What should I do when a presentation goes wrong?

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We each have a different definition of a presentation ‘gone wrong’

What should you do when your presentation goes wrong? Hi, I’m Shola. And first of all, let’s define what we mean by wrong, because perhaps you feel things have gone wrong, but nobody else notices. So things that we can feel are tripping us up or aren’t going as we would have liked them to go, for example, are if we forget a couple of words. So we’re speaking and then our mind goes blank. That could be one reason why, in your mind, your presentation has gone wrong.

You may feel unprepared

Another one could be that you hadn’t prepared the right content, and so you’re starting to deliver and you’re getting questions about things that you haven’t even put in the presentation. You haven’t prepared to answer those questions. So that’s another reason why things could be seen as going wrong.

The audience could be disengaged

A third one could be that you are presenting and the audience looks like they’re about to fall asleep, or they look incredibly bored, or just not turned on by what you’re saying. So that’s another reason why you could say that your presentation went wrong.

You can learn to avoid these problems or deal with things as they come up

Let’s look at those three examples, and then look at what you can do either to avoid that happening in the first place, or if it happens mid-presentation, how can you deal with it? So the first one I mentioned is if you go blank and you forget your lines. Ways to avoid this happening in the first place are, first of all, to not memorize the whole thing word for word. Now, when I started out with public speaking, I remember I would slavishly memorize every single word, write it all out long hand, make sure that I got it all down word for word. And luckily when I was doing it that way, I never forgot my lines and I was able to get through it.

Forgetting your lines can throw you off

But I’ve seen people who have memorized things word for word, and then they forget a couple of vital words or vital lines, and they don’t have that bridge. The words, the bridge. Each word is a bridge to the next one, and if you can imagine you’re trying to cross a bridge, and then a part of the bridge just collapses and you can’t get any further. So it’s a similar situation when you forget some of your lines, because the pathway to the rest of the speech has just disintegrated. It’s just disappeared. And that can really throw somebody off of their stride, and you can see that they’ve completely lost it.

You can take a short pause and repeat the last few words to pick up where you left off

First of all, when that happens, don’t be worried about just taking a couple of seconds for yourself before you carry on. And quite often, if you can take a couple of seconds and breathe and get out of that panic mode, your direction will come back. You’ll remember what you need to say next, and you can carry on. What you can also do is just repeat the few words that you had spoken, and sometimes those few words can actually jog your memory, and then you remember what you’ve forgotten and can carry on also.

Avoid memorising your presentation word for word

How do we avoid this situation in the first place though, the best way is to not memorize word for word your presentation. Now, of course there are situations where we have to do that, we have to memorize word for word. For example, if you’re making a big speech like… Excuse me, a sip of water. If you’re making a big speech like a TEDx or a TED Talk, quite often, they’ll encourage you to memorize the entire speech. But ideally you would memorize it with enough time that you can practice it multiple times, and it’s almost like it’s sitting inside you. You won’t forget because you’ve internalized it completely.

I suggest using note cards

But if you’re in a situation where perhaps you’re making a presentation for work, and sometimes these things, we’ve got to do them at short notice. Maybe you haven’t had time to internalize every aspect of this presentation. I would suggest that you use note cards, or even that you have some cards in your pocket or in your handbag or on the table or wherever.

Use the cards as a roadmap to remind yourself where you’re going

And you just put the direction of speech. You just put enough bullet points on there that if you forget where you’re going, you can just glance at it, just take the card out casually and have a quick glance. The world didn’t end, no one died just because you had to refer to your note cards, right? Take them out of your pocket. Quick glace. “Oh yeah, that’s where I was,” carry on.

Nobody will judge you for using notes

No one will care, they really won’t. And quite honestly, I often prefer to see a speaker speak with notes because I know that they will have everything at their fingertips. I know the likelihood of them forgetting a chunk of the material is very small because they have their prompts with them.

Pick them up discreetly and just carry on

So never be afraid to have a few note cards, and you can have those 3″ x 5″ note cards about this size, you can have those. And never be afraid to have those with you at hand, just in case. You don’t have to make a big hullabaloo of, “Oh, I’ve forgot my, I’ve got to refer to my cards.” You don’t have to do any of that. Just silently look at the cards as if you’d rehearsed it, and you carry on.

