Have you ever had an anxiety dream during the run-up to a high-stakes business presentation? You’re standing, center stage, sweating under hot lights while hundreds of pairs of eyes are looking right through you. The screen projecting your slides suddenly goes dark. You freeze.
What if you couldn’t wake up from this dream because it’s your reality? What would you do? How would you handle a real-life technology nightmare during a presentation?
Instead of awkwardly fumbling for a solution or storming off stage (like director Michael Bay did during his presentation at the Samsung Consumer Electronics Show in 2014), you should be prepared with strategies for staying calm and putting your audience at ease.
What could possibly go wrong?
How does the Robert Burns quote go? “The best laid plans…” Between broken clickers, disappearing slides, Wi-Fi connectivity issues and teleprompter snafus, it’s not hard to imagine the tech failures that can catch us off guard when we’re presenting. But after we imagine these problems, the next step is to come up with a Plan B.
For common technical issues, there are a few go-to workarounds that you will want to keep in mind:
- For a broken clicker, advance slides using the arrow keys on your keyboard. Here you will want to stay within close proximity of your keyboard, rather than pacing back and forth across the stage every time you need to advance a slide. Being tethered to the podium, however, can throw off your cadence and make you feel limited if you’re used to moving around the whole stage. Still, you can make it work, especially if you practice.
- When unable to advance your own slides on stage, use a “pickle.” A “pickle” occurs when a speaker signals to the technician in back to advance the slides for the speaker. Yes, this causes a slight delay, so be aware of how you time your delivery.
- If your slides disappear, tell the audience you’ll send your slides via email or a SlideShare link after the talk. Forge ahead. This is also a good tip for virtual presentations and webinars where users may lose their display for any number of reasons.
- To avoid Wi-Fi or other connectivity issues, connect using the hotspot on your phone. Depending on your location, the signal from cell towers may be more reliable than WiFi. This is especially important when using video, which takes up more bandwidth than a standard PowerPoint presentation.
- For a troubled teleprompter, have a paper copy of your speech or notes for your presentation. Also, remember that your presentation’s impact is all about intention, not precision. Whether you use the Teleprompter or paper copy, rather than reading your talk word-for-word and focusing on getting every word just right, relax, smile, trust that you have this and connect with your audience -- talk about a Plan B!
The above technical failures are easy enough to prepare for, but you can’t prepare for every contingency ahead of time. When an issue arises moments before you’re about to step on stage, it can throw even the most well-rehearsed speakers.
Mindset strategies for dealing with tech failures
I recently spoke at a conference where technology became an issue. During both the tech rehearsal the night before and the final check in the morning, everything was working well. However, when the first person stepped out on stage to speak, his slides would not advance.
Fortunately, Bob and each of the other seven speakers responded like true professionals. Each was able to keep a bold face and forge ahead because they followed the mindset strategies below. These will also help you be prepared for your next high-stakes presentation.
First and foremost, trust yourself. Each one of the speakers at the conference took a few moments to figure out how to step up to the plate during this slightly tense moment backstage. My introductory lines were dependent on the visual provided by my first slide, for instance. But I trusted myself, kept my cool, and pivoted to my Plan B: coming up with language on the spot to describe my visual instead of showing it.
Trust the tech crew. Many professional events have production crews overseeing the audio and video.
“When you have a full tech crew the worst thing you, as the speaker, can do is try to solve the problem,” says Evan Carroll, professional speaker and event producer at Attended Events. “Take a beat and let the tech crew do what they do best. Guaranteed they are focused on the snafu and channeling all of their know-how into a fix or workaround.”
As the speaker, you can do them a favor by stalling to give them a moment to fix the issue. Follow Steve Jobs’ lead here. Jobs masterfully dealt with a broken clicker during the Macworld Conference in 2007. First, he told a joke to put the audience at ease. Then he told a charming story about his high school antics with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Humor and charm will get you get you out of many awkward situations with style.
Finally, trust your audience. Remember your audience is on your side. The people sitting there have chosen to listen to your presentation when they could have spent an hour networking or unwinding in their hotel room. In other words, these folks are invested in your success. They see you as an expert and a leader, so you are in the perfect position to lead them through this nonideal moment you’re all sharing.
“The bottom line: maintain your composure on-stage and off,” says Carroll. “Remain present with the audience (they want you to succeed) and calm with the crew (they want you to succeed, too)!”
2. Practice, practice, practice
This strategy is closely related to the first strategy. When you’re prepared, you’ll have less anxiety and feel freer to improvise. You can even practice your Plan B for common tech failures. This is reportedly the secret to, again, Steve Jobs appearing so natural on stage. He meticulously prepared -- right down to anecdotes to smooth over tech failures.
Carroll also recommends practicing your talk with the slides controlled by someone else, either via pickle or having a colleague take other cues from you. “This will help you grow comfortable with how to let the person advancing the slides know they need to advance without saying the dreaded ‘next slide please’ phrase.”
With the confidence to own the spotlight, you will have the clarity to trust your own instincts and your audience will follow your lead.
3. Don’t allow the technology to be the talk
Finally, you can avoid a tech failure derailing your presentation by keeping tech in its proper place -- as an enhancement, not a crutch.
One globetrotting client of mine had a presentation that was heavily dependent on a video clip. Realizing he couldn’t count on the video always being viewable, he asked if he needed to develop a different talk as his Plan B. I suggested rather than developing a different talk, he try positioning the current talk without the video. This way, when he could show the video, his audience’s experience was enhanced. But if he couldn’t show it, nothing of substance was lost.
Technology issues can create headaches during important presentations. But with strategies at the ready for working around common tech issues and the right mindset, any speaker can become a master at handling on-stage tech trouble.
Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.