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How to Handle the Unexpected When Presenting
by Chris King

No matter how much preparation we’ve put into our presentation, no matter how carefully we’ve paid attention to the details, and no matter how confidently we walk onto the stage or podium, Murphy’s Law will catch up with us and create an unexpected event or experience when we are presenting. How should we handle this without letting it turn into a disaster?

Don’t ignore the unexpected! While attending a large national convention, I was listening to a delightful luncheon speaker who was positioned in the middle of the room on a low podium. A waiter who had been clearing dishes from our tables and had a large tray loaded with those dirty dishes walked right up onto the podium, across and in front of the speaker, and down the other side out to the kitchen. The speaker acted like nothing had happened and just kept on presenting. For several minutes, not one of us heard or paid attention to her words. It was a daunting experience for her, but she would have become more memorable if she had stopped and made some sort of comment — the more humorous, the better.

Practice for the unexpected! Realizing that it will someday happen to us, we must think of all of the unexpected crises that might occur and then practice how we will respond. My theory is that the more prepared we are, the fewer crises will happen. A well-known speaker had all of the power fail during his presentation to a huge group. This is a man who uses many overheads and, of course, a microphone. He asked if anyone had a flashlight or candle, and then proceeded to ask everyone to join him in a familiar song. Soon the power was restored and everyone in the audience loved him more than before. Other speakers I know have had audience members become ill, and one famous trainer started feeling ill himself, excused himself, went to the next room, and experienced a heart attack. Usually, if we are honest with our audience about what is happening, they will be extremely forgiving.

Do everything you can to avoid the unexpected! As in the previous scenarios mentioned, the speaker had no control over the unexpected occurring, but there are steps we can take in advance to cut down our chances of having to deal with the unexpected. Arrive early for your presentation and check out all of the A/V equipment. Now that there are so many presentations using computer equipment this is doubly important. Another speaker told me once, “Never assume, always confirm.” This goes for the equipment to make sure you have what you need, for the handouts if someone is supposed to make copies for you, for the address and time of your presentation with complete directions on how to get there, and everything else you need to make your presentation smooth and carefree.

I have gotten lost due to incorrect directions — it is important to allow extra time for this and not be afraid to stop and ask for clarification. I have had a new bulb blow out on a projector for a talk that was slide based. Many times the introduction I mailed ahead somehow was misplaced, so I always bring as extra copy with me. It is also important to be prepared to speak for a different length of time than was originally planned. The speaker before you may go overtime, and you will need to end your presentation on time to endear yourself to audience members. Sometimes another speaker will not show up and you will be expected to fill in his/her time also.

Cope with unexpected travel problems! If you travel by air or rail as a speaker, you will definitely have to face missed or cancelled flights, layovers, and impossible connections. That’s why I suggest making every effort to give yourself an extra day for travel. The meeting planner will love you, as will your audience. I know speakers whose flights have been cancelled and to make sure they get to their speaking engagement, they rent a car and drive through the night. That’s the sign of a true professional.

Remember, always be a professional. Be prepared — especially for the unexpected!






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