Listen, it's going to happen. At some point while delivering a presentation, you're going to bomb. A joke you crack is going to turn the audience against you. A case study you use somehow manages to offend a senior executive in the crowd — the one person that everyone looks to for cues as to how to receive your message.
It happens to the best of us. What will distinguish you as a professional, well-prepared speaker isn't whether or not you bomb once in a while, but how you handle it.
The best approach is, of course, to try to avoid bombing in the first place! To do this, know your audience as well as you can before you walk through the door. Insist on a pre-event call with your client weeks (or months) before the event and nail down who'll be in the audience — age groups, specific jobs, gender split, do they like to laugh or are they a more conservative group? (I'm working on a more detailed course which will include my complete pre-event call checklist.) Most speakers who lose the audience do so because they don't have a good sense of who will be in the room. (Early on in my speaking career, I gave a speech to a group of University administrators. I hadn't done a pre-event call and assumed I was speaking to University faculty. About two-thirds of them literally walked out about ten minutes into my presentation. I don't blame them.)
But no matter how well you prepare, it's still going to happen once in a while.
Here are two examples of when it's happened to me and how I handled it. (You'll notice that both happened because I hadn't been thorough in my pre-event research.)
The Mission Mistake
I'd been giving a presentation a few years ago to the leadership and employees of a national insurance company. The presentation was about how to lead, inspire, and retain Gen-Y workers.
For the first 45 minutes, everything was going great. They were laughing at the funny bits, and taking notes at the smart bits. I was up on a huge show stage in a Casino lounge and I felt like I was on fire!
Then, I cracked a joke about how mission statements were completely irrelevant to Gen-Y and should be abolished — a joke I'd used dozens of times prior with great results.
Dead silence. No, wait... more than silence — a blisteringly frosty wave iced over the room. Clearly, I'd struck a nerve and it was a painful one.
There are really only two ways to handle this: Try to manoeuvre around it and get to the next topic as quickly as you can, or address the cold snap head-on. I usually opt for the latter, if for no other reason that the audience won't expect you to dive head-first into the awkwardness (much of comedy comes simply from the unexpected).
I paused for a moment, put a comically puzzled look on my face, and started to VERY SLOWLY scan the faces of the people in the room from one side to the other. This scan lasted a full five seconds and I tried to make my face look like I was desperately trying to figure out some very difficult riddle. This, in itself, produced some chuckles. When I reached the end, I then turned back to my notebook computer (which was, as always, up on the lectern with me) and scanned my finger across each line of text while pretending to silently mouth words — as if I was trying to find the line that caused the discomfort. More chuckles. Then I looked up, paused again, and said "Is that just me or did they just turn the air conditioner on in here?" Most of the audience was laughing by now.
Remember that poking fun at yourself is one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal as a professional speaker. Here, my message was "Holy crap, what the hell did I just say? I'd better fix this quick!" But by doing it so transparently and deliberately, the audience was disarmed and no longer felt uncomfortable.
Once I felt I had them on "my side," I simply asked "What just happened there?" About handful of people shouted up that their company had JUST gone through a lengthy process (and one most employees felt was a waste of time) to develop a new mission statement. Ouch.
There wasn't much I could do at this point except to use my fall-back line in cases like this, an exaggerated: "Okay! Next slide!" Nearly the whole audience was laughing by now.
Afterwards, the CEO of the organization — who had personally spearheaded the whole mission statement project in the first place — complimented me on how I handled what could have been a disastrous situation. He then spent about ten minutes defending the mission statement project. I was polite, but held my own. I got three more spin-off gigs from that presentation at the direct recommendation of that CEO.
- It's not about how you bomb, it's about how you handle it.
- Address uncomfortable feelings head-on. It will pleasantly surprise your audience.
The Candy Catastrophe
I'm a little embarrassed to admit this one happened just a few weeks ago. I was keynoting a private summit of CEOs from some of the largest food and beverage companies in the country. It was a great event, held in Canada's beautiful Muskoka region. I was there to present some research my company, engageQ digital, had done around how to make a marketing campaign go viral on the Internet.
I thought I'd done my homework. I did two lengthy pre-event calls with the client, asked her to send me the confidential list of attendees and the brands their companies represented. As you can imagine, some of these companies represent hundreds of brands each, but with the help of my research coordinator, I'd tracked down each brand they controlled and made sure that I excised from the slides any case study about a brand within their purview.
One of the case studies I was going to present was about a disastrous campaign Skittles did a couple of years ago. As far as my prep work showed, nobody in the room had any corporate connection to Skittles. The group was a little slow to warm up, but in time I had them reasonably engaged enough to laugh, ask a couple of questions, and scribble a few notes.
As I neared the Skittles case study, I cracked a smart-ass grin and asked them: "Nobody here owns Skittles, right?" There was a pause, then a guy sitting right in front of my position on the stage said, quite loudly, "There sure as hell is!"
O! M! G! I don't usually get so flustered on stage that I start stammering, but I suspect I stumbled my way through the next couple of sentences as my mind raced to figure out a way to get out of it. My mind flashed through scenes of being pulled from the stage by one of those curved canes in cartoons. I blurted out: "Seriously?! But I did my research on you guys!" (This actually drew some laughter, even though it was completely a panic moment for me.)
So, I went back to my ol' reliable "Okay! Next slide!" line. Luckily, I had (and always have, for this exact reason) a backup case study built into the presentation. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, I use the Skittles (or whatever) example, then skip past the backup slides by hitting the "+" key each slide I want to jump. But in this case, I really DID need to use them! So I hit "+" enough times to skip past the Skittles example and land seamlessly on my backup slides (from a completely different industry).
But, as I learned later from a number of the people in the room, they thought it was all a joke! Remember, they weren't seeing it from inside my brain. While I was panicking inside, here's what they saw: The speaker cracked a joke about Skittles not being there and when, of course, they were, he pretended to freak out and move to another slide. End of story. They had no idea it was real!
"I loved that gag about the Skittles slide," one of the executives told me at the reception after. "Thanks," I lied. "That's one of my favourites too."
- If you move quickly enough, your audience might not notice your mistake, even though it seems obvious to you.
- If you're going to be presenting anything that might be controversial or might backfire, have backup slides in place you can jump to quietly.
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