How to recover from a presentation disaster

Photo credit: Roger Smith

Getting no feedback from your audience is hard. That’s what happened to a reader, Emma, this week:

I did a 20-minute presentation during a lunch yesterday and I’m feeling pretty terrible about it.  I would love to tell you all of the details about what I felt went wrong but I am sure that would turn into a very long email. I felt like people were looking at me like a deer caught in headlights. Now I feel anxious and embarrassed that maybe people hated the presentation and that I’m ruined now and that everyone will say, oh, don’t get her to speak – she was boring!  I’m feeling like any chance of speaking becoming a paid gig has been eradicated.

There are two parts to recovering from an experience like this. The first is to examine your thinking around the ‘disaster’. The second is to take active steps to recover from it.

Examine your thinking

Part of Emma’s problem is that she’s not had any objective feedback about how this presentation went. In the absence of proper feedback she’s got a stream of negative thoughts swirling round her head. I don’t know whether Emma’s presentation was good or bad, but here’s what I do know:

1. You can’t tell how a presentation went just by looking at people

Emma didn’t get much positive nonverbal feedback from her audience. She felt like they were just starting at her blankly and she was like a deer caught in the headlights. And she made the worst possible assumptions about what the audience were thinking. Like:

“…maybe people hated the presentation.”

“…she was boring.”

Here’s the thing: you can’t tell what an audience member is thinking by the way that they look. A person can look totally blank and yet be intensely interested in what you’re saying. If you went to the front of a movie theater and looked back at the audience you’d probably be looking out on a sea of slack-jawed blank faces.

I’ve been constantly surprised by people in my audience who looked totally bored and disinterested or even cynical and then I’ve talked to them later and found that they enjoyed it and found it interesting and valuable.

When I see a person who looks bored I still have a little voice in my head that pipes up  “Oh you’re bombing, they’re bored.” I fight back against that voice by saying “No, that’s not true. You don’t know that they’re bored. Plenty of times people look bored but are in fact getting lots of value.”  The voice shuts up. That allows me to just get on with delivering my presentation and engaging with people.

2. All audiences are different

Emma is assuming that because her audience looked blank they didn’t like the presentation. But the way an audience reacts to a presentation is often more about the audience than about the presentation. Audiences can react to the same presentation in many different ways. Because I deliver roughly the same material all the time I’m reminded of this constantly. I’ll deliver the same material and get different reactions. Some of the factors that influence their reaction are:

Confidence: an audience full of confident people will generally give you lots of nonverbal feedback – nodding, smiling etc. If they’re not confident they may not even make eye contact with you. For example, in our Introduction to Presenting course which is tailored for nervous beginners I know that some participants are unlikely to make eye contact with me during the first hour. I’m now prepared for this.

How well they know each other: an audience of friends will be very different to an audience of strangers. An audience of friends who trust each other are likely to laugh more, banter with you etc. I experience this when we run an inhouse course for a tightly-knit team compared to a public course where no-one knows each other to begin with.

My partner, Tony, does some amateur acting. The cast deliver exactly the same play night after night. But the audience reaction can be different every night.

What’s the point of this? When you’re in front of people speaking you feel vulnerable and you’re primed to take it personally. But, the audience reaction (or lack of it) is not necessarily about you.

3. Your perceptions can be very faulty

Emma felt flustered and felt that she was bombing. Just because she felt that way doesn’t mean it was true.

I have a good friend who presents regularly all over the world. One particular presentation, things went wrong for her at the start, she got rattled and she thought the whole presentation was an absolute unmitigated disaster. Luckily, on that trip she’d taken her 23 year old daughter with her. Her daughter was able to set her straight and tell her that the presentation was fine. Maybe not her best performance ever – but fine.

4. Even if your presentation was boring, is that the end of the world?

It’s very easy when you’ve had an unpleasant experience to catastrophize. Emma said:

“I’m ruined.”

“I’m feeling like any chance of speaking becoming a paid gig has been eradicated.”

This is catastrophizing. It’s a very normal human reaction….And it’s your brain playing tricks on you.

