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Presentation Tips: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

In this article, we have different people giving advice on what to do when things go wrong during a presentation or public speaking.
Children in a workshop
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

We asked the Presenter Network ‘what do you do when things go wrong mid-presentation?’.


Here is what they said:

Remember that the audience didn’t see your rehearsal. They haven’t read your script. They (probably) haven’t seen your show/talk before. They don’t know what was meant to happen! Breathe, relax, enjoy the show anyway. Phil – University Outreach Officer.
I would say, always have a plan B that you can revert to quickly! Angela – Stakeholder engagement.
I work with school groups primarily, so my definition of ‘wrong’ would be that an experiment failed, or that a class was misbehaving so much that it wasn’t safe/suitable to continue with the session as planned. In the case of a failed experiment, I try to not be too flustered, and then use it as a talking point that science sometimes doesn’t go to plan, and with older groups would ask them to think about what might have happened for it to have gone wrong (e.g. faulty equipment, wrong measurements, wrong kit), and what they would do if they were ‘real’ scientists. I’ve only had one group misbehave to the extent that I couldn’t continue with the session as planned. Most of the time, you can lean on the teacher to help with behavior, and often teachers will step in before I do. In this case, the teacher themselves seemed to have little control of the class. So I ran the first part of the experiment very strictly (e.g. instead of giving class instructions and then letting pupils do the experiment in a group, I dictated what exactly to do and then removed the kit from them as quickly as possible), and then did a general space Q&A instead of the rest of the session. Em – STEM educator and communicator.
The most important thing is remain calm, keep focused and stay in control. Work the with materials and resources that you can and communicate well with those around, using humour, warmth and empathy to engage and help people understand. Phil – presenter.
Blag! That power of blagging things is something that I have learned. Always have a back-up plan and if something goes wrong live on stage, don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. Science doesn’t always work and sometimes as presenters, we prove just that! Emma – lecturer and science communicator.
We’ve all been there… Everyone has an experience of things going wrong – have a laugh about it together – it will most likely endear you to an audience more than anything else, especially if you let your personality and humanity shine from the off – take a deep breath and carry on. You will know if there’s a chance you can quickly re-set and try again if, for example a demonstration has failed, but some are all or nothing one shot moments – draw a line and carry on. Sometimes I have had a “red button” video of such “Here’s one we prepared earlier…” or “Here’s what you would have won…” if essential to the narrative. And if you need to take time to fix something then go ahead – smile, say so and do so. Get the audience to whistle or hum their “favorite” on-hold music… anything really… Fear not. A great experience is not a matter of perfection. Sid – freelance science communicator.
Don’t panic. We are all humans and we all know how challenging public speaking is. I’d be honest and light hearted about it and try to pick something up on your subject and just start talking, maybe a funny story or your favorite anecdote. This will calm you down if it’s a subject you know and love and you will find your flow again. Jane – presenter.
If there is anything in the rest of the session that could go drastically wrong, skip it. Replace it with Q&A, or something from a different presentation that can’t go wrong. If there are no other options: power through, and have a good cry later. Bryony – astronomer.
First of all it doesn’t matter and is part of the experience of a live show, it happens and can add an extra dimension to the presentation. With certain experiments you can have another go or stop with an explanation of what should have happened, maybe a prompt if possible for the audience to have a go themselves at home. With any other issues, adapt and go with the flow, the audience hasn’t seen the script, they are not aware of what edits you might be making and what they could be missing, as long as you don’t tell them they will be happy with what they experience. Final tip practice a lot so you know what might and will go wrong and read around the topic you are presenting about to help answer questions and fill gaps if you have to change course halfway through. Laurence – museum manager.
A vital skill you learn from presenting workshops and over time is the confidence and ability to adapt and accept the error. People love watching something go wrong! As long as you address it so it isn’t a background distraction, it often makes the presentation much more memorable… cue tortoises mating very loudly mid talk. Emily – zoo education officer.
Just roll with it! One of the “scary” aspects of presenting can be worrying about it all going wrong. However, your audience have no idea of how it’s “supposed to look” and they also understand that you are a human being. Sometimes tech goes wrong and things don’t go to plan so make a joke about it and move forward. One of the great pleasures in life is being able to laugh about unexpected moments, get your audience in on that feeling and make a “mess” into a memorable moment. Lucy – Widening Participation and Outreach in HE.
I try and give the participants something to do. If we’re talking about a specific topic, I’ll ask them to write down (or think of) several things related to the topic while I get things back in order. If it will only take a second, I’ll explain that I just need a moment, and please bear with me. People are a lot more understanding than you expect. Don’t let it fluster you and shake you out of the zone. Take a deep breath, remind yourself this is not going to destroy your presentation, do what you have to do to get back on track, and restart with confidence. The biggest problem is not actually how you handle the issue, but that you can still continue strong without letting it ruin the rest of the session. Danielle – presenter.
Audiences are usually quite forgiving, and there is a reason they want to watch a presenter rather than read a textbook, so a bit of showmanship is required! Entertain the audience first and get them out the door, then you’ll have the time to properly investigate what went wrong with the planned session. Ed – astronomer.
People love seeing you struggling and hopefully coping. Relax, go with the flow and do what you can. If the tech fail kills a demo or section of the show, apologise and move on. Also make a plan for what you will do. Can you cope with a camera going down, a demo failing? With respect to demos, weigh up the risk a demo poses (i.e. how likely is it to fail) when compared to the impact on the audience. Dump any demo that is high risk and low impact. Finally, have some spare content up your sleeve in case you are cut short – a few demos, a narrative detour and so on. Marty – presenter.
© Royal Observatory Greenwich
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