Most presentation disasters are not fatal; they can be resolved comfortably if you

  1. Keep smiling

  2. Know exactly what you want the decision maker to do (your main point)

What do you do if...

The decision maker is forced to leave before you have gotten to your key points.

If you follow the old rule "Tell 'em what you are going to tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em what you told 'em," you won't get caught this way. Always mention your main point and major supporting points within the first few minutes of any presentation. If you are using visuals, you always have a visual that has the main point and the key points. If, however, you have made the fatal error of trying to save the "zinger" for last, and the decision maker must leave, ask for a moment to summarize (anyone will give you a moment if you ask with a smile) and state, in one sentence, the one point you want the decision maker to remember and, if you have a chance, the two concepts that best support that point.

You arrive and are told the decision maker can't attend.

Even if the decision maker can't make it, someone in the room will be responsible for reporting to him or her. Ask yourself, "what, in one sentence, do I want the reporter to say?" (What do I want the decision maker to do?). (It will not be, "He told us about ...." It will be a message, "we should use _____ because it is within our budget and meets our engineering requirements" for example) Then be sure you state that sentence, as you want it repeated, at the beginning and at the end of your presentation.

You find you have 15 minutes instead of the 45 you planned on.

Talking fast won't work. Decide quickly what percentage of 15 minutes each part of your presentation should take. Keep your eye on your watch and limit yourself to the key concept in each portion. Next time, be prepared. Think about what you'll leave out if your time is halved, if you are given 5 minutes.

Someone asks a question about an issue you plan to discuss in detail later.

Answer the question briefly, and say you plan to go into detail later. If person asking the question is the decision maker, ask if the short answer is sufficient for now. Do not ask people to wait until you reach the point at which you originally planned to cover the material. If you do, everyone will focus on the unanswered question instead of listening. And, in a meeting setting, do not ask people to hold their questions until the end. Making that request suggests you are not confident enough to deal with interruptions.

You lose your train of thought mid-sentence.

Smile, say "excuse me" and start again. Keep in mind that everyone in the room has lost track of an idea at least once. People want you to succeed and are sympathetic. Keep smiling.

You plan to work through a handout page by page; people are moving ahead at their own pace.

The risk in giving people printed material is that they will read it at their own pace. If at all possible, don't provide handouts until after the presentation is over. If you must walk through a printed booklet, tell people what it contains and give them a rough idea of where different parts are located before you begin. If possible, hold your copy up as an easel and point to parts of charts or graphs. People are also more likely to stay with you if you occasionally say, "And you can see on page ___ that..." If the decision maker insists on moving ahead quickly, you'll do best to pick up the pace, perhaps skip pages, and, if necessary, focus on the pages that are important to her. (If you are going to hand out materials, don't try to bury anything at the end - like cost or fees. If people don't find what they want at the beginning, they go immediately to the end.)

You are competing for a deal and realize that the decision maker has confused you with the competition (he is taking notes on a page with the competition's name on the top).

Use the name of your firm as often as you can. Say, for example, "As we at _____ believe," and try not to focus on what he is writing.

You expect to speak to 3 people and arrive to find 20.

If you were planning to work from one set of handouts, forget it. Ask for a flipchart and pens; decide quickly how much you can rough sketch as you talk (key points, if nothing else). Stand; it is easier to maintain control. Remember that you are the expert. Keep smiling.

You walk into the decision maker's office and are offered a seat in a deep sofa.

This is the moment to develop a bad back; ask for a hard chair. It is virtually impossible to sound confident and in control from of a cushion 6 inches off the floor.

Your throat dries out.

Do what the theater folk do. Roll a tiny piece of paper into a small ball and place it between your gum and your facial tissue in the back of your mouth. It will stimulate the flow of saliva just like the wad of cotton the dentist uses. Try this in private first, however, so you are sure you are comfortable.

Several people start a side conversation while you are speaking.

In the following order: Ask if there are questions. Ask if you can do anything to clarify. If they will not stop and you are standing, continue your presentation but try to move nearer to them. Lower your voice or pause. Hope that someone else will stop them. When all else fails, try to acknowledge that things are out of control and ask the group whether a new meeting should be scheduled.

You want to make professional overheads but all you have is a word processor and a copying machine.

If your copying machine will enlarge, you are in good shape. Type your text, in bold, on a page. Turn the page sidewards in the copying machine (so the text is horizontal rather than vertical on the page, and enlarge the text.) As an alternative, consider doing the acetates by hand if you can print clearly.

You drop your overheads on the floor.

Make a joke about your clumsiness, pick them up and take a few moments to put them in order. (Now is the time to be grateful you have numbered them.)

You come prepared with overheads to find you have a podium in the middle of a long conference table and someone else is assigned to handle the overheads.

Say politely that you would rather handle your own acetates and you don't like being confined. Ask briefly if you can present from the end of the table. (Keep smiling.) If the answer is "NO" set up a hand cuing system with the overhead operator and, if at all possible, rehearse. The moral of the story is, ask about arrangements in advance.

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