Have you ever given a presentation only to realize, once you’ve finished, that you left out a critical detail? Or that you mispronounced a word, or someone’s name? Maybe you lost your train of thought in the middle of a sentence and blanked out momentarily, losing the focus of your audience.
These mistakes come as a result of a lack of practice, confidence, our nerves operating in overdrive, or all of the above. They might be acceptable for a staff meeting, but not for a board meeting, all staff meeting, an analyst call, or a keynote address. Some leaders can articulate and deliver their thoughts and ideas in a way that inspires and motivates their audience. Others can express their thoughts and ideas through the written form but fail with the vocal delivery.
There are two challenges at hand: mistakes made by the presenter and other variables that can derail a presentation. Let’s begin with those made by the presenter. I mentioned three common errors in the opening. When these kinds of mistakes occur, the audience usually has no idea — only the person speaking notices in most cases. What’s even more critical in these instances, is how the leader handles the mistake in real time.
One way to handle it is to become fixated to the point it derails your train of thought and causes other missteps. You become so frustrated; you walk off the stage. Ideally, you avoid becoming fixated on the error and lean on your preparedness for the engagement. Keep moving forward with your interview, meeting, or presentation, all the while making a mental note of the mistake to assess after you’re finished.
Improvisation plays a clear role in handling mistakes on stage. I have learned from my many years of applying improv techniques to my own speaking engagements that you can’t plan for a perfect presentation. You have to let go of your perfection to adapt to the new reality. Silence the inner critic. Maintain your confidence. Stay present and in the moment throughout. Let mistakes go and move forward.
When you make a significant misstep, you have an obligation to stop, own up to the error, and make the correction. If you choose to move forward, you’ll lose credibility with your audience and seed a potential larger PR issue down the line. We all hate to make mistakes, but we need to own up to anything that feels overtly incorrect, amend, and move forward.
Other instances can derail your presentation, too. Your laptop could freeze up. The LCD projector light bulb burns out. Your microphone stops working. You lose power just before your virtual presentation. There are many more instances. These are some that I have experienced personally. How you handle them is critically important. Preparedness plays a major role.
In the world of improv, we train to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. I take that approach every time I do any presentation. It helps me keep control over my emotions, because the one thing you never want to do is to lose your cool in front of an audience.