10 Ways to Recover from Presentation Disaster

By Julie M. Hansen

Despite all your best efforts, the ugly truth is that if you do enough presentations, at some point, something will go wrong. Your presentation material will malfunction or disappear. Projectors will refuse to communicate with your laptop. Your demo will freeze. Vital team members will miss a flight. The way in which you handle unforeseen circumstances or mistakes can make or break your presentation.

Without a game plan it’s easy to panic and lose focus when things go south. The following tips can help you handle any challenge that comes your way.

Staying cool under pressure

You’re standing in front of an audience and suddenly some unanticipated event throws all your careful plans out the window. The most important thing you must do is remain calm. Keeping your composure helps you manage the situation and keeps you prospect calm as well. If you suddenly look like you’ve just witnessed a crime, your prospect will be understandably alarmed as well. Here are some ways to avoid a meltdown:

  • Pause. Most of the time your audience doesn’t notice the problem or it’s quickly resolved, so give yourself a moment to collect yourself. What seems like an eternity of silence to you is a fraction to your audience.

  • Breathe. When you get anxious, resist the urge of your body tightening and constricting. Staying loose and taking deep breaths relaxes you and sends needed oxygen to your brain so you can think more clearly.

  • Keep perspective. Unless the mysteries of the universe are on those slides, most presentation problems have an acceptable workaround. It may not be ideal, but it won’t be a total loss either.

  • Raise your expectations. Your mind-set and expectations can impact your results. If you expect this presentation to be a disaster, it will. Expect to have a successful presentation regardless of the obstacles, and you’re much more likely to find a way to pull it off.

Using it, losing it, or laughing at it

So you’ve skipped an entire section of your presentation, you can’t pull up a video, or the projector up and died. Put it through the use-it-lose-it-or-laugh-at-it test. This handy rule of improvisation can help you determine which, if any, action to take to get you back on track.

  • Use it. Many mistakes are recyclable. Flub a line? Forget a name? Use it as an ongoing joke that your audience is in on or see where the moment takes you. Spontaneity often spices things up and adds for some interesting impromptu moments and opportunities.

    For example, “You know what? I just jumped ahead because I was so excited to show you what this capability means for your company. I’ll leave it up to you guys. Would you like to see how this works?”

  • Lose it. If the problem or mistake doesn’t affect the basic premise of your presentation and your audience is none the wiser, just drop it. If they notice, apologize once and quickly move on. You don’t need to draw undue attention to it.

  • Laugh at it. If there’s no hiding the problem (you forgot your deck, your laptop, or your mind), laugh at it. Prospects typically respond positively to a salesperson who can admit making a mistake and carry on with good humor. Besides, if your deck is so important that you can’t go on without it, it’s time to rethink your presentation.

Enlisting help

No one expects you to be superman — or woman. Asking for help is okay if the problem is out of your control. When the problem is technology related, ask your prospect if an IT person is available who can help. If yes, then you have two options:

  • Delay the start. If you recognize the problem before you begin, ask your audience members if they can use 15 minutes to take phone calls or check email before you start. If that doesn’t work, go to the next option.

  • Carry on sans slides. While waiting for assistance to arrive, forge ahead with your presentation as if computers had yet to be invented. Resist saying “I had a really awesome slide I would be showing you here … “

When help arrives, let the person work on it in the background while you continue delivering your presentation until she gives you the thumbs up that the problem is resolved. Quickly and professionally dive in without giving more attention to the delay.

Blocking the projector

Attempting to resolve the technology issue yourself? Block the projector by either unplugging it or placing something in front of the light source — you don’t want your audience to see what’s behind the curtains. Half the audience doesn’t want to watch you try and fix it, and the other half will be only too happy to give you their opinion. Avoid both and keep the screen black.

Allow no more than two to three minutes to identify the problem; otherwise you’ll lose your audience before you even begin. After that time, enlist help, take a break, or use one of the other strategies in this chapter to keep your prospect engaged while you fix the problem.

Taking a break

Depending on where your gaffe occurs, giving your audience a break may be natural. Doing so allows you some breathing room to focus on finding a solution without a room full of people staring at you. Set the break for no more than 15 minutes to avoid people getting too involved in any particular task. Be very clear on the time you plan to reconvene.

Having handouts

Prepare handouts of key slides in advance so that when you refer to a graph, diagram, or chart that you’re unable to show, your prospect has something to review. Avoid handing out copies of your entire presentation; otherwise your audience will be reading instead of focusing on what you’re saying.

Save your slides as a PDF so if your PowerPoint or slide program fails, you can simply show your PDF on the screen.

Engaging with your audience

Use this time as an opportunity to talk to your audience members. Get their thoughts on the topics covered so far, ask them questions about their experience, or start a round-robin discussion. Doing so may actually prove more valuable than any slides you were going to show.

Telling a story

Telling a story — especially a personal one — is a great way to both buy time and establish a connection with your audience. As you may be understandably rattled, make sure that your story is well rehearsed and polished and that you’re confident with the details — especially the ending — before you launch into it.

Doing an activity

Take the pressure off yourself by giving your audience an activity to do while you’re trying to recover. Having an activity requires a little improvisation because it depends on where you are within your presentation. If you are

  • Near the beginning: Ask your audience to list topics that they want to see discussed or the major challenges they’re experiencing.

  • Near the end: Ask your audience to write down the top three things they’ve gotten out of your presentation so far or any questions they may still have.

Whiteboarding your presentation

People have been selling for thousands of years without PowerPoint or computers. That may seem a small comfort when your technology goes kerplunk, but keeping it in mind can help you maintain perspective. Most companies have whiteboards and markers available. Using them is the simplest stand-in for a slide deck if your technology fails. In fact, research shows that presenting via whiteboards even offers some significant advantages over traditional PowerPoint presentations in terms of recall and interaction.