How to handle a presentation disaster

Your keynote speaker is in a plane stacked up over the city, or he just keeled over. Now what? Here are some backup ideas to have in place should disaster strike at the last minute.

What do you do when the show can’t go on?

Mid-September was supposed to be a good time for BMW. The Frankfurt Motor Show was on, and CEO Harald Krueger was on hand to present the company’s new lineup of cars to the assembled journalists and other audience members.

Then he fainted.

Apparently, he hadn’t been feeling well—worn out from traveling. The good news is that he was not seriously sick, by all accounts. Just a passing affliction.

What do you do when your speaker simply cannot speak? The old theatrical adage holds that “the show must go on,” but sometimes it can’t—or at least the speaker can’t.

What do you do?

Krueger’s tumble was a great reminder of the need—always—to have a Plan B.

I would wager that most of you don’t. Most speakers don’t have a contingency plan for when they’re incapacitated. Most conference organizers don’t have a backup speaker at the ready for when the keynoter fails to show up for one reason or another. Most webinar hosts don’t have a sub ready to go on when the invited guest develops acute laryngitis.

I’m here to tell you that you should.

A few years back, I was the master of ceremonies for a conference in Las Vegas. My job was to warm up the crowd for five to 10 minutes at the beginning of the event in the morning, introduce the first speaker, and then return periodically during the day to help keep the audience engaged, draw lessons from what had been said, and help with any logistics that needed addressing.

It’s a useful role, and it can even be transformative if the emcee is good at that one key duty—drawing lessons from what has been said. It’s difficult for an audience to take in messages from speaker after speaker. A moment or two to take stock is incredibly helpful.

In any case, there I was, ready to go at 8:15 a.m., when the word came that the keynote speaker’s plane was circling above the Vegas airport and unable to land. It was going to be at least 45 minutes until he could be there. Maybe longer.

Suddenly my emcee role looked much more important. The conference organizer whispered to me as she pushed me onstage, “Keep ’em happy for the next hour!”

So I did. I told stories, I did an extended Q&A with the crowd about what they were hoping to get out of the conference. I even played trivia games (with Vegas-style prizes). Finally, several lifetimes later, the keynoter showed up, and I was able to sit gratefully backstage, recovering.

That was the day I learned the importance of a Plan B. In that case, we pulled it off, but we could have made it much easier on ourselves if we had rehearsed that possibility, and if I had lined up an hour’s worth of fun and games—just in case.

So, take a lesson from my vamping in Las Vegas—and from baseball, too. Yes, this is one of those rare times that I will reference a sports concept. Always have a relief pitcher ready.

Here are five lessons:

1. If you’re a speaker, have a buddy. It’s a good idea to pair with another, compatible speaker so that you can sub for each other on short notice. Plus, it’s good to have someone with whom to compare notes about business and life in the road warrior lane.

2. If you’re a conference organizer, have a backup. Take this problem seriously. If you’re running a conference, have a speaker ready to go—an understudy, like those in the theatre, whom you pay to stand at the ready and who probably will never go on.

3. If you’re a company conducting a road show, take a backup along. If the stakes are high enough, you should have a backup executive ready to cover for the CEO in case he faints or some other calamity befalls him.

4. If you’re running a webinar, have a speaker in waiting. I did a webinar on my recent book, “Power Cues,” for Harvard when the book first came out. There were 6,000 sites on the call. That’s a lot of people to disappoint if I suddenly couldn’t speak. We didn’t have a backup, but we were lucky. Have a backup; don’t rely on luck when the stakes are high.

5. If you’re an emcee, have extra material at the ready. A master of ceremonies should be ready to vamp forever if necessary. So prepare your material, your stretch material, and your daylong material for all the possible eventualities. Do it.

Stuff happens, so be ready. If you’re not doing this already, you should be.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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