Time for Plan B

Presenting: What to do when things go wrong


Experienced presenter Dirk Haun on how to cope when best-laid plans fall through while presenting.

Dirk Haun is an
organiser of TEDxStuttgart and a frequent speaker at tech
conferences, including ACCU, FrOSCon, FOSDEM, LinuxTag. This
extract is taken from his eBook Presenting For
, which has just been released by our sister publishing
arm Developer.Press.

When you give enough presentations, eventually something will
go wrong. The projector could fail, your remote could stop working
or your laptop could catch fire (okay, maybe not the last

The point is that something will eventually go wrong and that
you should be prepared. Having a Plan B should come naturally. I’ve
seen too many presenters being entirely baffled and lost when
something happens during their presentation that prevented them
from going ahead as planned.

If the problem looks like it can be fixed easily and quickly,
give it a try. Your audience will be sympathetic and even mildly
amused by the unfolding drama. However, this won’t last long, so if
you can’t get back on track quickly, you need to switch to your
Plan B.

For example, some time ago during a hot summer’s day, I
attended a presentation in a room where the projector would
repeatedly overheat and shut down. It would then take a few minutes
for it to cool off; when it did, it would start working again. It
did that 3 or 4 times during the presentation. The presenter
acknowledged the problem and apologised – but did nothing else. He
simply made us sit through the cooling off period and when the
projector came back on, he would continue with the

Not only did this leave a bad impression (the presenter
seemed to care more about his slides than about his audience), it
also made those forced breaks feel much longer than they probably
were. Don’t leave your audience hanging like that.

So, what could Plan B look like? It obviously depends on the
problem you encounter. If your laptop breaks down, having a spare
one at hand may sound like an option, but it may also be too much
hassle and take too long to set it up, especially if you’re already
halfway through your presentation. Since you practiced, you should
be able to summarise your points and continue without slides – and
maybe with the help of a flip chart or whiteboard that happens to
be in the room (did you check before you started?).

In most cases, the problems you encounter will probably mean
that your presentation will be cut short. That’s fine, nobody will
ever complain about a session running short, your audience will
understand. Just make sure that whatever the problem is, that it
doesn’t throw you off track and that you wrap up your presentation
in a way that demonstrates confidence. It may actually make a good
impression on your audience: “Poor Joe, his laptop stopped working
halfway through, but he managed to finish the

Unusual events will leave a strong impression, even if it
wasn’t planned; chances are that your audience will remember the
presentation because of the problem and how you dealt with it. So
make sure they remember that you handled the problem in a
professional way, and not that you couldn’t continue because you
lost access to your slides.

Photo by Jim

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