Give better presentations by learning from the bad ones

Scott Shumaker
Aug 9, 2016 · 9 min read

Lessons you can learn when you’re losing the room

Trainings and presentations are as closely tied to their presenter as they are to their subjects. We’ve all been bored to tears during presentations; we’ve also been inspired and informed as a result of them.

Some presenters have the natural knack to hold a room captive; others rely heavily on assistance (be it video, visuals, or even a whiteboard) to bring their subjects to life. Every presenter has a different style or methodology, tried and true ways to maneuver the ship in good weather — but it’s when things go wrong that these methods are really put to the test. And how these challenges are handled is the line in the sand between the good trainers/presenters and ones who may need a refresher course themselves.

Presenting and training can be a challenge in the best of situations. So what happens when, try as you may, your presentation isn’t going well?

Capturing and keeping attention (and instinctively knowing when your audience is either confused by something you’ve said or just plain bored) is a skill that requires all your pistons firing at the same time.

The whole idea of presenting and training also requires an unspoken understanding among everyone in the room — that what you’re saying has some value, and that all the participants will walk away from the session with at least one nugget of wisdom or one very helpful tip they can file away and access when the moment is right.

As a presenter/trainer, the pressure is always on you, whether you‘re a complete and total expert in the subject you’re presenting or whether you’re flying by the seat of your pants, struggling to maintain a flow and knowing when to look away from your notes (if, indeed, you use notes).

That pressure is compounded if you’re in an environment that is intrinsically challenging on its own, even before you begin to speak.

Imagine a room of verbal skeptics, who push back with a passion when you reach the Q&A portion of your time. Imagine a room at 3 p.m. on a Friday. Imagine a room that’s warmer than it should be. Imagine a room in which every participant wishes he or she were elsewhere. Imagine presenting in front of a group of your peers, not all of whom share your vision or even like you personally.

Facing each one of these scenarios is a distinct possibility for everyone who gives a presentation. Each one of them requires an unwavering, steady hand on the rudder. And, perhaps most nerve-wracking of all, each of these scenarios requires you as the presenter to be able to pivot and react to any situation you see in the eyes of those facing you while at the same time getting your point across effectively.

As potentially mortifying as some of these situations can be, not one of them is impossible to work through, or work around. Based on my experiences, some of these obstacle courses can even turn out to be incredibly valuable to the presentation itself and to you as a presenter.

The list of potentially tough scenarios is vast. I’ve narrowed it down to three scenarios that will likely face you at one time or another if you ever answer the question “Could you give this presentation?” with yes.

Scenario 1: You’re not as prepared as you could be. And you know it.

There are so many factors, some out of your control, that lead to this situation. You may be an eleventh-hour replacement for a colleague who can’t make the training. You may have only recently begun working as a trainer and your skills aren’t sharp enough yet. Perhaps you’re presenting brand-new info that your research team has just given you. Or maybe you just don’t feel well or your allergies are acting up. The result of any of these situations? You feel overwhelmed and under-prepared.

Three simple tactics can help you overcome the situation and steady yourself for what could be a mortifying situation:

  1. Identify the main takeaways. Before you start talking, take some time and pull together the absolute most important pieces of your presentation or training. Commit these golden stats or phrases to memory as best you can, and be prepared to explain them as thoroughly as you can. Keep hitting on these points and returning back to them. Make sure the group walks away with the key takeaways no matter what else they hear (or don’t hear). Speak with conviction and confidence.
  2. Give them the floor. Consider opening up the discussion earlier in the presentation than you normally would. This can be construed as a “buying time” cheat, but it does help give your participants some ownership of the discussion. If someone brings up a topic you’re not sure about, ask the room for help. A tactic as simple as saying, “That’s a great question. How would you all handle that scenario?” is a way to engage folks in the room and take some of the pressure off you. And if no one, including you, knows the answer, admit it, and be prepared to guide the question toward someone outside the room who does know it.
  3. Quit while you’re ahead. In other words, if you are comfortable with presenting 35 minutes of material but you’ve got a 45-minute timeframe, and (worst case scenario) your Q&A is met with silence and tumbleweeds, just stop early. Maintain your poise, be sure to remind the group that more information on this topic is available elsewhere, hammer home the key points, and dismiss the group. You’ll be spared excruciating silence. Not one person will complain they’re getting 10 minutes or so of their time back.

Scenario 2: You’re in a room of haters.

Well, maybe “haters” is too strong a term. But you may be faced with presenting to a room that includes silent skeptics or vocal detractors (or some combination of the two). It’s so easy to be derailed in this situation, because even the best presenters and trainers want their audiences to trust them, to comprehend what they’re saying, and, at least internally, to agree with them.

