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Surprise – Not Always the Best Thing When It Comes to Your Audience…Part 3


I spoke once to a group of 8th graders about presentation skills.  I remember thinking to myself, “Man, I wish someone had told me the things I’m going to talk to these kids about when I was in the 8th grade.  These kids are so lucky to have me come speak to them.”  My overconfidence should have been my first clue that I wasn’t ready to speak to a group of 8th graders.  I hadn’t taken my own advice and found some 8th graders to interview as I prepared my talk.  It was not one of my better presentations.  Mercifully for both them and for me, it was only 20 minutes of our lives.

Presentations, like life, are messy.  Now I know none of you would intentionally ignore good advice like I did with the 8th graders.  But let’s face it, sometimes we don’t have the chance to interview 10 people who are likely to be in the audience (see Parts 1 & 2).  What can you do to avoid the catastrophe that Kathy experienced with 100% negative evaluations and bad word of mouth?  (Not to mention Twitter where word could leak out well beyond the halls of the venue.)  What can we do when our audience is a surprise?

Arrive Early at the Venue

If you’re flying from another city, arrive the day before you present.  If you’re driving in, arrive several hours before your presentation.  If there are sessions occurring in the day or hours before you speak, attend those meetings too.  After arriving, get the lay of the land.  What room will you be speaking in?  That will give you an indication of the expected crowd size.  Talk to people at the event.  “So what do you do for XYZ company?”  “Which sessions will you be attending?”  Ask enough people and some clues will start emerging.  If you’re surprised by the answers, then you have some time to regroup and think how you want to approach your audience.

Arrive Early in Your Meeting Room

As people start arriving to your room, greet them at the door.  Introduce yourself as the speaker.  Ask them about themselves and what they were hoping to hear.  Again, ask enough people and you’ll start hearing trends which will help you be somewhat prepared if you’re not getting the answers you’d expected.

Change Your Plans

I’m all about preparing for presentations.  In fact for some of my clients a side benefit of hiring me is that I give them deadlines by which they have to ready for our meetings together (rather than putting their talk together in their hotel room the night before their event).  I highly recommend preparation.  But if it becomes painfully clear that there is a huge gap between what your audience needs and what you are prepared to deliver, adjust your plans.

Acknowledge the disconnect.  Depend on the fact that everyone has had an experience where, through no fault of their own, they’ve been set up to fail.  Allow your audience to have empathy for you.

Next, adjust where you can.  If you were prepared to talk at a high level about a product but you know the technicians want to hear the nitty gritty detail, ask yourself what your options are.  If you can address the details, address them.  If you can’t but there is someone else in the audience who can, recruit them for help.  If there’s someone back at the office who can, see if you can get that person on a conference line and plugged into the sound system in the room — or hold a microphone to the phone if you have to.  Ditch your slides if they no longer work.  Open the floor to questions.  Find a way to give the audience something of value.  Demonstrate your commitment to honoring their time.  Follow up after the event with material that matters to them.

If you clearly demonstrate that while you are in an unexpected situation that you’re doing everything in your power to respect them and their needs, you audience will reward you with some form of kindness.  They may still be understandably frustrated.  But it will go better for you if they know you are trying.

What Not to Say…and What to Say Instead

Don’t lay blame and make others look bad. No matter how tempting it may be to say “It’s all Sally’s fault!” resist the temptation.  Instead, communicate that there was confusion about what was needed and let them know you will do everything you can to help give them valuable information they can use. Then do just that.

Don’t apologizes extensively. Apologize once or twice, then do what is in your power to make the meeting valuable.  Be humble yet confident.  Don’t be a whining doormat.  Let your actions speak for you.

Speak with confidence. Let your tone and your words say to the audience that while you aren’t what they expected or needed, you’re a professional and you respect yourself and them as professionals.  Keep your dignity.

What’s missing?

Have you had an experience similar to Kathy’s but that had a happier ending?  What did you do to salvage the situation?  How did you meet your audience’s needs?  I’d love to learn from your wisdom!  Please share your results below.