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Calling an audible: What to do when other speakers steal your thunder

What would you do if the presentation content you prepared suddenly became inappropriate or irrelevant minutes before you’re scheduled to speak?

5 min read



What would you do if the presentation content you prepared suddenly became inappropriate or irrelevant minutes before you’re scheduled to speak? That’s exactly what happened to Brad L., a project manager and civil engineer:

I recently presented at a daylong engineering conference. I prepared and knew the material well enough to present in my sleep. However, as I listened to each of the speakers preceding me, I became increasingly anxious as I realized that 75% of my presentation was being covered by others. I knew my material would simply be a repeat and, at best, would be a bore…”

flickr user ImagineCup

Anyone who presents regularly has probably faced a similar scenario. It can happen for any number of reasons:

  • Other speakers “steal your thunder” (as Brad experienced)
  • You find out new information that changes the basis of your presentation
  • You realize the audience has a different level of knowledge about your topic than you expected
  • Sessions run late and your speaking time is cut in half

The result? You are faced with having to adjust your content at the last minute. In football this is known as “calling an audible.”

What not to do when facing the unexpected: Panic

As we all know, the best-laid plans sometimes go awry! No matter how much time you spend crafting your content and rehearsing, a time will come when you have to change your game plan at the line of scrimmage. It happened to film director Michael Bay when he experienced a technology glitch during a presentation at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. Unfortunately, he became so flustered and unable to adjust in the moment that he walked off stage.

The lesson to take away from this challenging moment is to prepare for the unexpected. After all, your reputation and credibility are on the line.

6 strategies to prepare you for calling an audible

1. Know your audience

This is a topic I’ve written about before, because it’s essential to the success of any presentation. In a situation where you must change your content at the last minute, knowing your listeners can make all the difference. When you’re aware of the makeup of the audience, their level of knowledge and interest in your topic, you’ll avoid preparing content that’s yesterday’s news.

Learn more about understanding your audience: “Finding Common Ground With Your Audience.”

2. Get to know the agenda and other speakers

If you are concerned about possible duplicate content, start by reviewing the conference or meeting agenda. If there are several speakers talking on the same subject, there are options. One is to ask the conference planner to clarify the topic so you better understand the description associated with your presentation. If yours is a panel presentation, reach out to the other speakers. This is a step many speakers don’t consider taking, yet being proactive can avoid content overlap and the stress of last-minute changes.

Learn more: “Know Your Presentation Role: Deliver on Expectations”

3. Focus on your unique perspective

When crafting your message, develop what TED calls an “idea worth spreading.” Your unique perspective can be the differentiator between you and other speakers talking about similar topics. Your spin on things is often what makes your idea memorable.

Learn more: “TEDx Secrets to Success for Every Speaker”

4. Prepare “contingency” content

If you’re not able to learn much about the content of other presentations, having contingency content to draw on can be your saving grace. Prepare an extra personal story, anecdote or shared experience that you can draw from if you need to change things up at the last minute.

Learn more: “Book Review: The HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations”

5. Engage throughout the event

Listening to everything that takes place during the event can be a boon for dealing with the unexpected. Brad used this strategy when he was forced to call an audible due to duplicate content. Because he had paid careful attention to the other speakers, he was able to transform his talk into a cohesive summary of the day’s material.

6. Ask to lead off

One simple way to avoid the issue of duplicate content is to ask to be the lead speaker rather than bringing up the rear. This position also gives you the opportunity to set the tone for the day as well as the “bar” for other speakers.

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 and

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