How to Recover from a Bad Presentation

How to Recover from a Bad Presentation

Your presentation tanked.

Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.

There’s something particularly humiliating about having a speech, pitch, or even a briefing, go awry. It comes with a special form of indignity. It feels deeply personal. Raw.

Having made every mistake in the communication skills handbook, and then some (I’ve actually invented mistakes), I feel uniquely qualified to comment on this subject.

First, we’re far too hard on ourselves. When I think about all of the nights I wasted lamenting a talk or session that didn’t go as well as I’d wanted or anticipated, I literally wince.

It was my ego that was bruised, rarely my credibility. Listeners, I’ve found, are almost always supportive when they know you’ve prepared, and have their best interests at heart. If you don’t prepare, though, I can’t help you. You’re on your own.

The reasons for failure

Most often, communication fails because there’s a disconnect between what you have to say, and what your audience is expecting.

Of course, you can greatly enhance your prospects by thoroughly researching your listeners and their needs, and matching up your narrative with what they want to learn.

“Tell people stuff they don’t know,” a wise speaker once told me.

But sometimes, unaccountably, the audience already knows your stuff, or thinks it does, or, as it turns out, isn’t much interested.

Then what do you do?

Well, the worst thing you can do is stay on the same story-telling path. You need to change it up.

Go off script. Ask your listeners questions. Get their opinions. Make your presentation a shared responsibility. Give the audience a stake in the outcome.

Become a speaker-facilitator, not just a speaker.

You may well have to jettison your notes and slides, but at this point, who cares? It’s about them, not you. 

Whatever you do, never display a modicum of frustration, anger, or fear. If you do, you’ve lost the crowd. Remember, emotions are highly transmissible.

Listeners – whether one or 1,000 – want to have confidence in their speakers. Ideally, they want to respect and like them. And they don’t like prima donnas.

Politicians, take note.

Now what?

Okay, you did your best, but the outcome wasn’t nearly what you wanted, and you feel quite sick about it. Understood. There’s a tendency, after a bad speaking experience, to fantasize about cashing in, moving incognito to an undisclosed tropical location, and communicating only by text.

Don’t do that. Relax already. You had less than a stellar experience. It’s not your life, or your health, or your family.

Take a break, and put it all in proportion. Go for a walk, preferably in nature. Look up at the sky. It hasn’t fallen, and neither have you. Not unless you intend to give up – now that would be failure.

“What’s done is done,” my late, sainted mother would say when I (or one of my three younger brothers) screwed up, which, if I recall, was often. She’d work with us to identify the error or shortcoming, convince (rather, compel) us to fully acknowledge it, and then help us formulate a remedial action plan.

A review is in order 

Assume full responsibility for the disappointing result, and conduct a comprehensive review of your address.

What exactly happened out there? What can you do about it (if anything) now? What lessons did you learn? How will you employ those lessons going forward?

Ask for feedback from the event organizers, and, if you can, from a couple of audience members. Don’t get defensive if they make observations that you consider erroneous or unfair. Perception is everything, and this qualifies as invaluable feedback. It’s a gift – a tremendous learning opportunity. Your attitude should reflect it.

Asking questions about why you fell short, and how you can do better, is hard to do. It takes an adult who’s all grown up.

A lot of executives have spoken poorly in public for decades, because they haven’t had the courage to seek out feedback that would help make them better, and because the people who work for them haven’t had the courage to tell them the truth.

Be your own audience

In my experience, the fastest and most efficient way to improve as a speaker is to have your presentations digitally recorded, so you can review them later – and see yourself as others do.

My youngest brother once told me that I looked “angry” during a morning television interview. I promptly cut him out of my Will.

I’m messing with you.

Watching yourself speak isn’t an exercise for the faint-hearted. Presenters everywhere tend to be absurdly hard on themselves, severely criticizing their appearance, voice, and gestures.

We tend to compare ourselves to the most attractive and compelling orators in the world, rather than ourselves on a trajectory of continuous, determined improvement.

Cut yourself a lot of slack here, and make sure you review the recording only when you’re rested, chill, and feeling good about yourself. I’m serious. Otherwise, there can be a tendency to drive oneself into presentation-limiting misery.

You should be assessing how you engaged and served your audience, not obsessing about hair loss and weight gain. Deal with body image issues separately.

I do. It can take a long weekend.

An honest evaluation should include how you carried out your responsibilities as a speaker. Did you “connect” with your listeners at the outset by telling them why your remarks would be of value to them? 

Did you begin by speaking slowly and clearly? Were you relaxed and conversational? Given the feedback you’ve received, and now having seen your presentation, what would you have done differently?

Take it on. Go deep.

Following a downer outing, I’ve always headed back to the lectern ASAP, in order to banish any residual speaking demons, and to infuse my offering with new insights. If you’re coming off a less than stellar gig, find an audience, and get out there.

Offer to help and support others 

When I’m at an event listening to friends and colleagues speak, I’m an active (some would say frenetic) listener. I smile. I nod. I frequently provide the “thumbs up.”

I want them to succeed. I want them to know that I’m in their corner.

Later, if they’re interested in honest feedback, they know I’ll provide it. I use the consultant’s formula – two positives for every negative. 

The goal is to inspire them. Not drive them into the ground.

If you want to be a great speaker, forgive yourself when you miss the mark, then get busy getting better. And when others miss the mark, offer to help them get better, too.

Jim Gray is a Senior Communications Advisor in Oakville.

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