How to ‘call an audible’ for your presentation

Veteran speakers (and some first-timers) have learned the hard way that a live talk has inherent perils. Try these tips for making last-minute adjustments to keep from being thrown for a loss.

What would you do if the presentation content you prepared suddenly became inappropriate or irrelevant minutes before you’re scheduled to speak?

That’s exactly what happened to Brad, a project manager and civil engineer:

“I recently presented at a daylong engineering conference. I prepared and knew the material well enough to present in my sleep. However, as I listened to each of the speakers preceding me, I became increasingly anxious as I realized that 75 percent of my presentation was being covered by others. I knew my material would simply be a repeat and, at best, would be a bore.”

Anyone who presents regularly has probably faced a similar scenario. It can happen for any number of reasons:

  • Other speakers “steal your thunder” (as Brad experienced).
  • You find out new information that changes the basis of your presentation.
  • You realize the audience has a different level of knowledge about your topic from what you had expected.
  • Sessions run late, and your speaking time is cut in half.

Don’t panic.

You simply have to adjust your content at the last minute. In football, “calling an audible” entails switching the play (and yelling its code name to your teammates) because of the defensive alignment.

No matter how much time you spend crafting your content and rehearsing, there might be times when you have to change your game plan at the line of scrimmage.

It happened to film director Michael Bay when he experienced a technology glitch during a presentation at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. Unfortunately, he became so flustered and unable to adjust in the moment that he walked off the stage.

The lesson to take away from this challenging moment is to prepare for the unexpected. After all, your reputation and credibility are on the line.

Try these six approaches:

1. Know your audience.

If you must change your content at the last minute, understanding your listeners can make all the difference. When you’re aware of the makeup of the audience, their level of knowledge and interest in your topic, you’ll avoid preparing content that’s yesterday’s news.

2. Get to know the agenda and other speakers.

If you are concerned about the possibility of duplicate content, review the conference or meeting agenda. If several speakers will be talking about the same subject, there are options. One is to ask the conference planner to clarify the topic so you better understand the description associated with your presentation.

If yours is a panel presentation, reach out to the other panelists. This is a step many speakers don’t consider taking, yet being proactive can avoid content overlap and the stress of last-minute changes.

3. Focus on your unique perspective.

When crafting your message, develop what TED calls an “idea worth spreading.” Your singular viewpoint can be the differentiator between you and other speakers talking about similar topics. Your spin on things is often what makes your idea memorable.

4. Prepare “contingency” content.

If you’re not able to learn much about the content of other presentations, having contingency content to draw on can be your saving grace. Prepare an extra personal story, anecdote or shared experience that you can draw from if you need to change things up at the last minute.

5. Engage throughout the event.

Listening to everything that takes place during the event can help you deal with the unexpected.

Brad used this strategy when he was forced to call an audible due to duplicate content. Because he had paid careful attention to the other speakers, he was able to transform his talk into a cohesive summary of the day’s material.

6. Ask to lead off.

One simple way to avoid the issue of redundancy is to ask to be the lead speaker rather than bringing up the rear. This position also gives you the opportunity to establishing the tone for the day, as well as setting the bar for other speakers.

Stephanie Scotti is the director of Professionally Speaking Consulting, a communications consulting agency that partners with business leaders ensuring that they deliver high-impact presentations with skills, confidence and conviction that achieves results. She has provided presentation coaching to over 5,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives . Learn more at and A version of this article originally appeared on SmartBrief.

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