10 ways to save a sinking presentation

What happens if you are delivering an important business presentation and something goes horribly wrong? Will you be able to think on your feet and save the day?

Michael Collins, of Toastmasters International, shares his 10 top tips to help improve your ability to react quickly and save your presentation from disaster:


1)    The elephant in the room

Never ignore the elephant in the room. Whether it is the cold coffee or the ugly wallpaper, it will distract you and your audience. Make a friendly comment and build empathy. Then, if anything does go wrong, the audience is more likely to forgive you.

2)    Equipment failing

How you react to this may well dictate the success of your presentation. If the audience can see there is a problem, ensure it is clear to them that it’s being addressed promptly – they are then less likely to blame you or be put-off.

3)    Heckling

If you are heckled a simple phrase like, “Thank you for your contribution,” or “That’s interesting, let’s talk at the break,” should allow you to regain your authority. If all else fails, and you have the audience on your side, ask the heckler to leave – but only as a last resort.

4)    Awkward question

Awkward questions are often posed in an effort to throw the speaker. Paraphrase the question and ask them directly if your understanding is correct. This allows everyone else to hear the question, will put you in control, and buy you time. If the question is deliberately antagonistic say something like, “That’s interesting. Before I give you my answer, tell me, how would you deal with that?”

5)    Chatter at the back of the room

As the speaker you should be in control at all times. If the audience is getting restless, suggest taking a five minute break to re-energise. If it’s just one or two people making a noise, stop, stay silent for a moment, look at them, and then ask for their permission to continue. The whisperers will stop talking because they don’t want to be the centre of attention.

6)    Use of mobile devices

Never ask the audience to close their laptops. No one likes to be told what to do. While some may well be surfing the Internet, others may be making notes or further researching some of your topics. If a mobile goes off, don’t criticise, instead try saying “I’d better check that mine is off”.

7)    Not connecting with the audience

Ask questions that involve getting a show of hands. This gets the audience involved. Suggest they take a minute to introduce themselves to the person in the next seat. Use humour to grab their attention where possible.

8)    You freeze and lose your place

Don’t panic – there are ways out. For example, pause, take a sip of water to give yourself time to think, or ask the audience what you last said, or have an emergency line ready like “If someone wants to jump in right here, it’s okay with me.”

9)    Practice thinking on your feet

Public speaking groups, and public speaking classes from companies like Thought-Leader, offer the opportunity to practice thinking on your feet by giving impromptu, unprepared speeches.

Public speaking groups offer the opportunity to practise thinking on your feet by giving impromptu, unprepared speeches. This is an environment where failure is ok and your business won’t suffer. By developing these skills you’ll improve your confidence and ability to react appropriately.

10) Stock of phrases to get you out of difficult situations

Never resort to over-used phrases. Coin your own phrases, build up a stock of quotations, or add your own slant to them. Always reference the author. For example, “Winston Churchill once said, ‘A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficultly.’  Well I wish I had Churchill’s optimism right now!”

Preparation and practice are the keys to overcoming any hurdles in delivering a business presentation. Rarely do business presentations run flawlessly. Remember, people may not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel, so do bring that human touch to any business presentation you give.

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