How to handle the unexpected during your presentation

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

But you can’t protect yourself for something totally unexpected happening when you step up to present.

So what do you do when you begin to speak and something totally beyond your control stops you in your tracks?

You keep your composure, diffuse the situation with a little humour, and get the focus right back on your presentation as quickly as possible.

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

The President takes just a second to ascertain exactly what has happened and to compose himself. Then, with humour 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 a bit of humour to the situation, he was able to diffuse all tension and quickly move 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 got it back on.

What happens if the unexpected glitch isn’t confined to one short incident? What if it is a problem that persists throughout your entire presentation?

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

An accomplished presenter, always thoroughly prepared, 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 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 like the pro he was 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 from who was at the event and captured Flynn’s double take when he realised the font he had used to create his slides was not in the computer he was using to show them.

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

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

In fact, when he was meeting with some members of the audience later, a couple of them actually thought he had created the slide problem on purpose as part of his presentation to inject the humour and keep the audience on their toes.

What can you do if you have to 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 gives you seconds as they process the information about what has happened to quickly adopt a strategy.
  1. Humour is the best defence against an unplanned offence. By responding to whatever has happened with lightness and humour, you can assure your audience that you and they are all right and get back on track with your presentation as quickly as possible. Even if that humour is aimed at yourself, it settles your audience comfortably back to their listening state. It is always the best response if you trip entering the stage or on wires during your presentation. Get up fast, make a quick joke, and get right back to the topic at hand.
  1. 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, therefore it is your responsibility to use it in times when what has happened leaves your audience ill at ease. You may be advised that the smell of smoke or gas requires your audience to exit the building. Keep calm and composed and deliver this 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 keep them cooped up for more than five minutes waiting.
  1. 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 planned. A power outage or an equipment failure may be overcome particularly in small audiences 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 points, make your presentation more intimate and immediate by asking your audience to offer their own examples that will illustrate your point.If you’re presenting on a webinar or online meeting and the internet drops out, make sure you have a print out of your slides so you can continue your presentation – that way your audience will still be able to benefit from hearing your message.
  1. Never apologise. Unless you set the building on fire, you did not create the unexpected disruption to your presentation, so don’t encourage your audience to think that way by apologising. Instead, return the focus of your audience to your message as quickly as possible.

20 habits of truly brilliant presenters

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