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Presentation Horror Stories

It’s the oldest trick in the presentation book: if you’re nervous, just imagine your audience undressed. Sound advice—but what are you supposed to do when your own pants suddenly come down when you’re in the middle of a presentation in front of hundreds of people? It happened to a colleague of Alex Ramsey, executive coach and president of Dallas-based LodeStar Universal.

As Ramsey tells it, her colleague was lecturing a group of several hundred engineers at a large tech firm when suddenly the elastic waistband on her slacks snapped and her pants fell down around her ankles. So what did she do? “Without missing a beat, in front of 400 raptly attentive eyes,” says Ramsey, “she simply stepped out of the trousers, laid them on a table, and continued speaking.” Fortunately for her, Ramsey adds, “the jacket of the suit was just long enough to cover everything that needed to be covered.”

The presentation that suddenly goes horribly wrong is everyone’s worst fear. While few ever have an experience as awful as Ramsey’s friend, there’s a good chance that at some point that fear will materialize, whether it’s a technological snafu or—as happened to Dr. Alan Weiss—an unexpected problem with the material you’ve prepared.

“I was appearing at the American Press Institute and opened my morning presentation with some work on behaviors in the workplace,” says Dr. Weiss, president of Summit Consulting Group and a member of the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame. “I felt an uneasy shifting in the room, and finally one of the participants said, ‘The guy presenting yesterday covered the same material.’ The coordinator for the week had never bothered to check everyone’s content for duplication! I kept putting up slides until the class said, ‘No, we didn’t talk about that!’ So I started there, with my first 90 minutes eliminated.”

Of course, there’s also the dreaded “tough act to follow” threat. While speaking at a conference, Peter Breen, managing director of the In-Store Marketing Institute, once had to give a presentation right after Gary Marshall, the comedian and director of such films as Pretty Woman. “He had the audience laughing so hard they were literally in tears,” Breen recalls.

More often than not, however, a presentation turns into a nightmare not because of some overwhelming calamity, but because of some minor glitch that throws the presenter into complete panic. “Many minor presentation problems turn into presentation horror stories because people make a mistake and then overreact,” says Dr. Larina Kase, business psychologist and author of Anxious 9 to 5 (New Harbinger Publications, 2006). “They assume that they'll never recover, get all worked up, and deliver a disastrous presentation.”

Next time your presentation starts to turn into a scene from a Stephen King novel, conquer your fears by following these tips:

• Don’t run away. The immediate reaction when you’re face-to-face with the presentation equivalent of the boogie man might be to flee in terror, but going forward is the only way to survive. “If you mess up, the show must go on, so don’t stop,” says Elizabeth Freedman, author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes of Learning without Hanging Yourself (Random House, May 2007). If you recover quickly enough, Freedman says, no one will even notice you’ve made a blunder. “Audiences may be smart, but don’t assume they’ve caught your mistakes, because chances are nobody has noticed your gaffe but you.”

• Instead of screaming, laugh. It may seem anything but funny when you’re in the middle of a nightmare presentation, but laughter is one of the surest ways to vanquish fear. “If you've just made a blunder, just stop, gather yourself, look at the audience and say, ‘Man, have you ever had one of those days? I'm going to back up a bit and take another run at this. I promise it won't hurt this time,” suggests Karla Robinson, president of consulting firm Shifting Gears. Self-deprecating humor assures the audience that you’re confident and gracious enough to laugh at your own mistakes.

• Don’t turn into a zombie. Try not to let a mistake drain the life out of you, says Lodestar’s Ramsey. “Audiences tend to mirror our reactions as speakers. It's a basic principle every actor knows. If we’re enthusiastic, they will be too. If we’re dour, they’ll be dour.” Staying upbeat keeps the audience engaged and enthusiastic. “Remember that mistakes are no big deal,” says Dr. Larina Kase. “They just show you’re human, and recovery from them demonstrates poise and builds credibility.”