What to Do When Things Go Wrong During a Presentation

I am currently in Australia and during this time I have seen several presentations and theatrical shows and have also stage managed and performed in a concert. During two of the shows (including the concert I was involved in!) there were numerous on stage disasters. These included the wrong music being played, the wrong act being introduced, performers not ready to go onstage due to slow costume changes and one performer, a comedian who wouldn’t get off the stage meaning the concert ran overtime! Most of the problems experienced could have been minimised or avoided with more rehearsal, but as with any live performance, no matter how much you prepare there is always a possibility that something will go wrong.

And it is the same with presentations so in this post I will talk about the most common public speaking disasters and how to manage them.

Losing Your Train of Thought

Forgetting where you are in your presentation or what you were about to say can happen to anyone no matter how experienced you are at presenting. It has certainly happened to me before and I expect at some stage it will happen again. This is one of the biggest fears that people have about public speaking but there are several ways to manage the situation.

The first is to simply ask the audience by saying something like ‘Where was I?’ Usually someone in the audience will help you out (remember, most audiences are very supportive and want you to do well). This technique also allows for some audience interaction!

Alternatively, just pause for a moment and move on; repeating your sentence again will often be enough to jog your memory and your audience will be none the wiser. If it doesn’t, simply tell the audience that there was something else you wanted to share and let them know that you will come back to it when it comes to you.

Another technique is to use the pause to take a sip of water and gather your thoughts, maybe taking a glance at your notes to get you back on track.

As long as you don’t panic and remain calm, most times your audience won’t even notice that you’ve lost your place (it will always feel worse to you than it actually is!)

Technical Problems

Issues with technology and other equipment is one of the most likely challenges you will come across – the projector doesn’t work, you haven’t got the right connection, the screen freezes at a crucial moment in your film clip or the formatting of your PowerPoint presentation has misaligned when it is shown on screen.

The most important thing is to always have a backup plan so here are some ideas:

  • arrive early (at least 2 hours before the event) to check and double check all of the equipment and confirm that your presentation is formatted correctly when projected
  • take extra cables, projector, clicker, batteries and laptop when possible, or ask the organisers to ensure there are backups available
  • take your presentation on a memory stick (or two) and back it up on cloud storage as well
  • ensure you have printed copies of your slides for you and your audience
  • email the presentation to yourself and the organiser before the event

If you use PowerPoint, here is a great article I came across recently with links to additional tips and tools for avoiding PowerPoint disasters.

Another tip I learned to avoid formatting issues is to take a pdf copy of each slide and paste the image back into your presentation. This can be time consuming but worth it if you want your slides to keep the formatting you intended.

Remember to respect your audience’s time - always start on time and never try to fix your presentation in front of them; get someone else to do it while you continue, or don’t fix it at all and go to plan B.


Like the comedian in the concert I mentioned above, sometimes you’ll find that a presenter speaks for longer than their allocated time or there will be a delay of some sort and you will be required to shorten your presentation in order to finish on time. You may also be asked to speak longer than you originally expected. In these situations knowing what information in your presentation is essential, what is desirable and what is 'nice to have' is crucial to being able to lengthen or shorten your content on the spot. Stories and examples that can be added or removed will help you to be flexible in your timing. Audiences love to have the opportunity to ask questions and have a conversation with the speaker so if you are asked to speak for longer, perhaps you could include a Q&A session or facilitate a discussion with the audience.

Unexpected Interruptions

For one of my presentations, just as I was being introduced the fire alarm sounded and the building had to be evacuated! Not an ideal start but we eventually got everyone settled back inside and I was able to deliver the presentation as planned. No matter how prepared you are there are bound to be interruptions that are out of your control. That’s why I advise always arriving early so that you can get familiar with the venue and feel comfortable, relaxed and able to handle any issue that arises whether that be a loud noise such as a screeching siren or the clatter of broken plates, a waiter wheeling in the lunch trolley or a rowdy uninvited heckler. The more presentations you do the better you get at handling interruptions but the most important thing is to remain calm. If you feel uncomfortable, the audience will too so the best thing to do is smile, acknowledge it if appropriate and move on.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction.

Mel's book 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!' is available on Amazon. To find out more go to www.melsherwood.com or follow Mel on Twitter @MelSherwood_