I gave my first keynote presentation when I was eighteen. Since then, I’ve come up against dang near every minor and moderate issue a presenter might encounter.
As writers, panels, conferences, readings, classes and workshops are likely to come our way. I’m not going to speak here about choosing your topic or material, or outlining and establishing a talk or class (but will later, if folks are interested!). Instead, we’re going to chat about… problems.
No matter how fantastic the story you’ll be reading or how perfect the PowerPoint you’ve created, the difference between a great presentation—for you and your audience—and a bad presentation doesn’t lie in whether you encounter problems. It depends on how well you face the challenge, crisis, or OH SHIT moment.
We could drill through a score of subcategories and specifics. But we’re going to touch on the three areas most speaking challenges fall under: Technology Is Fickle, Who the Hell Is In Charge, and I Misjudged My Audience.
- Technology Is Fickle
Don’t skip this one, thinking your talks are “too small” to involve AV equipment. Electricity falls under “technology,” and the power grid doesn’t care if you have twenty-seven people ready to learn self-defense in a windowless hotel conference room when a lacking-judgement squirrel loses its life to a transformer up the road.
Yep, it happened.
Also on the happened-to-me list:
- The theater’s computerized lighting system began inexplicably running a play’s complex lighting plan. I had to constantly move around the stage as lights faded and brightened.
- In front of about six hundred people, my handheld mouse died, leaving me unable to advance the slides of my presentation while the staff hunted down a new one.
- My wireless headset microphone refused to connect to the speaker system.
- The venue-supplied laptop connected automatically to an open wifi, and projected the laptop owner’s Facebook notifications onto the screen.
Truly, if something can go wrong, it eventually will.
The key? Do not to wait for the technology to begin working properly. Find a way to work around it.
Teach self-defense in the hotel hallway. Pull out the print-out of your presentation slides. Stand in the middle of the large room, rather than the stage, so everyone can hear you. Make a joke of interruptions, and move on.
Treat tech glitches as you would the driver who unexpectedly changes lanes in front of you. Adjust your speed, check your distance, and keep moving. Your audience will take its cues from you. If you don’t work around tech issues, neither will they. If you jump in, they’ll follow you. They want to follow you. Ensure the narrative you leave behind is, “Wow, even though this happened, she gave us everything we expected!” rather than, “And when that happened, we had to cancel everything.”
The only time I completely cancelled a talk was when a tornado warning required everyone to evacuate to a crowded bathroom. But we did still hold an informal Q&A in the dark!
- Who the Hell Is In Charge
The quick answer is, “You are!” How well you pull it off counts on a combination of savvy, smiles, outward confidence, and boundless empathy for the event organizers.
For small events—a local service group, an elementary school, a professional conference organized by someone who doesn’t usually do such a thing—it’s often assumed you have the more extensive experience. You’ll be deferred to because you’re the Invited Authority. For larger events—those with a solid staff and event planning knowledge—you are still in charge, just in a different way. You’ll have access to the staff’s knowledge and ability, but you are in charge of your audience.
So, first the savvy: It’s easy to say you’ll gain this from experience. That’s not really helpful if you’re new to presenting. What is more helpful is the recommendation to think ahead. Envision success, failure, and problem-solving. If you have a massive WHAT IF THIS HAPPENS fear, don’t avoid thinking of it. Study it, drill down into it, and consider your options.
Will you think of everything? No. (I write that with hysterical laughter.)
Will you gain cognitive experience in problem-solving? Yes. And that’s what saves your ass when an attendee faints in the aisle and the event planner looks up to you on the stage for direction.
Next is the smile, confidence, and empathy. All three work together.
The larger the venue, the more likely the staff has dealt with an arrogant blowhard who treats them as unlettered peons. Blowhards are the minority, but they feature prominently and eternally in the majority of stories that get passed around. Don’t be that person.
The largest group of presenters are those who never get discussed at all. They passively await their turn, wait to be told where to go, and leave without much more than a muted thank-you. Don’t be that person, either.
Be instead the person who uses some variation of three key phrases:
“What can I do to help?”
“Would it be possible to ask a favor?”
“I so appreciate your work.”
I once requested the blinds in an exterior conference room be closed because of the glare. The event planner couldn’t figure out how to work the little mechanized control thingy, and neither could I. I smiled and said, “No problem! We’ll make it work! I really appreciate you trying!” Fifteen minutes later, that planner had found a person to correct the problem. Yes, it interrupted my presentation, so I used the interruption to thank the planner and ask the audience to applaud. The planner told me he’d book me any time he could. (And did, until I moved out of the area.)
Then there’s the event planner who, for whatever reason, is deeply and unequivocally committed to the role of Grand and Unquestionable Boss. The good news is the same strategies usually work on those folks, too.
Giving your audience a great experience must not be dependent on whether someone submits to you and your (internally assumed or externally confirmed) authority on any topic. And truly, if your need to puff out your chest is greater than your sense of obligation to deliver a great presentation, you won’t often be invited back anyway.
You are in charge. You set the tone. Choose to be the one remembered for all the right reasons.
- I Misjudged My Audience
This one can get… messy. Not because misjudging an audience is so terrible, but because the strategies for dealing with it can be so damned difficult without experience.
Giving a presentation geared toward an audience of eighty can be awkward given to a gathering of eight. Likewise, facing a group of fifty strangers when you expected only the five people in the front row becomes an emotional challenge. Other audience surprises from hell include…
- A hundred people read a badly worded description of your presentation, and expect something completely different.
- The group that invited you rented a hall to seat three hundred. Five minutes before you’re set to start, fifteen people are sitting in chairs scattered throughout the room.
- Your entire presentation is based on audience participation. The organizers inform you, an hour before you start, their liability insurance will not permit it.
- You were invited to present on a topic you belatedly learn is a point of incredible controversy for the group you’re presenting to.
Any and all of those things can happen, no matter how much research and clarification you do beforehand, because event organizers are not always clear. Shit happens.
So if a small number of people are scattered throughout the room, you ask them kindly to move into one area while—and this is the important part—making clear the benefit of the request is how much easier it will make it for you. Trust me, my darlings, everyone cringes when a presenter tries to make jokes about why the audience members are silly to spread out. Don’t blame your audience; appreciate their time and effort.
If folks are expecting something different, you could adapt to their expectations or ask the audience directly to learn something unexpected. Your best option is never-ever-EVAH to ignore the gulf between expectation and delivery. That leads to your audience feeling alienated and ignored.
If your audience is suddenly huge, channel anxiety into expressing your surprise and thrill. We all love to be part of an artist’s unexpected success; acknowledging the overcrowded room invites the audience to be excited rather than put out about the tight quarters. Admitting you expected a smaller group and asking for their indulgence as you adapt puts the audience on your side.
By now, you might have figured out the consistent theme in all the above challenges isn’t about specific solutions, but a specific attitude.
Adapt, adapt, adapt.
Remember that lane-changing car mentioned above? Expand on that. Giving a presentation is like driving a car, riding a bike, or walking down the street. Only assholes stride through a crowd on a speedy and straight line. The rest of us take a step left or right, cant our shoulders to avoid bumping others, and continue on to our destination while carrying on a conversation with the person beside us. We smile when a person heading the opposite direction misreads our movement, and we end up looking like we’re dancing on the sidewalk. And if we’re stuck in a traffic jam? Well, we can cuss out all the other drivers who are in the same situation, or we can sing along to the radio.
Them’s the breaks, and them’s the options.
Take it from someone who’s been there. Your tech, your audience, your circumstances, and even your presentation will matter only if you bring along the right attitude.
Fortunately, that’s the one part of your presentation completely yours to control.