My next prepared line was going to be something that acknowledged people's fear of public speaking. Instead I quickly pulled out my contingency line of "Not bad!" with an appreciative nod.
Small crisis averted!
Often people's fear of public speaking involves, among others, things going wrong that they won't know how to handle. For example:
- Opening joke falls flat
- Interruptions from audience members
- PowerPoint being unavailable
- Time being cut short
These are just a few of the myriad of disasters that could befall you! What is a presenter to do?
Obviously you can't anticipate every possible situation so my suggestion is to either focus on the one or two that make you most nervous (or the one or two that you think are most likely to occur) and make a contingency plan for those.
Let's tackle possible solutions to the problems I've mentioned above.
Opening joke falls flat
Don't blame the audience and don't push the issue. It's not the end of the world. Depending on your comfort level sometimes a bit of self-deprecating humor works well to salvage the situation: "Strange. When I was rehearsing my dog really loved that one." A second joke can be risky. If you think you've misread the tenor of the room, simply move on.
Interruptions from audience members
Handling this one can be tricky. I'm not going to touch on hecklers here because in most situations the person interrupting is simply someone who needs to ask their question NOW. Whether the question is asked to provide clarity or assert dominance is irrelevant. Answer the question only if it's immediately on-topic. If you're going to cover the material later in the presentation simply say so. (You could also give a quick answer and say you'll cover it in more depth in a few minutes.) If the question is not germane, feel free to point that out by saying, "I'm not going to be covering that in this presentation but if you'd like to speak afterwards I'd be happy to address it." Regardless of who is interrupting or why, the important thing is to deal with it quickly and get back on track. You've rehearsed, right? You should therefore be able to jump back into the flow.
Your PowerPoint being unavailable
Is your presentation is so reliant on PowerPoint that you cannot possibly get your message across without it? If so, print the slides for your audience. If your audience is more than a dozen people you might want to think about having larger static versions printed and ready to be placed on an easel at the front of the room.
Your time being cut short
You've rehearsed your presentation until you know the ins and outs of it. You know exactly what points you want to make and when. Perfect. But now, due to the meeting running long, instead of 20 minutes you have 5 minutes to present. As a contingency ahead of time, think about what is the one most important point you want to make. Now, what information directly supports that? There's your 5 minutes. To make things go even smoother, keep a mental or written note of which slides you'd show in a shortened presentation.
You can't prepare for everything that could go wrong but, when issues do occur, handling them with aplomb will make you appear polished and professional. Just having the contingencies "in your back pocket" will also help to calm your nerves.