Sudha Mani is a tech entrepreneur and management consultant who has sat through and made many presentations during her career. Not all have gone well, including the time she found herself on the wrong end of a technology glitch at a crucial funding pitch. "I was relying on visual material to explain my product, and when that didn't work, it was very difficult to get investors to understand what I was talking about," she says.
The irony of being stymied by technology wasn't lost on Mani. She recognised that, while she was well able to talk tech, she was less good at storytelling. Had she been able to wax lyrical about her vision for her business, it might have saved the day. Determined not to get caught out again, Mani joined Toastmasters International to improve her presentation and communication skills and is an active member of the British and Irish district, which has more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members.
“I acquired skills at Toastmasters that went way beyond what I was expecting,” she says. “You learn so much about how to present yourself, to be succinct, to tell and use stories and how to ‘read’ an audience.”
Mani’s main piece of advice for anyone speaking in public to an audience big or small is to have a plan B ready to kick in if there’s a problem. Hitches can include an AV that doesn’t work, an unruly member of an audience, forgotten prompt cards or a colleague determined to score points by interrupting or asking unsettling questions.
Preparation, and checking that everything is working before you start, are givens. But if Murphy’s Law does strike, most people’s biggest fears are that they will freeze like a rabbit in the headlights or go into a blind panic. One way of avoiding both is to have a simple coping strategy already mapped out that you can pull off the shelf at any time.
“Have a glass of water nearby and take a sip, as it seems to settle the nerves better than trying to remember to take deep breaths,” Mani says. “If you have written a script, bring it with you in hard copy and you can speak from it if the slides don’t work, for example. If you’ve forgotten to do that but have brought a handout for people, use that instead to give you direction.
“Above all, remember that you know your subject. You have a lot of knowledge and, once you can steady your nerves, you can relax and use it. If you can, make a little joke about the problem to put the audience at ease and then try to carry on as if nothing has happened.”
Mani says one technique she has used while regrouping is to throw a question at the audience to stop any restlessness and to get them involved.
Defeat the heckler
She also has practical advice for dealing with unruly questions from the floor or a difficult colleague in company settings. “I don’t finish on the Q&A, I always stop it about 10 minutes before the end so I have the opportunity to settle things down and make my closing statement,” she says.
“If someone is being particularly challenging or persistent, I invite them to talk to me afterwards or to send me an email.” In Mani’s experience if the disrupter has an answer, they will usually come up to her. If they don’t, they generally disappear. She says their questions are often more about flexing their authority (or their ego) than about a genuine interest in the subject matter.
“You don’t see this type of individual very often in public seminars, but you may experience them in business meetings,” she says. “They attend the meeting and are passive-aggressive or ask inappropriate questions. They may do this especially when their peers (or managers) are around to show what they know. Handle these people very carefully. They may be decision makers or individuals with authority who can make or break a deal or damage your credibility.”
Even with the best-laid plans, there may be times when a presentation gets hijacked by crossfire between others. Should this happen, don’t let yourself get dragged into the confrontation. Drop the pitch of your voice and speak quietly so people have to stop to listen. Then pull the conversation back to the topic and either finish the meeting and/or suggest the issue is returned to at another time.
If you are nervous about handling an audience, especially if there is likely to be hostility, it’s useful to have some questions prepared to buy time and breathing space. An example would be to ask the person to elaborate on the point they are making.
Difficult moments can also be diffused by acknowledging someone’s idea but saying you see it differently and using a neutral phrase such as “May I explain why?” to get things back on message.
It may also be useful to clarify an issue by going over what you’ve heard the person say but kicking off your sentence with a non-confrontational comment such as “what I’m taking away from what you just said is ... ”
One of the classic googlies that unsettles presenters is being asked a question they don’t know the answer to. This is where it pays dividends to practise the phrase “let me get back to you on that” until you can say it and move seamlessly on without missing a beat.