If you’re not a professional public speaker like myself or my good friend The Public Speaker Lisa B. Marshall , getting in front of a group of people can be incredibly nerve-wracking. But what’s even worse is when you’re unprepared. Because you didn’t plan, the mood has changed, or the deal is no longer on the table, sometimes you just have to regroup and move forward.
Whether it’s stalling for time or asking others for their input to make up for your lack of output, you have to dig deep, keep calm, and carry yourself with grace and poise. To do that, check out my top three quick and dirty tips for how to command a room when you’re unprepared.
1. Keep it a Secret
Here’s one great tip about how to convince people in a room you know what you’re doing: Don’t tell them you’re nervous. That’s a golden rule for landing a solid presentation. Look, everyone is nervous—everyone! Me, Lisa, the President, you name it; if you don’t get nervous—even slightly—before standing in front of a room of people, then your heart is not truly in it. Now, you can be more comfortable than most (which comes with time), but no one can say they don’t get even one butterfly fluttering around their gut. However, the main difference between someone who properly nails a presentation, and someone who fails, is poise. And with that, the best way to keep calm and carry on when things aren’t going your way.
Picture this: You’re watching someone talk to a group of people, and you see him fiddle with his hands, pace more than usual, or even hear him stumble over his words. Now, part of you may say, “Gosh, this person seems very nervous,” while another part of your mind may think, “Maybe this is just his style?” But unless someone admits it, you’ll never know for sure. Folks, if you’re in a jam and realize things are going south, by all means do not bring it up and go with the flow. A proper presenter does not air every small discrepancy in their skill set like, “Oh gee, I’m super nervous right now I hope I don’t mess up,” or “Well, that wasn’t supposed to happen… ” Regardless of the severity, a presentation is a game of mind over matter, and if you don’t mind, it won’t matter! It’s not lying; it’s just about putting on a proper face and remaining professional. When you feel something isn’t going your way, take a drink of water and a deep breath and act as if everything is fine and dandy. Even if someone thinks you’re unprepared, don’t give him verbal reasoning to see it as true, and you’ll survive just fine.
2. Turn the Tables
True story: Sean had to give a large presentation to a room of 10 clients in his office, two months ago. Five minutes before the meeting, his assistant told him that she forgot to print out the PowerPoint presentation as promised. Did he flip out? Yes, yes he did—just not in front of anyone. However, knowing how important this meeting was, he had to find an alternative to simple walking in and saying, “Well, folks things aren’t going my way today—thanks to Joan who had one stinkin’ job !” Thankfully, he took the high road, and did some simple math, based off how fast printers print and how many people are in the room. He figured he had 20 minutes of his hour meeting to stall before the papers were ready—without making it appear as though he was in deep water. To do this, Sean turned the tables on the room and stalled like a champ.
Let’s forget about whose fault it was the papers weren’t there on time and chalk it up to a lack of communication. Either way, Sean was not adequately prepared for the meeting. However, if you’re not prepared, as I said above, no one has to know. After all, if they aren’t expecting papers, then don’t bring it up! It’s as simple as that. But understanding that point, Sean turned the tables and had the room speak to him with some amazing key phrases like:
“So, how is everyone today? Everyone had a good weekend?”
“Before we begin, to get a better understanding of the room, can we do a round of intros?”
“I have a very big agenda, but before I have my assistant present you with materials, I wanted to keep your focus up here first.”
Here, Sean was buying time but not making it look as if he needed it. He used excellent communication skills to engage the room in a manner that took away from being unprepared. Now, depending on your situation, you have to feel out the room and see how long you can actually stretch (as we say in comedy), but it never hurts to engage your audience before taking the main stage yourself. In fact, in most cases, they’ll appreciate the attention.
3. Wrap it Up
When you’re unprepared, you will want time to fly by as fast as possible. However, in most cases, time will melt slower than an icicle in a Minnesota snowstorm. If you’re unprepared, do not try to push the envelope and keep to your designated time. I mean, if you aren’t prepared to carry out with Plan A, don’t drag the room into your ramble of thought, pretending that you know what you’re doing. Now, this isn’t like I said above, where I preached the mantra of playing the part. You should always play the part, but that doesn’t mean you can’t end things early and wrap it up when you feel it’s the right time.
There is nothing wrong with asking an audience if they have any questions and knowing that it could save you from embarrassment. For example, say something like, “Now, I know I ended early but I wanted to make sure that I had ample time for questions. I would never want to leave here without getting a chance for open conversation.” When you do something like this, you tell the room that you care about their feedback. Yes, you’re doing this rather early because you need to save yourself the agony, but again—as I said earlier—the audience doesn’t know that. Be cool, stay calm, and engage your room with a Q&A session. The worst case is no one asks a question, and that’s not your fault; you left it in their hands and were generous enough to share the floor.
As always, if you have another manners question, I look forward to hearing from you at email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter @MannersQDT , and of course, check back next week for more Modern Manners Guy tips for a more polite life.
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