The complaints started within the first half hour of the course:

“I don’t understand what this means”.

“This is too hard for us”.

“This doesn’t work for the presentations that I have to do.”

By the end of the day I was exhausted and dispirited.

At some point in your presenting career something similar may happen to you – your content simply doesn’t land for your audience, your technology breaks down or you don’t get the result you were hoping for.

Here are seven mental strategies to help you recover from a presentation disaster. You’re likely to resonate with some and not others. Choose what works for you.

1. Allow yourself some time to dwell on the disappointment

We live in a society that encourages us to “think positive” all the time. But uncomfortable emotions are a normal part of life. Accepting the disappointment will allow you to let it go more easily and move on. If in the past you’ve stewed about failure in a way that disrupts your life, then give yourself a time limit to experience the disappointment and then use the mental strategies below to help you move on.

2. Practice Self-compassion

We often talk to ourselves in very harsh ways. For example:

“Oh, you’re such a loser. You should have known that somebody was going to ask that question and you should have researched the answer. You came across like a total pillock.”

Can you imagine talking to your best friend like that. No. you’d be more likely to say to them:

“That was a very tricky question that audience member asked. You couldn’t have predicted that. And you did your best to answer it.”

Talk to yourself like you would talk to your best friend.

3. It doesn’t mean anything about you

It’s easy when it comes to a disastrous presentation to conclude that you are the disaster, that you’re incompetent and unworthy.

But this is not the case.

My husband Tony used to do some amateur acting and so had the experience of repeating the same play with the exact same script several days in a row. Some nights the audience expressed their enjoyment and appreciation loudly, some nights nothing. Exact same script, exact same performance. Different audience.

Coming back to your presentation, it could simply be the audience. But even if it was your content that was wrong, or your technology that broke down, your presentation disaster doesn’t mean anything about you as a person.

4. Put it into perspective

There are two ways of doing this:

  1. Imagine yourself 10 years from now. How will you feel then about this presentation? Will you even remember it?
  2. How disastrous is this presentation compared to other things in your life that have gone wrong or could go wrong? Your health or the health of a loved one? A breakdown of a relationship? Most disastrous presentations are not that bad.

5. Look for the silver lining

Whenever something goes wrong with a presentation, it’s an opportunity to work out why it went wrong, and to improve how you do things next time you present. For example, with my experience with the confused course participants I could look for how to make the material clearer and how to pre-empt participant concerns before they happened.

6. Who knows whether it’s good or bad

Humans are great at making meaning. As soon as an event happens, we’ll evaluate it and slap a label on it – good or bad.

You may have come across the classic story from the Chinese Taoist tradition about a farmer and his horse:

One day his horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.

But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

This story can go on forever, alternating between events which seem good, and those that seem bad.

In this spirit, you don’t know whether this disastrous presentation is good or bad. In fact…

7. Devastating failure often sets the stage for later success

I’ve been reading Tim Ferris’s latest book . The book is a compilation of people’s answers to a set of questions posed by Tim. One of the questions is:

“What’s failure in your life that has set the stage for a later success?”

The answers to this question are mind blowing. Some of these people suffered devastating professional failures which contributed directly to stunning achievements.

Use these strategies next time you have a disappointing experience with a presentation. And let me know what strategies you’ve found useful to recover from a presentation disaster.


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