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by Kathy Reiffenstein

During a recent speech by President Obama at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit the presidential seal fell off the podium. Most likely this is something that the president’s staff and the event organizers would like to forget. But the episode is worth highlighting because it so clearly illustrates one of the things so many presenters fear…disruptive presentation surprises.
And although most of us won’t have to worry about misbehaving presidential seals, we will have to worry about power failures, slide projector malfunctions, microphone feedback, tripping on wires and more.

Shock, impatience, blaming others, being thrown off course are all normal human reactions when something goes wrong.

But as a presenter, you don’t have the luxury of showing any of those reactions.
Your audience may feel similarly or they may not know what to feel. In either case, they are looking to you to guide them through the situation. If you overreact and seem upset or flustered, your audience will pick that up and assume the “surprise” is a big deal.

Given that your primary objective in the presentation is to ensure a quality experience for your audience, how do your turn those “surprises” into just an inconvenient, perhaps even humorous, blip?
Certainly your first concern is to put the audience at ease. Take a look at how President Obama handled the situation I referenced at the beginning.

He took a moment to gather his own thoughts as he said, “oh goodness” and then, through humor, put everyone at ease by saying, “That’s all right. All of you know who I am.” The audience laughed and everything was fine. Contrast this with a different scenario: what if he had appeared upset and called for someone to come and re-affix the seal or pick it up? The flow of his speech would have been quite disrupted and the audience would have been aware of the president’s annoyance which, in turn, would have made them uncomfortable.
Humor is an excellent way to diffuse any unexpected snafus, as long as you’re comfortable saying something amusing. But what if you’re not? Here are some other suggestions:
1. Use a factual statement to allay any concerns the audience might be feeling. For example, “Just hang in there for a minute and we’ll be back on track.” 

2. Make lemonade out of lemons. “We’ve been given an unexpected opportunity for some dialogue. Turn to the person next to you and answer this question.” [something relevant to your presentation]

3. If the disruption looks like it will last more than 5 or so minutes or if it will require help from other people [like the A/V crew], consider giving the audience an unplanned break. You could combine this with the point above and ask them to discuss something relevant to your presentation while on break.
Bottom line take-away: don’t make a big deal of any disruptive surprises and focus on making your audience comfortable that you’re not flustered and confident that you will still deliver value.

What other techniques have you used or seen used when there are unexpected presentation surprises?


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