S**t happens: five things to try when your presentation goes wrong

S**t happens: five things to try when your presentation goes wrong

On my way to deliver a presentation last year, my shoe fell on to the rail as I boarded the train. The prospect of facing an audience shoeless was not great (at five-foot-two I struggle to have a commanding presence at the best of times) but luckily, I could draw on the lessons of The Great Clothing Disaster of 2018. Allow me to explain.

A plane cancellation en route to Switzerland saw me and my trusted Partner in Crime hot-footing it across Europe by train with absolutely no prospect of our luggage catching up with us  Alas, neither of us hits any sartorial highs with our travelling wardrobe so our only prospect of looking remotely presentable was the shopping opportunities presented by Geneva Airport Station. These boiled down to a South African shirts shop (lovely on Nelson Mandela, less so on two pale Brummies) and a women’s clothing store where bling had taken up residence. Undaunted, my brave 6ft male co-presenter purchased the largest item in the shop, a top that featured an attractive diamante edging and a whiff of 1970s disco. A top which become more of a crop top when he started gesticulating mid-presentation. 

It’s not an experience anyone will forget in a hurry but we did learn some valuable lessons:

#1 Incorporate the problem into the presentation

In the example above, we used our unusual outfits to talk about the importance of first impressions. It was a great way to break the ice, getting the audience relaxed and on our side.

#2 Don’t make too much of it

It might matter to you that the underarm of your dress ripped dramatically when you reached for your water, but chances are the audience aren’t that bothered. Acknowledge it and move on. Extra kudos to you for being confident enough not to get thrown by it. And yes, this is another situation that happened to me.

#3 Set them a task

If you need to buy some time due to equipment challenges, set your audience a question to discuss with the person next to them. For example, if you’re presenting to a WI group about plans for the local bus network, get them to discuss the top three reasons they use the bus or what they like/dislike most about buses. If you’re talking to sixth formers about university, ask them to discuss what they’ll need to spend money on or guess how many different types of geography courses there are.

#4 Always have a Plan B

The more confident you are that you can handle things going wrong, the more effortless and swan-like will be your response. We have one presentation that needs to be delivered consistently by any two of ten different trainers. We always have detailed notes printed out as back up so that if anything goes wrong, the other trainer can step in. This proved its worth when I got food poisoning, realised I was about to faint and handed over to my co-trainer virtually mid-sentence!

#5 Keep it simple

The more elaborate your presentation, the more things can go wrong. Until you’re an experienced presenter, don’t give yourself unnecessary challenges, particularly if you’re in an unfamiliar venue where you can’t have a run through first. Bill Gates has the experience and back-up to risk letting loose a swarm of mosquitos during a TED talk. Maybe make your props a little simpler.

Technology will fail, you’ll trip up on the way to the stage or your mic will cut out halfway through your first sentence. There’s every excuse for that. But there’s no excuse for not picking yourself up and cracking on with a smile on your face. Even if you are only wearing one shoe.