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How to take charge when a business presentation goes wrong

Top tips from Sudha Mani of Toastmasters International How to take charge when a business presentation goes wrong

When you’re pitching to potential investors or presenting to customers or suppliers, you can find your stress levels rising. This may translate into worrying that your presentation will go horribly wrong.

After today, you may never have this happen again. You’ll be able to handle a challenging situation and turn it into something engaging and productive.

Here are four areas of challenge for the business presenter and how to handle them:

Technical hiccups

If you’ve arrived early and tested everything, any technical hiccup is outside your control. In this situation, I suggest the following:

• Breathe and detach. Breathe in slowly and exhale slowly for about 20 seconds. Allowing the technical person to troubleshoot and solve the issue will also help them to remain calm. Give them space to work.

• Have your presentation printed. Many of you may do this already, but when you make it a habit you have both a handout and a way to continue delivering your speech without the slides.

• Have a gap filler. You can use a ‘teaser game’. Ask the audience a question that relates to the presentation. Allow three seconds to answer and then move on with a few others. This can loosen people up and make them think.

• Own imperfections. Research has shown that when you own your imperfection, people like you more. They have more empathy for you when things genuinely go wrong. Remember, people like people who are authentic.

A challenging audience

As presenters, we must be able to handle the room. With a challenging audience, we can take back control by reframing the scenario in our favour. The reframing technique is used by many neuro linguistic programming (NLP) practitioners.

• The Smartphone enthusiasts. Use the following strategies with these diehard social media enthusiasts:

  1. Create a hashtag for your event. Ask the enthusiasts to promote it, along with sharing the summary of the presentation and learnings, before after and during the break.

  2. Explicit instructions. If your message is critical and you don’t want the audience to be distracted, provide an explicit instruction that all mobiles phones are put on silent mode or switched off during the presentation.

• The introvert audience. They are silent and there’s very little interaction.

  1. Ask them easy questions, which they can answer instinctively.

  2. Encourage them when they respond to you.

  3. With a small meeting, ask these questions using first names and ask everyone to participate.

• The interrupter. We have all experienced individuals who interrupt you, correct you, heckle and grab all the attention.

  1. Hear them out. Politely take control back when the individual is pausing. Thank them for contributing and invite them on stage to pose their question for all the audience to hear. I did this once to a person known to interrupt often. It scared him and he didn’t open his mouth again.

  2. No eye contact. Don’t make eye contact with the interrupter. Only make eye contact when you’re giving them a cue to speak at appropriate times.

The disruptor

You may have experienced disruptors, particularly in business meetings. They are passive aggressive or ask inappropriate questions. They may do this to show what they know or that they don’t trust you or your business proposal.

Handle these people very carefully, especially if they’re one of the decision makers or are individuals with authority who may make or break a deal. The following strategies may help you to handle this:

  1. Listen to the person and then thank them. Let them know the subject can be revisited at the end of the meeting when there’ll be more time.

  2. Cut them off. When their turn comes, give them a minute and a half. Then politely cut them off by saying something like: “You seem to have quite strong views on this subject, can we take it outside this meeting as we’re running out of time? Hope that is okay with you.”

You go blank

Despite preparation, you might still have a moment when your mind goes blank and you can’t think what comes next.

• Keep calm. Look down for a few seconds and look up. Smile randomly at your audience members. Smiling is contagious and they’ll smile back. If you’re on video, look directly at the lens so when people view the big screen they’ll know you’re smiling at them.

• Pause and breathe. When you pause, you create anticipation. Silence always gets attention.

• Sip your water. Always have a small water bottle with you during the presentation. It will be useful if the organiser forgets to provide one. Sipping helps relax your throat in times of stress and will buy you a few seconds when needed.

• Refer to your notes, so that you can recollect your thoughts to continue.

Questions & answers

Two things often happen in a Q&A session:

• A silent audience. You may not get questions from the audience immediately. Give a relevant query or two to the organiser in advance and ask them to kick off the session.

• Objections. Answer the objections - these often trigger others to ask a relevant question.

Never give the control to the audience. You are the expert facilitator, so be sure to take the power back smoothly and seamlessly if someone attempts to highjack the Q&A.

Before you start, ask the organiser to indicate when you have five minutes left. At the signal, take a couple minutes to answer the final question, giving you three minutes to summarise and reiterate your call to action.

Even for the most polished business presenter, it’s possible for presentations to go wrong.

The test of your skill is to handle the glitch whatever that might be. If you use these tips, my prediction is that your next pitch or presentation will go well and, should you need to, you’ll be able to take back control or smooth over an issue so no one notices.

Sudha Mani is from Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs.

There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. Read more like this

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