Handling Presentation Horrors

You’ve prepared your presentation, you know your subject, you’ve even rehearsed it in front of the dog (but he wasn’t interested). So, why are you still having nightmares about what could go wrong?

When I work with groups to develop their Presentation Skills, I always ask them about their worst fears so that we can tackle them head on and work out ways of

– limiting the chances of their worst fears coming true and
– having a plan up their sleeve to cope with the situation if it does happen.

The most common presentation horrors are detailed here, along with some ideas to help you minimise or negate the impact they have on delivering a fluid and effective presentation.

So typically, what are the top 5 presentation horrors and how can you handle them if they happen to you?


1. Your mind goes blank

Most of us have experienced this phenomenon – you are mid flow and then, suddenly, your mind goes blank. Being thoroughly prepared and rehearsing your presentation is likely to reduce the chances of this happening but what if it happens anyway? Calming taking a sip of water might bring your thoughts back but if not, in my experience, the best approach is to be honest and move on. Rather than staring intently at your notes (which now look like they’ve been written in Double Dutch) or blinking at your audience like a rabbit caught in headlights, be honest – calmly say something like:

“I wanted to make a specific point about this but it seems my mind’s gone blank – I’ll move on for now and come back to it, when it comes back to me!”

Chances are, as soon as you move on, the point you wanted to make will find its way back to the front of your brain. You will be forgiven for this if you handle it well.


2. Your audience don’t seem interested

To limit the chances of this happening, find out as much as you can about your audience beforehand and include facts, examples and anecdotes that relate to them and their situation. Involve them by asking rhetorical questions to keep them engaged. Use humour where you can – even serious subjects have opportunities for a light touch. If you’ve done all this and they still seem uninterested, be brave and say what you see:

“So, it looks like there’s a lack of enthusiasm in the room – if this isn’t hitting the mark it would be good to know what you need for me to put this right or perhaps there’s some other context that I’m unaware of?”

This type of statement demonstrates that you want to do a good job and will have the effect of either re-energising your audience or opening up a discussion about what’s going on for them.

3. You don’t know the answer to a question

As long as you’re thoroughly prepared, it’s unlikely that you’ll be asked a question that you don’t know the answer to. If there’s any area of your presentation you don’t feel comfortable with, think about questions you could be asked and find out the answers in advance. You could also talk it through with a colleague.

What if you are asked a question which gets into more detail than you’d anticipated or covers an angle that you haven’t explored? Worst policy – wriggle your way out of it by making stuff up (this is NOT a good idea!). Best policy – be honest – say you don’t know or that you’d like to look into the answer in more detail before responding and make sure you get back to them. Don’t over apologise and lose credibility. Keep it brief and move on so that you don’t draw more attention to the fact that you can’t answer the question. You also have the option of using your audience as a resource – ask them what views or experience they have on the matter – if you’re lucky, one of them might just end up answering the question for you!


4. You have a technical hitch

First, as a preventative measure, make sure you know how the equipment works – I always arrive early and test it out. However, if it goes wrong anyway, DON’T PANIC! I’ve seen people frantically pulling at leads, pushing buttons or simply staring in disbelief at the offending article. This isn’t a pretty sight. Instead, suggest a 5 minute breather and assertively ask for help.

This approach takes the attention (and pressure) off YOU and invariably leads to someone coming to your aid because they think they know how to resolve it (or they know someone who can). If the problem can’t be fixed quickly, resort to an alternative solution – see what other equipment you could use in the moment to help you convey your message (a flipchart or whiteboard, perhaps). If your laptop dies and you are reliant on your slides to continue, make sure you’ve printed them off for yourself and have a soft copy on a memory stick too.

5. Your audience aren’t “behaving” themselves

Ever experienced this… someone talking or whispering while you’re presenting; someone who makes comments that indicate a personal agenda that’s very different to yours; someone who is continuously tapping on their laptop or smart phone as you present? All of these are annoying and distracting – not just for you, but for the rest of the audience. If someone’s behaviour is annoying you, chances are its annoying and distracting for others too!

The best advice I can give is to: assertively NIP IT IN THE BUD. I learnt this lesson the hard way very early in my career. I let a situation snowball because I didn’t know how to tackle it. Don’t let that happen to you. Use a “light touch” to avoid your feedback coming across as confrontational, but DO be assertive. Highlight that the activity is distracting and ask the person if they need to take 5 minutes away from the presentation to get something done. The distracting behaviour is more likely to stop once they know it’s been recognised.

These are just some of the horrors that can happen, despite the fact that you plan, prepare and rehearse your presentations in advance. I hope that I’ve given you some ideas about how you might cope with them to ensure you continue to deliver an effective and engaging presentation.

We’d love to hear what your Presentation Horrors have been and how you’ve handled them so that we can share ideas. Please add your comments, stories or tips in the comments box below.

Look out for next month’s blog on Mentoring.

Posted by Gill Bonello

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