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4 Tips to Prepare for the Worse Presentation of Your Life

Originally published on Tough Nickel.


You only get one chance to make a first impression, and when it’s a live event in front of a large crowd, everything must go right — except when it doesn’t. Last year started with Warren Beatty reading the wrong Best Picture winner at the Oscars and ended with Apple’s Craig Federighi being locked out of his iPhone while introducing Face ID. Both flubs received a lot of attention in the media and on the internet.

The No. 1 risk for all live events is that they are, well, live. You have one chance to execute, and any number of problems can arise. Working in the event space, we have the privilege of seeing and supporting thousands of presentations every year. Some are memorable because they inspire and entertain; others are remembered for being epic fails.

A lot can go wrong in a live presentation. Speakers get tongue-tied, content doesn’t resonate with an audience, demos fail, and materials are lost in transit. It would be nice if you could just freestyle everything on the fly like Octopus Energy CEO Greg Jackson. No matter how much you prepare, every time you give a live presentation, any number of problems can arise. You have to overcome these hiccups and keep going if you want to make a good impression.

Worst-Case Scenarios of Live Events

Although it looks seamless and easy from the audience, live presentations usually involve a lot of moving parts. Audio equipment like microphones and speakers are used, as are scripts, spotlights, demo screens, and even teleprompters. When you get on stage, each component must work flawlessly.

Imagine getting on stage and having your microphone go out. You may not even notice at first and continue your presentation. You’ll soon be met with audience members yelling, “We can’t hear you!”

Even worse, people were giving presentations across the CES show floor in Las Vegas when the power went out. Can you imagine being mid-presentation in the event of your career at the biggest trade show in your industry and suddenly being plunged into complete darkness?

The most common outcome of any of these situations is a sense of panic. Even if it’s not noticeable to the audience (unless they can see in the dark), there’s going to be some anxiety when switching gears. If only you had asked the production team to put fresh batteries in the microphone and slide advancer before taking the stage. You wish you’d brought a backup generator.

If you’re prepared, though, you’ll be much more comfortable in these moments. It won’t take long to make a mental reset and quick recovery. You may need to take a different path with the material, but the end game remains the same.

Recovering From Setbacks

It’s important to remember that few people are innately comfortable presenting to live audiences. It’s a learned skill for most of us, and it comes with experience. Your favorite comedian or musician was booed off stage plenty of times before becoming the legend you know and love. While a great presentation provides a force multiplier that exposes you to new customers and opportunities, a ruined presentation doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite. You’ll still have new opportunities, just not as many.

Before taking the stage at a live event, keep four strategies in mind to recover from any possible problems that may arise:

1. Embrace the unexpected.

In the live event world, it’s a matter of when, not if, something unexpected happens. You never know when you’ll be presented with a tough question, a surprise guest appearance, a time change, an outage, or something else.

The more you present, the more things will happen to derail your presentation. Embrace that fact, and be ready to roll with the punches, wherever they’re coming from.

2. Plan for the worst.

It’s always better to be prepared with a plan you don’t need than to try to make one up as the need arises. Preparing for every possible misstep will greatly mitigate the risk of a complete presentation meltdown when something does actually happen.

What happens when the audio goes out? Or the presentation won’t skip to the next slide? What if the demo doesn’t work at all? If you have a Plan B, you can transition right into it without the audience even noticing there was a problem in the first place.

3. Reinforce your purpose.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to remember why you’re speaking at all. The presentation, tech, and supporting materials are just tools to help tell your story. You’re the center of the presentation, and remembering that will keep things in perspective during a crisis.

While those tools are nice to have, at the end of the day, you only need to present yourself. It only takes one voice to motivate and inspire people.

4. Maps are better than scripts.

One of the most common causes of a presentation falling apart is the fear of awkward silence. These moments can string together and wreak all kinds of havoc, especially for a novice presenter. It’s especially common when trying to recite a scripted presentation verbatim.

Instead of writing a full script, create a speech map. If the presentation starts going off the rails, you’ll still have talking points that will get you to the end — which route you take can be determined by the audience’s reception.

Everyone has some form of anxiety when performing in front of an audience; I’ve supported enough live events to know that’s true. As hard as it is getting up on stage, stress amplifies quickly when life throws a curveball. In that moment, you’ll find out what you’re really made of. You’re either going to crumble in front of everyone or turn the adversity into an opportunity to shine. The only way to find out is to get out there and try.

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