Presenting for developers: What to do when things go wrong
Experienced presenter Dirk Haun on how to cope when best-laid plans fall through while presenting tech talks.
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 one).
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 presentation.
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 presentation.”
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.