If your mind goes blank ask the audience to remind you where you left off

Okay, so that’s the first point that I wanted to make, which is what happens if you blank out or you forget your lines. Another thing that you can do is if you just lose it for a moment, you can even say to the people you’re speaking to, “Oh gosh, I just lost it. What did I just say?” And somebody will repeat back what you just said, and then you’ll carry on. I’ve had that happen to me before. I don’t know, there was some disruption and I lost my place. And I said to the audience, “Where was I?” Someone shouted out. Like, “Oh yeah, thanks very much,” carry on. That’s it, doesn’t have to be a big deal.

Make sure you’re presenting the relevant information by doing thorough research

The second reason why you might say a speech has gone wrong or a presentation’s gone wrong is as I mentioned, when people aren’t getting the information that they wanted from you and they perhaps become a bit hostile, or the questions are coming at you like arrows or bullets. And you’re like, “Ah, I haven’t prepared this.” One thing that you can do to prevent that happening is make sure that you do the right amount of research and you fully understand exactly what people are looking for from you in that situation. So that might be speaking to the people who are going to be at the meeting, talking to whoever’s called the meeting in the first place.

When people come at you with unexpected questions offer to get back to them later with a well-researched answer

Of course, it’s not always possible to prepare everything for a meeting. Maybe someone’s going to turn up last minute that you didn’t know, you had no idea would be there, and that’s the person who asks you the tough questions. So of course, sometimes you can’t prepare for everything. I recommend that in those situations, there’s a couple of things you can do. One is if somebody is asking you tough questions, you don’t have the answer, you can say to them, “Look, I’m really sorry. I hadn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t aware that we were going to go in this direction. Leave it with me, I will do the research or do the preparation, I’ll come back to you, and I’ll fill in the information that I didn’t have today.” That’s one way of doing it.

Practise answering questions on broad topics

Another way, which is more like the kind of politician’s way, is to practice answering questions on broad topics. So if anything comes up that’s vaguely related to one of those topics, you give your standard answer. Sometimes that is sufficient. People think, “Oh yes, they, he, she does know something on that topic,” and they are happy with that response. Other times it won’t work for you, so you’ve got to make the call as to whether that’s the right approach.

Sometimes the audience may seem bored or disengaged

Okay, so that’s the second situation dealt with, which is where you’re in a tough situation, asked questions that you didn’t think you were going to be asked, or people expected something of you that you hadn’t prepared. Now, the third situation is when… I can’t remember what I said now, here you go. Can you tell me… No, the third situation is when the audience seems disengaged, or they seem a bit bored, or they just seem like they’re not really interested in your content.

A client of mine was once put in front of the wrong audience – it happens!

This happened to a client of mine once, she’d gone to speak at a university and she’d prepared a talk, and she was actually put in the wrong room. So she was giving her talk, people seemed like they weren’t into it, and then she asked them. And it turned out she was actually talking to the wrong group of people, which is a bit of a nightmare.

Ask the audience what they need if you notice they’re not fully with you

So hopefully that isn’t what’s happening to you when the audience is disengaged, but sometimes you’ve just got to step out of presentation mode and say to the audience, “Well, I can see some of you are looking a little bit like this isn’t for you, or you’re a little bit bored. Can you explain why? What were you expecting? Why is this not meeting your needs? What were you expecting to hear today?”

Being direct with your audience can help you adjust and re-engage

I personally much prefer that sort of open and honest approach than just trying to bumble through things. And then getting out, “Oh, it’s over, it’s over,” and trying to blank it out of your mind. So I prefer, if I have to, to just break that wall between me and the audience, ask them, “What’s going on here?” And then at least you have the information you need to either carry on, or to change tack and go in a different direction, or even just to stop. Sometimes that happens.

You can avoid bad experiences by applying these strategies in your presentations

So I hope that helps, three ways you can deal with things if your presentation goes wrong. And by wrong, I was defining that as you blank out, or you have a hostile audience in some way, or you have an audience that just seems like they’re about to fall asleep. Okay, so I hope that helps! And stay in touch. Get in touch if you’d like some speaker coaching, or some training for your people, or even a speaker to speak to your audience. Take care. Bye

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Shola Kaye is an award-winning speaker, author and professional speaker coach with clients around the world. Her work has been mentioned in Forbes, Harper’s Bazaar and on the BBC.
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