I remember giving a training to a room in which two or three participants faced me with their arms literally folded. It is the most “closed off” body language it’s possible to show. I felt they were out to get me. Their well-timed questions and comments seemed manufactured in a way — and I found myself shaken, paranoid. I knew within the first five minutes that I had some dissenting participants, and it was a day-long training. I made a decision on the fly —rather than spend that time in a constantly defensive position, I ran headlong into the fray by using these tactics:

  1. Never let them see you sweat. This is so much easier said than done, and many people find it a nearly impossible feat. But by maintaining a positive overall approach, keeping a calm voice (key to these situations), and knowing how and when to pivot back to the topic at hand, the beast can be tamed.
  2. Allow dissenters some air time. I have never encountered a situation in which dissenters had a particular beef against me as a trainer (or even exactly what I was presenting or training at that time). More often than not, the real objects of dissenters’ ire are rarely in that room with you. They may be frustrated with their jobs; they may be remembering another training that didn’t go well; perhaps they’re upset with a colleague seated at a table across the room for a completely unrelated reason. If you can look at these dissenters with an empathetic nod and occasionally say something along the lines of “I’d love to hear how you feel about this,” or “I’m sure lots of people may share your concerns,” you can accomplish two things: you allow some steam to escape, and by giving them the mic, you allow the rest of the room to react to their concerns. In my case, I needed to “open the valve” for my dissenters a few times that day. They seemed to appreciate being given the floor, and on every one of those opportunities, others in the room responded directly to them. Civility was maintained, although in one more lively debate, it was up to me to maintain that.
  3. Don’t be afraid to call in backup. Obviously, if someone is being verbally abusive, or particularly difficult to deal with, there is nothing wrong with making a call during a break to either your supervisor or someone in the group that can help. When you need to, request some assistance in maintaining order in the room. Common sense in these situations should rule the day. And remember that it is rare that these debates get that out of hand.

Scenario 3: Everyone is bored. Or at least they seem bored.

This is sometimes the worst kind of training experience, made even more potentially lethal because on the surface, nothing is going wrong. Everyone’s pleasant; no one’s sitting with arms folded ready to fight. You have a complete handle on the topic at hand. You know you’ll hit all the important topics. But for some reason, when you scan the audience, you can almost literally see the daydreaming thought-bubbles over their heads. No one’s looking at you, or if they are, they’re struggling to maintain a connection with the living. It’s not that they’re distracted, per se, it’s more that they aren’t attracted in any way to what’s happening in front of them.

So many factors can lead to this phenomenon — from room temperature to time of day to the World Cup to the holiday season — there’s a litany of potential reasons why, try as you might, you’re losing them.

It’s not that they’re distracted, per se, it’s more that they aren’t attracted in any way to what’s happening in front of them.

Now keep in mind, every group has at least one or two participants who will not ever be in rapt attention. I’ve found the best way to deal with these nearly-sleepers is to look directly at them on occasion, even smiling at them. It will wake them up, if only for a moment. Having one or two people seeming to be bored isn’t the end of the world, but having a group of them, or worse yet a whole room full of them, requires action on your part. Since you’re at the helm, it’s up to you as a presenter to wake up your crowd as best you can.

  1. Acknowledge it. This idea may run counter to the “never let them see you sweat” rule. But bear in mind, this room of zombies needs to hear what you’re saying, and you need to deliver it to them. I’ve found some of the best ways to combat boredom is to either go slightly off-script (“Look, I know this topic isn’t super compelling, so how about we all stand up for a few minutes, or switch desks…”) or to inject some humor into the situation. A funny aside can do wonders in re-calibrating the room. Even a well-timed cough or a slight elevation in the tone of your voice can buy you a few more minutes.
  2. Get up and move around. This tactic always seemed to work when I noticed I was losing a room. Depending on the size of the room, it’s sometimes really effective for you to switch positions (walking slowly around as you talk, or even walking to the back or the side of the room while you’re explaining a slide). A simple change in your personal geography can help guide the participants’ attention away from the spot they’re fixated on (likely the back of their eyelids). Moving around too much, of course, is distracting, but an effective slow walk to the back of the room can wake people up, even if it’s out of fear that you’ll call on them! Oh, and on that note…
  3. Don’t call on sleepers. It’s so tempting to do this, but you’re not teaching high school. None of your participants is in fear of detention. And no one likes to be embarrassed. No good can come of this tactic.

Very few trainings come off without a hitch. The size of that hitch, of course, varies greatly from group to group. Recognize that a number of these pitfalls are out of your control (note I haven’t even touched on the dreaded A/V or technology gremlins). The key is to not allow these pitfalls to derail you. If you know your topic well, and have at least some sense of self-awareness, you can take even the biggest lions den and find some way to effectively navigate your way through it.

Not everyone will walk away from your training inspired. Perhaps only half the room will be able to accurately recall the topic a day or two later. But if you’ve been able to successfully steer through what can be some choppy waters, the lessons you learn from challenging presentations will help strengthen the ones you lead in the future.

Scott Shumaker has led communications and messaging trainings in the U.S. and Europe for leaders, organizers, and communicators since 2008.

Scott Shumaker

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Content designer, music aficionado, communications trainer, writing mentor, strategist. Always reads the lyrics.

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