Visited by Captain Chaos? Resistance is futile

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Dealing with the Unexpected? Go with the flow

By Peter Watts

Shit happens.

Two little words that while vaguely profane, sum up most of the misfortunes that befall and befuddle presenters.

I don’t normally advocate dwelling on the nature of what can go wrong, but for the purposes of this post, it would be helpful.

  • The audience could be scarily bigger or depressingly smaller than expected
  • The venue could have a sub-optimal or non-negotiable room layout
  • The main target for your presentation could walk in 15 minutes late or have to leave 15 minutes early
  • And don’t even get me started on what can go wrong with the technology!

Thoroughly plan and prepare your presentation by all means. It’s essential. Only a fool walks onto a stage unprepared. At the same time though, when the circumstances around you unexpectedly change and Captain Chaos flies across the room, be ready to embrace your own inner Captain Chaos and improvise like a pro.

Planning and preparation is a life-jacket not a strait-jacket. When your presentation has to make an emergency landing on water, that life-jacket of preparation acts purely as a buoyancy aid to keep you afloat. You then have a choice; lamely bob up and down in the tide or use the power of free will to pick a new direction in which to paddle.

Stay loose and start paddling and you’ll survive.

One of the best presentations I ever had the privilege to witness was from the Chief Operating Officer of a major multinational brand. Known for his clinically organised and analytically thorough presentations, precision and planning were his watchwords.  And then one day, a minute into a critical presentation, the bulb in the projector popped.

Hotel staff scurried in every direction, but a replacement bulb was nowhere to hand.

The presenter looked at the audience and uttered the same opening words that I used to open this blog. He then delivered one of the best presentations I have ever heard.

This incredibly senior, and incredibly organised gentleman had not been thrown off balance by Captain Chaos, but instead had cheerfully embraced him.

Control-freakery is a form of perfectionism, and perfectionism doesn’t belong in the realm of the presenter. Audiences are human and they respond to human and as we all know, humans are seldom perfect.

When Captain Chaos strikes, it’s your heaven-sent opportunity to shine.

Shit happens. Stay loose. Set a direction and start paddling.

The audience will love you for it.

The presentation came out of nowhere. What to do?

by Peter Watts

Presentations can strike without notice. A colleague gets hit by ill health and you get hit by their presentation.

How to avoid that deer-in-the-headlights moment?

The key to success is your ability to rapidly master your colleague’s presentation so that it works for you as smoothly as it was about to work for them. Get the content right, and all else will follow.

Organize the slides to work for you

The biggest mistake you could make would be attempting to deliver your colleagues’ PowerPoints unmodified. That was their presentation. It made sense to them. You need something that makes sense for you.

First make a copy of the slides. You’re about to perform high-speed field surgery and you’ll cut deeper if you know a backup is saved elsewhere.

Find out about the audience. What do they need to know, and where does that intersect with what you know. Edit the slide deck to focus in on those happy intersections.

If there are any essential slides that you’re unsure about, have a colleague talk you through the salient points and help you put them into a context.

Where there are slides you don’t understand but that aren’t connected to the main purpose, delete them. Make that slide deck as compact as possible.

Similarly, delete any superfluous bullet-points that might be hanging around. Make your  slides as clean as possible to minimise the chance of audience questions being prompted by stray bullets.

Eliminate anything that might leave you staring at the screen mumbling “Well, I think that point is self-explanatory”. No-one is fooled. You are clueless in public. Zap any such slides or slide content before you present.

Structure

Put the content you are least confident of into the least memorable part of the presentation: the middle. Place strong content at the beginning and end of the presentation. Don’t worry if your colleague’s 90 minute presentation is now your 30 minute one. Brevity is an art form.

When it comes to any content that you are not comfortable with however, do keep challenging yourself: “Does this really have to be in the presentation?” If in doubt, then either delete, or remember the option of “Hide Slide”.

Questions

Before starting the presentation, plan for how to handle questions. It’s quite possible that the person you are replacing had knowledge of specialist topics that you don’t, and that there might be audience questions about those topics.

Remember as a first-base, that you are stepping in at short notice. Without you, there would be no presentation, and even though you can’t actually see it, the super-hero cape is already fluttering from your shoulders. Being unable answer specialist questions about someone else’s specialism is absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about.

Perhaps subject matter experts are available who while not wishing to present, would be happy to take questions for you.

If such an individual isn’t available, never be tempted to bluff your answers. Resolve that for any questions you can’t answer, you will make a note of them and get back to the audience members after the presentation.

This approach upholds your credibility and ensures people get the right answers. It also creates a reason for you or a colleague to talk to the audience beyond the presentation and thereby further develop the relationship.

What experiences of impromptu presentations have you had, or are maybe having?

What are your tips for turning unexpected pitch into richly deserved triumph?

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