It happens to me all the time.

I prepare, prepare, prepare for what I’m going to say and do, whether I’m delivering a keynote or a training session. In fact, I only stop preparing when I get to the point where I’m convinced and pleased that I’ve thought of everything. Ha! While I probably have thought of everything I possibly could without being in the room, the best laid plans are just that – plans.

Invariably, frequently actually, I go “off script” in response to something in the room. It could be the audience (as it should be!) or it could be the room configuration, the presence or absence of a white board, or even something random about the environment. When I use PowerPoint, there might be something about the lighting or seating that prompts me to use my visuals a little differently.

Even if you aren’t neurotic about preparation like I am, you no doubt have your own best laid plans for presentations. But then there’s the room, the people, the day – there are a lot of variables and unknowns.

So what do you do when … ?

  • Your time allotment changes. This can be terribly unnerving to a presenter, especially to an apprehensive presenter who would rather not be there anyway and who definitely did not plan on doing improv or speed talking like an auctioneer.

    Two suggestions here: 1) ask the event host or person who informed you about the time crunch what they would like you to cover or what about your presentation topic they feel is most relevant/valuable to the audience; and/or 2) let the audience know that, due to time, you’re delivering an abridged version of your presentation and, provided you know your main points well, deliver those with only limited supporting detail or choose your strongest main point and deliver that one in its entirety.

  • Technology fails. It may be 2018 and technology has given rise to some previously unimaginable things, like autonomous cars or cryptocurrencies, but in conference rooms and hotel ballrooms everywhere, simple technology still fails us. Projectors and laptops don’t synch, Internet connections get interrupted, video doesn’t play smoothly.

    Recommendation: Don’t dwell on it. Move on. No one, and I mean not one person, in the audience wants to wait for or watch you try to fix it. You are responsible for your presentation, not your laptop. If your visuals aren’t working like you planned, skip over them. Describe them as if telling a story about the illustration you were going to show, and/or engage the audience in Q&A or dialogue sooner or more frequently during the presentation than you planned. Do your best in this situation but please avoid being so attached to the beautiful visuals you prepared that you forget about the connection between you and your audience.

  • There are far fewer/more people than you expected. I have had both of these situations, in their extremes. The “far fewer” scenario can leave you feeling crestfallen, deflated. The “far more” scenario can leave you feeling overwhelmed and daunted.

    Bottom line: It’s all good. Don’t let this unexpected surprise throw you off. Each has a silver lining. A smaller than expected audience allows for more intimate interaction with your audience. A larger than expected audience is a potential opportunity to get your message out to more people. Both can be advantageous.

  • Your topic is clearly not what they were wanting or expecting. Yikes! You are speaking and you can tell you’re tanking. You keep on keeping on but you’re wondering why the heck you didn’t ask for an eject button or a hole in the floor where you could just drop down and disappear!?

    I have three words of advice here: Switch. It. Up. Don’t be so driven to finish the presentation you prepared and planned that you abandon your audience. If you can tell you’re losing them or they’re not interested, ditch your presentation in favor of talking to/with your audience. Stop and ask them for questions or discussion. It will confirm whether or not they’re with you, and it will give way to a more lively and satisfying experience for all.

    One caveat: If you switch it up and your audience has no questions or comments, you might need to prompt them. Ask them about their connection to the topic, their experiences, their expectations. It’s an imperfect situation for sure, but your audience is your go-to for the solution.

  • The room set-up is funky. Or the room assignment changes at the last minute. Either way, this presents a variable that’s way out of your control and possibly one of the most common. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told a host I won’t be using a projector and it’s all set up, lights dimmed and all, when I get there. Or I ask for a large white board and it turns out they don’t have one, which I find out when I arrive. Or we’ve discussed having people sit at tables in a horseshoe shape, and the chairs are set up theater-style and there are no tables. I could go on and on.

    Let’s keep this one simple. Be prepared for anything. Get there early. Size up the situation. Re-do your presentation “choreography” in your mind. Ask for what you need. And then just adapt.

Remaining adaptable is just part of the deal. There’s more out of your control than in your control when you’re presenting. So if there’s one final piece of advice I’d give, it’s this: Make “remaining adaptable” part of your mental preparation, it might well be your best laid plan.

Beth Levine