When delivering a presentation or pitch in a business context, a mistake can seem like the end of the world. Here, Hanieh Vidmar outlines three strategies that could rescue you in a time of need.
I was fully prepared for the pitch. I had delivered two pitches the week before and had four more coming up in the next four weeks. I was in my element, I was ready and I was excited.
I was standing in front of ten decision makers, they had their notepads on their laps and were listening attentively. I introduced myself and started my presentation with confidence and I was totally ready to convince the audience that we were the best company to deliver this contract. We were given twenty minutes and I was fully prepared.
Seven minutes into the presentation and I realised I had opened the wrong slide deck. We were delivering various pitches so for each pitch I had a different slide deck as the content slightly varied. I was mortified! I had no idea what to do.
For approximately five seconds I had about 30 thoughts; do I continue and wing it? Do I stop using the slides and pretend I only needed those first few slides? Do I stop the presentation completely, ask my co-host, the CEO, to take over? Do I run out of here and change my name and identity? The latter was the most attractive choice.
“Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes we don’t realise we’ve made a mistake until it’s too late.”
But instead, I apologised, told my audience what had happened and quickly tried to find and open the correct slides. I lost three minutes between the moment I realised to the moment I restarted my presentation. In total, I had lost ten minutes! But I thought “it’s OK because my twenty minutes started with the new slide deck”.
How wrong was I? When the entire 20 minutes was up, they stopped us! I didn’t get to finish my presentation and deliver the remaining benefits of why we would be the best company for the job! They allowed us five minutes of Q&A time but I knew it was pointless. There was no way they would award us with the contract. I was right.
I know people can be forgiving but if I were looking for someone to deliver a multi-million pound contract, I would want someone who shows competency from the get-go.
Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes we don’t realise we’ve made a mistake until it’s too late. Sometimes, we get away with them. Sometimes we don’t! However, it’s also important to remember that not everything is considered a mistake – i.e. difficulty pronouncing a word, or remembering a specific name or forgetting where we were. More often than not, these sort of things usually go unnoticed so don’t over think things.
I’d now like to share three tips on what to do if you make a mistake in your presentation.
Remain calm and relax
Mistakes are inevitable – not only in presentations but in everything – business, relationships, when driving, in meetings, when cooking, everything. The best thing to do for your presentation and for the audience is to remain calm and focus on the solution.
Act as if you know mistakes are inevitable rather than acting shocked and panic stricken.
When the error happens (delivering wrong information, projector stops working, disruptions etc) focus on what you can do to rectify the situation quickly.
For example, if you’re delivering a presentation and the projector stops working, ask someone to quickly fix it. Don’t whisper it to someone or hope someone has spotted it and will jump to the rescue, but confidently ask for help. Then either continue with the presentation, offer a break or leave the presentation to one side and interact directly with the audience.
Own up to your mistake
It could be something as small as a spelling error on your slide or a huge mistake like opening the wrong slide deck in front of major decision makers! Either way, own up to it and apologies if you need to (for example for wasting the audiences time or if you delivered wrong information). It’s always better to own up to your mistake rather than have someone else point it out to you which can put extra stress on you and make you feel uncomfortable.
Make a joke
Don’t poke fun or blame anyone else – people don’t need to be belittled as a result of something that has naturally gone wrong. Learn to laugh at yourself – especially if you’re embarrassed.
A good friend of mine, who’s an international speaker, tripped on his way to the stage. He quickly said “that’s the first time I’ve ever fallen for a man” referring to the host who introduced him. Everyone laughed and Johnny just got on with it When the audience laugh, they quickly forget what happened and everyone is eager for the presentation to continue or start.
The only time a mistake can be deadly is if you offend someone. I’ve seen this happen before and it’s very difficult, if at all possible, to gain back the trust and respect of your audience. Everything else can be handled easily if only you put a plan B in place, organise yourself, plan in advance and be ready for anything!
We know mistakes are inevitable but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a plan B in place. Prepare in advance! Check your slides a few times before the real thing, make sure the spelling, data, stats, quotes and information in your presentation and on the slides are all correct.
Have someone check it over for you if you have to. Be totally open and transparent if something does go wrong and take responsibility and act on the solution. And make sure you have a fantastic presentation prepared so that the audience don’t care about the mistake, they just want the information you have.
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