Supercompetent Speaking: Expecting the Unexpected

Acknowledge when something unexpected happens, go for a laugh if you can get one, and move on.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

Speakers quickly learn that no matter how much they prepare for their presentations, things occasionally will go wrong—often through no fault of their own. Even so, you’ll need to be as prepared as possible when they do. Suppose the lights go out, there’s a crash backstage, someone’s phone rings, or the fire alarm goes off—how will you handle it?

All of the above have happened to me in the past. I even stepped off the edge of the stage once (no kidding).

So in addition to the standard precautions regarding research, technical issues, tough audiences, nervousness, professional dress, and all the other presentation prep issues I’ve discussed in previous columns, be ready with a snappy comeback line for anything unexpected that might occur. Here are several suggestions each for the more common surprises:

1.  If you stumble (or heaven forbid, fall) on the way to the podium, you might say something like:

  • “So much for all those dancing lessons.”
  • “Looks like I’m channeling President Ford again.”
  • Say, in your best Pee-wee Hermann voice, “I meant to do that.”

2. If you stumble on stage, fall down, or step off it (as I did), you can:

  • Toss up your hands and yell, “Ta-da!”
  • Quip, “Now that the floor show is over, let’s get on with the presentation!”
  • My funny colleague, Tim Gard, said I should have said, “I now will take comments from the floor.” (Darn, I wish I would have thought of that!)

3. If you drop something, stare at it and say,

  • “Good thing I was done with that.”
  • “I guess that pen/notecard/whatever disagreed with my last point.”
  • “Jeez, am I that boring?”

4. If something breaks, look up and say innocently,

  • “Anybody have a hammer?”
  • “Got any superglue?”
  • “All righty then, I guess it’s time for a break (har har).”

5. If an example falls flat, especially one representing a failed business initiative,

  • Say loudly “OK! Next slide!” and click onward.
  • Hug yourself and ask, “Is it suddenly cold in here, or is it just me?”
  • Say, “OK, note to self: Strike that example in the next presentation.”

6. If the lights go out, joke,

  • “Did someone forget to pay the electric bill?”
  • “I hope my presentation hasn’t left you in the dark.”
  • “Is there an electrician in the house?”

7. If you hear a crash in the background, you might say,

  • “I wanted to start my talk off with a bang, but this is ridiculous.”
  • “Who ordered fireworks?”
  • “Is someone trying to tell me it’s time for a break?”

8. If a phone rings in the audience, you can smile brightly and say,

  • “If it’s for me, please tell her I’ll call back.”
  • “So, did I mention that anyone whose phone rings has to buy us all drinks?”
  • “Hey, thanks for that musical interlude.” (You can even dance a little.)

9. If your microphone squeals, say:

  • “Wow! Even the equipment is excited by my presentation!”
  • “You didn’t need those eardrums, did you?”
  • “Yes, that’s just my magnetic personality!”

10. If an alarm goes off, take it seriously; this is no time for jokes. Tell your audience: “Well, it looks like we get a break whether we need one or not. I’m sure this is a false alarm, but we’ll assume it’s real. I’d appreciate it if you’ll all file calmly out of the room and head for the exterior exits. I’ll bring up the rear.” Then direct traffic and make sure everyone gets out safely.

Calm, Cool, and Collected

Admittedly, most of these comments are a tad lame (OK, more than a tad), but they give the audience an excuse to laugh and a springboard for you to bounce off of. The worst thing you can do is not do anything! The audience is obviously distracted, so don’t ignore it, or you look like you’re either not present or an ignoramus.

Whatever happens during your presentation, maintain your composure. Most unexpected things occur suddenly and are forgotten just as quickly. You can be sure, however, that your audience will remember you for all the wrong reasons if you get mad or freak out. Just acknowledge when something happens, go for a laugh if you can get one, and move on.         

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe that help attendeesachieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the author of five bestselling productivity books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, most recently “What to Do When There’s Too Much to Do.” Her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy,” hits bookstores in spring 2014. Connect with her at;; or


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