I worked at my local zoo for five years, and I joke that I’ve seen just about every presentation situation you can possibly imagine. Including presentations where I had no voice. Could you survive presentation mishaps?
The summers were the busy season for outreach programs at the zoo as education programs were in high demand for visits to summer camps and library summer reading programs. I was talking to a group of over 100 youth girls at an all-female summer camp in town. I had made it through three of the animals, and I was preparing to take the last of the animals, which was an elderly red-shouldered hawk named Squawker. Being elderly, Squawker tended to sit in her travel box so that she was comfortable, rather than be positioned to take her easily out of the box. Because she was sitting backwards, I had to reach in to get her to step on my hand to get her out. The anticipation was building as the girls anticipated seeing the last animal. Just as I pulled her out, Squawker pooped down my left leg.
You can imagine what happened next…100 girls began screaming at the top of their lungs in my direction. If you don’t know about birds, they don’t have bladders to separate urine from feces and just like the poop on your car, it’s all liquid and mixed.
Squawker was a rather large bird that had pooped down my side, and I could feel the warm, gross liquid running down my leg and into my shoe. As the audience of screaming girls began to quiet down so I could talk, I tried not to vomit at the pooling poop that was now in my shoe. I managed to finish the 10-minute presentation with the elderly Squawker and get her safely back in her box. I closed out the presentation and left my volunteers to tend to picking up while I ran to the bathroom to clean the poop off me. (I have a lot of zoo poop stories.)
- Don’t let the obstacle overtake you – Just like the world has seen Michael Bay flop his presentation because one thing went wrong, don’t let your presentation suffer for it. I always think of Project Runway’s Tim Gun and his motto of “Make it Work”.
- Let it Pass – Obstacles and mishaps are bound to happen. Whatever it is for you, let it happen and quickly move past it. A person’s attention span easily gets distracted by such an event. This incident triggers the fight or flight response in the presenter. Remember you worked hard for this presentation and you prepared well enough to fight through any issue and move past it. You’ll look even more like the expert you are when you can quickly overcome a situation and get back on track.
- Don’t draw attention – Sometimes the obstacles are small enough that the audience doesn’t realize there is even an obstacle. The moment you bring attention to the situation at hand, the audience’s focus goes to the mishap and away from you. Once attuned to the obstacle, the audience will always be looking for the obstacle to reoccur.
- Back in my youth days of toddler dance class, the teachers always stressed to “keep dancing” even if there was a costume malfunction.
- Some situations require you to stop until the situation is fixed, again resume and don’t draw attention to the situation.
- Refocus – In the above story, I nearly vomited several times, and I had to refocus my energy on something other than the poop in my shoe. That’s the only reason I didn’t puke. If you run into a similar issue, you must focus your mind on the information, on the audience, and away from your stomach and the sickness. Just fight through it.
- Distraction – I’ve been sick with no voice giving presentations many times, but I’ve never had a situation where I vomited in front of people. If vomiting is a possibility, please prepare for it by having a receptacle close by and distract the audience if the event happens. Although I have heard of many stories where the presenter vomited, the best solution is to distract the audience by having them visualize something that relates to your topic. It may be a good time to ask a thought provoking question where you give the listeners a few minutes to think it over. One presenter told me his story of having the audience close their eyes to envision a better future, during which he turned his microphone off, ran backstage quickly, and vomited into a cup — no one was the wiser.
- Think Quick – When issues occur, you have to think quick about how to proceed. I usually suggest that you follow your instincts. Take a second to think it through and what options you feel comfortable choosing. You can typically resume your presentation with a brief recap from before the issue and continue like nothing happened.
- Recapture Attention – With audience members having the shortest attention spans ever, you must regain their attention and get the listeners back to focusing. This time is a great place for a callback (audience recite something to you) or a quick joke.
- Reestablish the flow – When issues arise, it interrupts the rhythm you’ve established. Like they say in sports, “shake it off” and find a new rhythm that suits. There is no wrong in having to do this, and nobody is going to fault you for a misshaping. Being capable of overcoming an issue with class and grace will make you look even stronger.
- The Less technology, the lower the margin for error. – My friend’s father said the more features you have, the more that can go wrong. He was discussing features in vehicles like power windows and heated seated, but it applies to presentations too. If you plan a low tech presentation with no slidedeck, you have fewer worries.
It’s happened: Back in high school, I took Irish dance lessons (think River Dance). I was one of three girls asked to be on a local tv spot called “Our Generation,” that spotlighted the goings on and successes of youth in the area. We practiced and prepared the on-camera dance, and an interview followed the performance. All three of us started together and midway through the dance, I had a solo as the eldest dancer among us. I remember being in the front of the “stage,” close to the camera and I messed up my steps. The expression on my face showed the mistake. After the dance had finished, I was quite embarrassed that I screwed up, but more so that I drew attention to the error. Nobody knew my dance steps; nobody would have known that I had messed up if I had kept smiling. However, because my face went from one of success to one of mistake, it was easily noticeable.
To the contrary, I had taken up clogging for four years in grammar school. (I’m sure you can see I was well cultured in the world of dance growing up, but I did and still do love it.) Clogging, unlike Irish dancing, has two metal taps that give a double sound when hitting the floor. For our school talent show, I had danced a completely impromptu dance. I walked on the stage, the music started and my feet just started moving, with no pattern and no two steps were ever replicated. I just danced, and in the end, it was the best performance I had ever given. I remember my mom telling me about others that questioned her “where did she learn that” and my mom telling me about her response, “she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she’s just making it up as she goes.”
During a later clogging routine, I lost the tap part of the shoe. It flew off into the audience, and I just kept dancing like nothing happened.
Similarly, a client of mine had spent weeks preparing for a presentation for a conference. He had practiced and made sure his technology worked seamlessly, and he was all set to go. The day of the presentation, two slides in, the remote control failed, and he had to quietly, but quickly switch to standing behind the podium to press the computer key to advance to slides. Everyone noticed him move from standing in front of the podium to behind it, but he didn’t let it phase him, so it wasn’t an issue. After a few slides, everyone forgot about it, and the presentation went on as planned.
Only practice can ensure that you can work through these situations. You must have confidence in yourself that of no fault of your own, things will happen, and you are a confident speaker to get through it.
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