If your life and work involve making presentations, sooner or later something unexpected will threaten your credibility as a speaker.
How you rescue yourself will be remembered as much as your remarks. You can be even more powerful and memorable because of the circumstances, or you can seem weak and unprepared, even if the disruption is no fault of your own.
If you haven’t even considered what might happen if technology or your memory fails on stage, you should. Without a backup plan, your presentation is a disaster waiting to happen.
Consider the much-discussed stage walk-off by “Transformers” director Michael Bay when his teleprompter failed. You can see what happened in this video:
Bay, known for his action films with massive explosions, himself imploded when he left Joe Stinziano, Samsung’s executive vice president, alone on stage. Samsung had selected Bay to promote its new curved televisions at the event, but Bay turned and strode off stage muttering “I’m sorry.”
He later apologized on his own blog and said he guessed live shows weren’t his thing.
Imagine how successfully he could have handled it had he managed to familiarize himself or even memorized answers to a couple of questions and extemporized.
Preparing for the unexpected
Of course, sometimes the unexpected attack on your presentation is more dramatic than a failed teleprompter.
Consider what happened to Colin Robertson when he stepped on stage to give a TED talk. He had been allotted three minutes to talk about his crowdsourced, solar-powered health care solution.
Watch what happens when he tries to start his PowerPoint:
What Colin did not know at the time was that he was being pranked by Improv Everywhere.
Still, imagine how impressive he would have been had he been able to get two or three key points out to the audience over the balloons falling, the bodies surrounding him and his exit from the stage. What if he had somehow incorporated them as if he had planned it?
Here are six key tactics that cover 99.9 percent of what could go wrong in a presentation.
1. Be ready to go without PowerPoint.
Deborah Grayson Riegel, an accomplished public speaker and the author of “Oy Vey! Isn’t A Strategy: 25 Solutions for Personal and Professional Success” once gave a presentation at the Bronx Zoo.
As she spoke and referred to her PowerPoint, there were 20 monkeys watching, their faces pressed tight to the window. Each time she moved to a new slide, the monkeys became upset and banged their fists against the window.
Within a very short time, she simply had to abandon her PowerPoint and go solo.
Most people aren’t interrupted by monkeys, but a lot of other things can disrupt your PowerPoint component.
Sometimes your laptop can’t be connected to the host’s projector and they ask you to use a different computer. Then trouble sets in. That’s what happened to SmartPassiveIncome’s Pat Flynn at Blog World Expo in 2011. He had downloaded a special font for his PowerPoint presentation.
When he got there he discovered that he was not allowed to use his own computer, because they were recording the slides and the audio required the in-house computer—which didn’t have his selected font.
Early on he turned around and saw that the slide that should have read “Being Everywhere” actually said “Bei Everyw.”
Watch this video to see how he used humor to pull the presentation together:
Precaution No. 1, then, is to save a basic PDF version of your PowerPoint presentation online so you can transfer it anywhere. If you are relying on PowerPoint as a memory prompt, print out a copy and bring it to the lectern with you.
2. Check out all the technology in advance; bring what makes you comfortable.
Here’s trouble: arriving at a location with your presentation in your computer and discovering that either there is no Wi-Fi or that it’s unreliable, tending to go in and out.
When you accept a speaking engagement, ask these questions in advance:
(a) Do you have Wi-Fi? How reliable is it?
(b) Do you have a projector? Is there a spare bulb?
(c) May I use my own computer, or is there a computer that controls the projector?
(d) If I must use your computer, does it run PowerPoint or other presentation software?
(e) If I bring my own computer, what kind of adapters do I need (HDMI, VGA, etc.)?
(f) Can I transfer information from the stage to my audience? Will the audience be hooked up to their personal devices to receive it?
(g) How wide is the projector screen? How big is the room?
(h) Is the microphone wireless? Are there extra batteries near the stage?
There are many professional speakers who lug around their own projectors and a spare bulb, batteries for microphones, etc. Every time they don’t have to use it, they are grateful, but they never endure a delay if something bad happens.
3. Pare down your presentation, and know it well.
An antidote to equipment failures is to limit your talk to the basics: you, your message and your audience.
Some of the world’s most admired and accomplished speakers don’t use a PowerPoint, a teleprompter or any other tool to help them communicate. They just walk in and give only of themselves.
If you have any doubts about how effective that can be, just watch this video of Les Brown, one of the most respected motivational speakers on the circuit, as he talks about “You Gotta Be Hungry.”
He doesn’t need bullet points to inspire people and engage his audience.
Considering forgoing the frills and delivering your presentation with all the personal skills you possess.
4. Keep your cool regardless of what breaks down around you.
When something goes wrong, such as a power outage, know that the audience is going to take its cue from you. The calmer and more unperturbed you can be, the less the incident will take over the day and all memories of your presentation.
When the power goes off, the best strategy is to ramp up your own energy, jump right into the audience, and keep on going if the crowd is small enough that you can be heard.
If technical equipment breaks and a crew rushes on stage to repair it, apologize once and only once to the audience for the delay and suggest a short break while technicians work to fix it.
If the problem can’t be fixed in that time, call them back in and resume the program without the PowerPoint or projector or whatever can’t be fixed.
5. Make sure you cut your presentation in half when you think it’s done (but save that half).
Preparing a backup plan for any presentation isn’t all about finicky technology and cranky type fonts.
A lot of presenters have angst about what will happen if their presentation runs too short, or too long, or if they are asked suddenly asked to change the original directive.
Make sure you have a couple of relevant videos or two or three extra stories in case you’re asked to add half an hour to your program.
Likewise, have some places targeted for cutting should you suddenly need to take your three-hour presentation and make it 90 minutes.
6. Anticipate likely questions from the audience.
For many presenters, the vulnerability of taking questions from the audience is the source of the most angst. We wonder what we will do if we are asked a question we can’t answer.
Imagine the most likely questions you will be asked. Be aware of local issues if you are going from town to town.
You can say, if you’re stumped, that you don’t have all your data with you but that you have noted the question and will email a response after the event.
What’s in your pocket in case of a presentation emergency? Please let us know in the comments section.