Surviving Public Speaking Surprises

What do you do when you’re in the middle of a big presentation and your projector dies? If you’re already nervous, one mishap like that can shake your confidence and ruin the rest of your presentation. But advance planning can help you handle equipment failures and other disasters with finesse.

You’re giving the speech of your life. The room is top-notch, PowerPoint is humming and the club is mesmerized. You’re on top of the world and nothing can stop you. Then your projector shutters, spits and quits.

Welcome to the world of snafu survival.
We all want to do great. No techno-glitches, bulb blowouts or loud snoring to spoil the presentation. But praying for perfection can set you up for a fall. One that can rattle your confidence and degrade your message.

Fortunately there is a method to handle even the worst of surprises with aplomb. It’s used by NASA, the airlines, and other organizations that need to adapt instantly to life-threatening change. It’s the art of contingency planning.

Contingency planning is nothing more than having backup plans. When you’re contingency prepped, you perform better. You’re less stressed and better able to think clearly.

If you have backup plans and have rehearsed various solutions in your mind, those so-called surprises become manageable. Confidence blossoms. You take on a more or less crashproof mentality. In other words, there may be problems along with way, but nothing will stop or ruin your performance.

Consider the typical airline crew. By their very nature they expect trouble. This isn’t negative thinking but rather a high form of positive thinking. In training, they simulate and solve a wide range of problems with predetermined methods of resolution, all applied in a calm and orderly manner. You can do the same in front of your audience.

The following three tips are borrowed from actual cockpit resource management techniques. Apply them to your very next presentation and you’ll find you can better handle surprises that threaten your performance. After awhile you will find nothing will stop you.

Have an Escape Route
When the unexpected happens, make sure you have an exit point (other than the back door!) In other words, have a transition thought out in advance that you can smoothly execute.

A preconceived response, exercise or other fast-track resolution thought out ahead of time can make all the difference. The objective is to remain calm regardless of the situation.

When considering your scenarios, commit your ideas to paper. Writing not only fleshes out the idea but puts problems in their proper perspective so that solutions become more visible.

While writing out possible scenarios, be ruthless! Invoke Murphy’s Law to the max. Consider all kinds of possible snafus. The microphone quits, someone suddenly walks out, the projector begins to smoke…you get the picture. In considering your alternates, keep in mind you needn’t have a memorized comeback for every conceivable situation. Instead, the objective is to quickly adapt and smoothly bridge to your backup plan.

Respond with Authority
When blindsided by a surprise, your initial response is critical. All eyes will be on you. If you have never given a thought to that situation, you’ll be taken by surprise… and it may show in your voice, face or general body language. All that’s about to change.

You are captain of the ship and need to guide it with a steady hand. Therefore, at the first sign of a snafu, refrain from giving the slightest impression recovery is beyond your ability. Although you may feel as graceful as a train wreck at the moment, you want to appear cool, composed and in control.

There are two reasons for this “act.” One, your good cheer and command at the lecture sends a nonverbal message to the audience to relax and enjoy the presentation. It puts them on notice that whatever happens, you are in charge. However, even more important is the nonverbal message you send to yourself that you’re oratorically crashproof and in command.

Granted some situations will be tougher than others, but if you breathe deep, relax, and put an easy smile on your face, your physiology will prompt your mind to follow suite. Refrain from giving a surprised look. Instead, relax and roll with the punch. Make your audience think wow instead of whoops.

Keep in mind your body language speaks loudly. Make sure it communicates a relaxed language. Convey calm and you will stay calm through those first critical moments of surprise.

Simulate Your Response
Aviation has long since proven the effectiveness of simulation. The important point however, is the behavioral change and skill enhancement that mental simulation provides. Olympic champions, actors, golf pros, professional speakers, and pilots alike increasingly employ the magic of visual imagery to improve their skills.

The key is clarity. You want to get to the point where your imagery approaches reality. We call it “armchair flying” and you can practice right in the privacy of your own home.

Find a quiet room. Now sit down, close your eyes and imagine your Toastmaster meeting room in minute detail – the more specific the better. See yourself walking up to the front of the room. Imagine feeling agile and energetic as you effortlessly stride to the podium. Your audience is smiling. You warmly smile back. Your posture looks great, and you look great.

As you begin to speak you feel totally calm and in control. It’s like talking to a best friend. It feels good. It feels right. You’re speaking easy… and lovin’ it.

Repeat this and similar visualizations until you’re able to “relive” these experiences with less and less effort. However, keep one thing in mind – strive for positive images. No negative stuff. Remember, the audience is rooting for you. You are the expert, lion-tamer and leader all rolled into one. From here on out, there is nothing you can’t handle…or so you should envision!

If you find yourself considering all the negative “what if’s” with doubt-filled outcomes, refuse to take council in your fear. Instead, have contingency plans in place and take a proactive stance that things will go your way regardless of a burned-out bulb, forgotten script or minor Armageddon.

So relax, enjoy the ride and practice your crashproof scenarios with clarity. You will tend to speak more and fear less as you become a confident and snafu-savvy speaker!

John Tillison is a flight instructor, writer, business speaker and “Hell Trainer”. He is the author of Hell Trains, Planes & Parachutes – Creating Crashproof Excellence in Your Life. John speaks to businesses and organizations on commmunication, leadership and crisis management. His powerful aviation theme has recently garnered front cover status in a major communications magazine as well as other publications worldwide. For more articles, tips and techniques, go to

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