If you want to deliver a successful business presentation then your material needs to be engaging, the message clear and the audience attentive.  But what happens when things don’t go according to plan?  How are you going to react?  Will the presentation ultimately fail?

Although there may not be much you can do about what has gone wrong – you can still save your presentation and your embarrassment by improving your ability to react confidently and appropriately.

Presentations by Toastmasters. Credit Toastmasters
Presentations by Toastmasters

Here are some tips to help improve your ability to react on your feet:


  • The elephant in the room

Never ignore the elephant in the room.  It could be anything from the cold coffee, the ugly wallpaper or indeed some audience member wearing a bright football shirt.  Whatever it is it will distract you and the audience – unless it is addressed.  Make a comment like “Does anyone else find it hot in here?” or “Good win at the weekend?”  Empathy with the audience is important to allow them to connect with you and, as a bonus, they are then more likely to forgive you if anything does go wrong.

  • Equipment failing

Technology will fail. Fact.  Whether this is the overhead projector, laptop or sound system.  How you react to this, under stress, may well dictate the success of your presentation.  Most people are willing to help if asked, so ask early as opposed to sweating it out alone. If people can see there is a problem and it is being addressed quickly they are less likely to blame you or be put-off.  Always arrive early and ensure you are comfortable that all the technology is working correctly – this doesn’t guarantee a problem free presentation, but it will help – a lot.

  • Heckling

You may be heckled – it’s a fact of life if you give presentations.  This can happen for a number of reasons in the business world; a participant wanting to be heard, wanting to promote their own business, hoping to undermine your authority or maybe they just don’t like you!  A simple phrase like “Thank you for your contribution” or “That’s interesting, let’s talk at the break” should allow you to regain your authority.  If all else fails, and you are sure you have the rest of the audience on your side, you can ask the heckler to leave. But this should be a last resort.

  • Awkward question

Awkward questions are often posed in an effort to throw the speaker.  Paraphrase the question and ask them directly if your understanding is correct.  This will allow everyone else to clearly hear the question, will put you in control, while also buying you time in coming up with a formulated response.  Alternatively, if the question is deliberately antagonistic say something like; “That’s an interesting question. Before I give you my answer, you tell me, how would you deal with that?

  • Chatter at the back of the room

Remember as a speaker or MC you should be in control at all times.  If the audience is getting restless, don’t ignore this.  Suggest taking a five minute break to re-energise.  Remember people have different attention spans so don’t charge on with a presentation if nobody is listening.  If it’s just one or two people who clearly aren’t paying attention and are whispering at the back of the room – stop, stay silent for a moment, look at them, and then ask for their permission to continue. The whisperers will stop talking because they don’t want to be the centre of attention.

  • Use of mobile devices

Never ask the audience to close their laptops.  No one likes to be told what to do.  It’s like being back in school.  While some of the audience may well be surfing the Internet, others may be making valuable notes while you speak or indeed further researching some of your topics.  If a mobile goes off, don’t stare at the person either, instead try saying “I’d better check that mine is off”.

  • Not connecting with the audience

Ask questions that involve getting a show of hands.  This gets the audience involved.  At many business presentations the audience may not know their neighbour in the next seat.  Why not give them a few minutes for introductions?  Professionals in any business are ordinary people with a sense of humour too, so use humour to grab their attention where possible.

  • You freeze and lose your place

This is many speakers’ worst fear. But there are ways out. For example; pause, take a sip of water to give yourself time to think of what you were saying pre brain freeze. Or, ask the audience what you last said or have an emergency line ready like If someone wants to jump in right here, it’s okay with meor Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most”.

  • Practice thinking on your feet

You will learn from your failures, true, but why not get a head start. For example, public speaking groups, like Toastmasters, offer the opportunity to practise thinking on your feet by giving impromptu speeches on various topics you may no knowledge on.  This is in an environment where failure is ok and your business will not suffer as a result.  By developing these skills you will improve your confidence and it may well save you if cornered in a tricky business situation.

  • Stock of phrases to get you out of difficult situations

No one, especially those with business acumen, appreciates a presenter bluffing their way out of a situation, so never resort to over used phrases.  Coin your own phrases or build up a stock of quotations or add your own slant to them. Always reference the author.  For example, “Winston Churchill once said ‘A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty’, well I wish I had Churchill’s optimism right now!


Preparation and practice are the keys to overcoming any hurdles in delivering a business presentation.  Rarely do business presentations run flawlessly.  Remember people may not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel, so do bring that human touch to any business presentation you give.


About the Author:

Michael Collins is from Toastmasters International.




About Toastmasters International

Toastmasters International is a nonprofit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations.

To find your local club: Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter.




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