To stop your brain playing these tricks on you, you need to challenge what you’re saying to yourself. Is it true that if a person gives a boring speech they will never become a good speaker?

I don’t think so!

Here’s a comment about a speaker: “He was stiff and monotonous, and he spoke like a poli-sci professor-a pedantic lecturer who used lots of deadly boring, neutron bomb language.”

That speaker was Obama.

So even if you’re presentation was boring – that doesn’t mean anything about the future. Becoming a great engaging presenter is something you can learn, it’s not a talent that you have to be born with.

Take active steps to recover

1. Get feedback

Part of Emma’s problem is that she has no objective feedback to balance the terrible feedback she’s giving herself. I’ve recommended to Emma that she ask for feedback from the meeting organizer.

If you’re prone to this type of catastrophizing after a presentation there are two things you can do:

  • take a friend with you who can tell you how it went.
  • arrange with the meeting organizer to gather feedback from the audience.

2. Get back on the horse

As soon as you can gather together a few good friends – two or three will do. Deliver your presentation to them. Ask them to give you lots of positive non-verbal feedback while you’re talking eg: nodding and smiling. This is the equivalent of “getting back on the horse”. Give yourself a positive experience speaking to start to outweigh the unpleasant experience you had. There is scientific evidence that this is worthwhile. Ask your friends for straight feedback.

In summary, the advice I gave to Emma was to manage her thoughts to put her nightmare speaking experience into perspective and take active steps so that she don’t have to go through the same thing again. What advice would you have for Emma?

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  1. I found Emma’s case or example above typical of many of the responses I get from people wanting support around presenting. One of the first things that they mention to me is that their last presentation was a real ‘flop’ or ‘disaster’ and, that they felt they not only let the audience down but themselves as well. My first suggestion to them is that we examine why we are so harsh on ourselves and once we are able to come up with some reasonable responses we then move on. There are so many unknowns that each individuals brings along with them that it is fruitless trying to outguess what it is that they may be thinking, or how they are feeling at that moment. However, those who are continually looking for ways to improve in their presenting skills, will always see things that probably don’t exist, until someone else can verify otherwise.

    • Hi Todd

      I think it can be useful for individuals to examine their own thinking and identify the specific thought patterns that contribute to their feelings. This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which is a mainstream therapy for severe anxiety and depression. It’s a useful approach for reducing the fear of public speaking too. Once a person becomes skilled at identifying their faulty thinking and replacing that with more useful thought patterns they then have more control over their feelings.

      I do agree that it is also useful for a person to get external feedback to provide an objective reference point.


  2. Emma’s case is very common. Whenever you present it’s very important to remain confident no matter how you think your audience is responding. It’s good to be able to read an audience, but not to allow what seems like bad responses to discourage you during your presentation or after.

    Getting feedback is a very important tool in gaging your performance and relying too heavily on your own imperfect judging is not.

    I’ve been a part of creating a community of speakers that will hopefully provide constructive feedback for people like Emma and myself. Hope it catches on and we can all benefit from it!

    • Hi Zach
      Thanks for the points you’ve made. I agree with you that we can be imperfect judges of our own performance – and also can be inaccurate in trying to mindread the audience.

  3. Dear Olivia:
    This is a great post, one I can personally identify with.

    For several years, I traveled around the USA presenting day-long graphic design seminars. It never ceased to amaze me how difficult it was to judge the quality of my presentations from the front of the room.

    There would be days when I felt really good about the presentation, yet the evaluations were terrible. Other days, I felt I was presenting to cardboard cut-outs, and I’d get sparkling evaluations.

    Often, days after a “poor” presentation, I’d receive letters talking about how my presentation helped attendees change careers!

    I also appreciated your “audiences” are different subhead, and encourage you to return to the topic in the future.

    Anyway, I’m referring this post to my clients, and am glad to have discovered your blog and empathetic writing style.


    • Hi Roger
      Thank you for sharing your experiences. You’ve made the point I was making even more concrete. And I think it’s so useful for presenters at the beginning of the presenting journey to realise this so that they don’t beat themselves up necessarily.

      And thank you for your comments on my blog :-).


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