Supercompetent Speaking: Last-Minute Presentations

Here are some suggestions that can help you make that last-minute presentation a memorable one—in a good way.

Many years ago, I was scheduled to speak at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, which is only one hour from where I live. The day before and all night long, we had a huge snowstorm. It took me three hours in treacherous driving to make it there, but another speaker couldn’t make it. The organizer asked me to give her session after mine and speak on her topic: perfectionism. She was in a jam, since not all the attendees could fit in the two other breakout rooms. I had no choice but to concoct something on the spot. Hopefully, if this ever happens to you, you’ll at least have a few days’ notice to prepare. What should you do in such an instance?

First, don’t panic. While an impromptu sales presentation that bombs may ruin a sale, it won’t ruin your career, and if you’re presenting a motivational or educational presentation to an audience, the worst you can do is disappoint them. That’s no fun, but most organizers understand, since it’s their fault you were on the spot in the first place.

Here are some suggestions that can help you make that last-minute presentation a memorable one—in a good way:

  • Have a backup presentation ready. One option is to have something already prepared that you can dust off, practice a few times, and present to your audience in a relaxed, professional manner. I’m not saying you should come up with something in your spare time and put it aside. I use Evernote to categorize speech material by keyword, so I can pull out an evergreen favorite I’ve done in the past that might fit the bill.
  • Know your topic so well you can talk for hours. Many of us know our professions so well we can pick a topic out of the air and easily talk about it for 60 minutes or an hour, even without notes. The key is to pick one unifying theme, and return to it consistently during the talk. Leave plenty of room for Q&A at the end, because this is where you’ll really shine as the audience mines your knowledge of your field.
  • Incorporate current events. Recently, an acquaintance was researching an article about the infant space tourism industry. While he was doing so, one of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spacecraft tragically crashed during testing. He immediately added that event to his article. Oddly enough, the same person was writing about meteors hitting the Earth (in the distant past) on February 15, 2013, when the famous fireball exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. You can’t afford to ignore or miss sudden, significant events like these when you’re presenting on the same general topic, so monitor the news and do some extra research just before the presentation if possible.
  • Quickly develop a message and focus on it. Even though you don’t have much time to prepare, brainstorm for a while, mix in some ideas you’ve already used, produce some simple graphics, and forge ahead, confident you can help your audience with a solution to a problem.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

The punchline of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (“Practice, practice, practice!”) is especially appropriate here. Even when you have plenty of time to rehearse your presentation, practicing is critical, but when life throws you a curve, it’s more important than ever. When prep time is limited, still take the time to perform your presentation as if you had a full audience to help get the nuances down. Keep in mind the other tips I’ve outlined here, then go out there and knock ’em dead.

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, is an expert in productivity. For more than 20 years, Stack has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time. Stack is the bestselling author of six books, with more than 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, “Execution IS the Strategy” (March 2014). An expert in the field of performance and workplace issues, Stack has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.