How to Avoid the Presenter’s Nightmare Scenario

Extreme close-up of frightened eyes.

It was my first business travel in my new job. I was fresh out of grad school, coming off a long holiday weekend and an early flight to a day-long meeting in DC. The conference room was full of our customers, our competitors, and my manager. It was my turn to present my latest analysis.

And the slides were wrong.

I don’t mean that there were a couple numbers off. I mean that the slides were completely wrong. Somehow my colleague had sent a set of old slides that predated my current analysis. Everything in them was incorrect. And because of company restrictions, I couldn’t carry back-up slides with me.

So there I was, standing at the front of a room full of expectant faces, with absolutely no visuals. I hadn’t seen my proper slides in four days, thanks to the holiday. I had nothing to go on but my memory.

My manager sat in the back, his face hidden in his hands.

My stomach was doing flips, but I forced a smile and introduced myself. I apologized for the mix-up with the slides, explained the problem my analysis tackled, gave an overview of my current results, and promised to send an updated slide deck once we were back in the office. I even fielded a few questions.

Once finished, I headed back to my seat, and my manager leaned over. “That went surprisingly well, considering,” he whispered.

It’s true. I’d faced an absolute nightmare scenario of a presentation and gotten out okay. How?

Because I knew my story. My slides were designed to tell a specific story about my project. They laid out the motivation, method, and results in a clear, concise way. And I was familiar enough with the message behind the slides that I didn’t need those visuals to tell someone the most important things they needed to know.

I knew my message and I had the story’s beats. Even without seeing my slides in days, I had everything I truly needed.

Having faced that moment of terror successfully, I’ve never feared a presentation since. I’ve had my share of bumps, of course, but I come in with the tools I need to weather them. Here are a few of my recommendations:

  • Come early and test your technology immediately. No matter what you’ve been told to expect (“Yes, the computer has an HDMI input”), be ready to troubleshoot. Bring the dongles for your laptop. Bring a USB drive with a copy of your slides. Make sure you’ve got a copy of your slides in the cloud. With all three of those options in your pocket, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be left without slides you can access.
  • Know your story and your message. I like to think of my message as the single-tweet version of my presentation. What are the 1-2 sentences I want my audience to walk away with? Once you know your message, you can pick the key story beats necessary to explain and support that message. Your presentation can have all kinds of flash and data on top of that skeleton, but that basic structure is all you truly need.
  • Don’t rely on presenter mode. It’s so very tempting to use the notes window in presenter mode to give yourself a script to follow. And you get to see what slide is next! Presenter mode is a fantastic tool, but you can’t always use it. Sometimes the tech set-up can only show you what’s directly on the screen. Be prepared to tell your story without those notes.
  • Be ready to improv. Did your laser pointer’s battery run out? Maybe the room is so bright that your slide’s colors aren’t visible? Make sure you can describe where your viewers should look on your graph. And if they can’t see the data for themselves, be ready to tell them what it says. Nothing ever goes perfectly in a presentation. But if you know your material and you’re willing to roll with it, you can still give a great talk.
  • Apologize but don’t dwell on it. When things go wrong, acknowledge it. You can even make a joke — that helped when wind disrupted a wedding ceremony I was conducting for a friend. But don’t apologize over and over. Don’t bring up the issue — whether it was or wasn’t in your control — more than once. Acknowledge, apologize, move on. Make sure your audience walks away with your message — not the message that your talk went wrong.

With some preparation and a little luck, you’ll never experience the presentation nightmare scenario that I did. Everyone runs into bumps now and again, but if you come armed with your message and story, a little humor, and some back-up tech, you can weather any presentation’s storm.

So what’s your nightmare scenario for a presentation, and what do you do to avoid it?

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(Image credit: S. Daboul)

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