Presenting when you’re not at your best

How am I not at my best?

A hole in my mouth

A while ago I lost a tooth. It was a biggie, but at the back of my mouth, so it doesn’t show. (I’ll spare you the photographs!). In the grand scheme of things it’s not so big – it’s just a tooth, after all. Even a ‘big’ tooth isn’t really all that big.

But I’ve noticed it’s had quite an effect upon my presentation delivery and I’ve had to work to compensate.  For example, it makes me mis-pronounce things occasionally. It’s not serious and it’s probably not anything anyone else would notice, but I do. It also seems to affect the amount of saliva in my mouth.

But more importantly – much more importantly, it makes me self-conscious. And as soon as a presenter becomes too aware of him/her self there are problems. For example, I hesitate for half a second before I smiled a couple of times on stage last week. Nothing serious, just enough to notice. And I’ll bet I’m not alone, everyone is super-sensitive to their mouth

A bulge in my leg

Statue of Achillies

Yes, I really am this good looking. Honest.

I’m currently ‘carrying’ (as sports people say) an injury: I have an inflamed Achilles tendon in my left leg. When I do nothing with it, it’s fine, but as soon as I move on it, it hurts. The treatment is rest, ice, acupuncture and so on. It’s officially a PITA. Limping as you make presentations is a serious hinderance and it led me to making a big mistake in a training session last week. I was in pain, the room was pathetically small, over-crowded and hand all kinds of holes and wires over the floor. My brain was only partially in the game.

The question, of course, is how to make a good presentation even if you’re not up for it.  We’ve all had to handle injuries or illness at some point and in an everyday job you can just take it easy for a while. You don’t have that luxury when everyone is looking at you.

Here’s the main problem. Research I uncovered for my last book suggests that people are far too keen to overgeneralise: if you’re not impressive, your content won’t be perceived as impressive, either – or at least there’s a significant risk.

So what do you do?

To quote my elder daughter (a doctor): take two paracetamol and man the **** up, Dad. (Good to see all that money I spent on medical school wasn’t wasted, eh?!)

More seriously, here are a few options, in no particular order.

  • Admit it. Do an internal stock-check. You can’t deal with what you don’t know is there. Sounds obvious, right?  But how many times have you tried to ‘just soldier on’ when you shouldn’t have? No false heroics here, please!
  • See if you can re-schedule. Sometimes you can’t, but better to consider it than screw up. Delaying by a week or a month is better than going ahead and falling flat on your face, metaphorically (or even literally in the case of my limp!)
  • Think about getting someone else to present, or at least present with you. We all need backup at some point.
  • Consider turning it from a presentation into something more of a workshop: ideas from the floor and conversations between your audience can give you some great work. Again, it’s not always appropriate, but think about it.
  • Drugs. Take whatever it takes to get you through. (Or bandages or painkillers or whatever). Don’t forget to put time in your diary after the presentation to deal with the consequences though.  You’re not Superman. And even if you are you just got hit with Kryptonite.
  • Confess. Apologising isn’t always the best way to start a presentation but sometimes you just have to address the elephant in the room. Don’t dwell on it – just through it out there and move on. I can’t stress that enough.  If you dwell on it it sounds like excuses. My experience is that it’s best to mention it in passing at some appropriate point near the start of the presentation ‘in passing’.
  • Check your tech. This is one for all of those presenters who fancy themselves as story-tellers. Great: you should be – but if your story-telling style involves bouncing around a lot and you can’t do that, consider using a different style/technology/approach. I’m a very high-energy presenter, so this is one I’ve fallen back on quite a few times ;)
  • Accept it. So long as no-one dies it’s not been a disaster, has it! Life has more important things than the perfect presentation. So long as it does what it needs to do, all is well. It doesn’t need to be perfect, just effective.

Okay – I’m sure you’ve got more ideas!  Let’s hear ’em!

Simon is one of the UK's most highly regarded presentation skills trainers and professional speakers in the fields of presenting, confidence and emotional resilience.

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