Those of you who struggle overcoming presentation anxiety might think that knocking over your water or stumbling over a sentence is the worst thing that can happen. Well, I once fell off the back of the stage mid-presentation. How did I recover from this disaster?

The speaker on stage before me was Sir Clive Woodward, architect of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph. He had some problems with the conference laptop, and had his assistant quickly swap it out mid-presentation. I wanted to top that little hitch, so I fell straight off the back of the stage to an audible gasp from the audience.

I felt like an absolute idiot, obviously. The stage was huge – there was really no reason to fall off. I like to point at the screen sometimes, and it turns out the screen was a tiny bit further back than the stage. I stepped to the screen, and fell into a chasm of shame. It was unexpected, and humiliating.

There’s something horrible about working at a presentation company. People expect you to be prepared for any eventuality, as if everything can be controlled. But what if your laptop breaks? What if your bag gets stolen? What if the fire alarm goes off? What if all flights are grounded because there’s a volcanic ash cloud? What if your audience can’t work out how to log in to an online meeting? Okay, perhaps this is not helping you on you journey to overcoming presentation anxiety but stick with me.

You can prepare for some eventualities. But anyone who says that you can prepare for all presentation eventualities is naive. At least not for every presentation – some just aren’t worth travelling a week in advance for (just to be sure).

I’ll admit it, I hadn’t ever specifically prepared to fall off the stage at any point in my presentation skills training. But the presentation went OK anyway. Why? Well, here are some tips to overcoming presentation anxiety through making the best of presentation disasters!

Top tips to overcoming presentation anxiety

Expect to make mistakes

Don’t prepare to fail, but realise that all presenters make mistakes and suffer occasional disasters. As Nancy Zarse at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology says:

“If you expect to make a mistake, then you’ll be OK when you do. That’s one of the best things that you can learn.”

If you can accept that your presentation will never be perfect, then you are halfway to overcoming presentation anxiety.

Pick out some friendly faces

If things go wrong, the voice of self-doubt can easily creep in. I like to ground myself by looking at audience members I know, or have met, or those who look like they are enjoying the talk. It’s reassuring. Pick out a few friendly faces to avoid relying too much on the reaction of one or two people. Remember, RBF is a real thing, so don’t feel discouraged by those who look like they are not having a good time.

Know your content well enough to adjust

It’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality, but it is possible to know your material well enough to cope with disaster. Sure, no one wants to fall off the stage. But if you do, better to be able to think on your (slightly damaged) feet.

Have something interesting to say (and show)

Most of what makes it hard to deliver an interesting presentation has nothing to do with the (in)competence of the presenter. I found it easy to keep going because I had stuff to say, and my slides weren’t undermining me by allowing the audience to just read my points. If you are passionate about your topic, and know it well, you can quickly re-focus the audience’s attention away from your mishaps and towards your message.

Allow the audience to laugh

I wasn’t precious. Someone falling off the stage is funny. People want to know you are OK, and if you are, they want to laugh. I clambered back up and took a bow. It seemed better to go with the flow than pretend nothing had happened. If it really all goes wrong, don’t let your presentation anxiety take over – laugh with your audience.

Presentation disasters are memorable: Refer to them

Follow-up by acknowledging that something went wrong. It’s what comedians do when their jokes fall flat – better to confront it than be embarrassed. It happens. Your audience will remember it – so use the fact the presentation was memorable to your advantage.

Remember it’s about results, not style

Sometimes a bit of vulnerability helps the audience to connect. Sometimes things go wrong but the audience don’t even notice or care. Just keep going. It happens all the time, and it isn’t the end of the world. Audiences want the content, they want the substance, they don’t mind too much if there are a couple of hiccups. My ego took a bit of a dent, but the feedback forms and business contacts that came from the conference were great. It’s not about the presenter, it’s about the audience and how they are affected.

I’m not saying you should jump off the stage (obviously). But if an unexpected disaster does ‘befall’ you while presenting, don’t give up. Keep going. Think on your feet. Try to relax about it. Make a joke of it. It probably wasn’t as bad as falling off the stage, and I was fine.

What are your tips for overcoming presentation anxiety? What’s the worst presentation disaster that’s happened to you or the worst you’ve witnessed? How did the presenter recover?

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Joby Blume

Director

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  1. Image of Karl Parry Karl Parry says:

    Love this – it’s such a shame I wasn’t there to be a friendly face ;-P

    Great points covered though, keep on truckin’ and the audience will come with you whatever has happened before. As long as you’ve got something they are interested in, most people will forgive any hitches/mistakes.

    Nice work Joby!

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