstrate your value and get paid to provide your services. And in this era of “H2H” or “human-to-human” marketing, a big part of your brand value is a calm, accommodating, and friendly demeanor.

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