What a speaker should do when all hell breaks loose

Murphy’s law states: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Anyone who’s ever given a presentation knows Murphy was an optimist. Don’t panic when stuff happens. Here’s what to do.

You can prepare, practice and polish your presentation until you are confident that you can deliver it as a consummate professional.

Still, you can’t protect yourself from an unexpected mini-crisis when you step up to present.

So, what do you do when you’re speaking and something beyond your control stops you in your tracks? You keep your composure, ameliorate the situation with humor and refocus on your presentation as quickly as possible.

For example, watch what happens when President Barack Obama is addressing Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit and the presidential seal falls off the lectern.

The president takes a second to ascertain exactly what has happened and to compose himself. Then, with humor in his voice, he says calmly: “That’s all right. All of you know who I am.”

He gets right back to his remarks and the message he plans to deliver that day.

By bringing humor to the situation, he diffuses tension and quickly moves on. Imagine how different the impact would have been had he called someone to the stage to fix it and stood there awkwardly while they fumbled with it and reaffixed it.

What happens if the unexpected glitch isn’t confined to one brief incident? What if the problem persists throughout your presentation?

Consider Pat Flynn’s presentation to Blog World Expo in 2011.

An accomplished presenter, Flynn downloaded a special font for the slides in his keynote presentation, assuming he would be using his own computer when he delivered his remarks.

When he got to the Expo, however, he discovered he wasn’t allowed to do so, because the Expo was recording the slides along with the audio from their own computers.

No worries, he thought. He moved his presentation to their computer and launched into his performance. He had his audience nicely warmed up and was progressing smoothly as he brought up his first slide and glanced unconcernedly at it.

Instead of saying “Being Everywhere” it said “BeiEveryw.”

Watch this video shot by Cliff Ravenscraft of PodcastAnswerMan.com. Ravenscraft captured Flynn’s double-take when he realized the font he had used to create his slides was not loaded into the computer provided.

In a blog on his own site, Flynn confessed that in the moment the unexpected happened, he briefly considered yelling, blaming someone else or just leaving the stage.

Instead, he found the courage to tell himself to go on; he did so, magnificently, using gentle humor to bring the audience on his side. Because he was well prepared and had memorized his slides, the font mix-up really didn’t cause him to lose his momentum.

When he was meeting with members of the audience afterward, a few thought he had created the slide problem as part of his presentation to inject humor and keep audience members on their toes.

How can you deal with the unexpected when you are making a presentation?

Here are five tips to survive and thrive when your presentation gets torpedoed by events or circumstances beyond your control:

1. Never lose your calm. Remember that the audience is just as shocked as you are when the unexpected happens. Your calmness sends a message that despite whatever has happened, you are still in control.

It also gives you the intervening moments—as they process what has happened-to quickly adopt a strategy.

2. Humor is the best defense against an unplanned offense. By responding with lightness and humor, you can assure your audience that you—and they—are all right. Then you can get back on track with your presentation as quickly as possible.

Even if that humor is aimed at yourself, it settles your audience comfortably back to their listening state. If you should stumble entering the stage or trip over wires during your presentation, right yourself swiftly, make a quick joke, and get back to the topic.

3. If the issue is serious and won’t be resolved quickly, keep your composure and let your audience know what is happening. You have the microphone, so it is your responsibility to use it when what has happened leaves your audience ill at ease.

You might be advised that the smell of smoke or gas requires your audience to exit the building. Keep calm and composed, and deliver that important message. If there is an issue with sound equipment that can’t be fixed quickly, suggest that your audience take a break rather than keeping them cooped up waiting indefinitely.

4. Work with whatever resources you have. Be so proficient with your subject matter that you can roll with the punches and deliver under circumstances that are vastly different from what you had planned.

A power outage or an equipment failure can be overcome, particularly in small venues where there is natural light. Change your presentation to suit the circumstances. If you can’t show your own slides or videos to make examples of your key takeaways, make your presentation more intimate and immediate by asking audience members to offer their own examples to illustrate your point.

If you’re presenting on a webinar or online meeting and the Internet connection drops out, make sure you have a printout of your slides so you can continue your presentation. That way your audience can still benefit from your message.

5. Never apologize. Unless you’ve set the building on fire, you did not create the disruption to your presentation, so don’t allow your audience to think that way by apologizing. Instead, refocus your audience on your message as quickly as possible.

Ashish Arora is the co-founder of SketchBubble.com, a provider of results-driven, professional presentation templates. You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn. A version of this article first appeared on GoToMeeting.

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