Skip to main content

It's an awful experience to give a presentation that bombs.

You can feel shocked, humiliated and angry, all at the same time.

You can walk away from your talk convinced that your career has been ruined, and that your colleagues will never speak to you again.

Or, you can decide to deal with reality and demonstrate an invaluable vocational trait called speaker resilience.

Look, bad presentations (and panel discussions and debates) happen to good people.

In fact, the best orators in the world have failed, and in front of millions. On Oct.3, in the first of three election debates, U.S. President Barack Obama fared especially poorly. He appeared distracted, uncertain, and strangely disconnected.

But he recovered to perform solidly in the remaining debates, and, of course, regain the presidency. Mr. Obama came back from a bad outing, and you can too.

Here's how:

Maintain your perspective

There's a tendency, after a terrible speaking experience, to fantasize about cashing in your chips and moving to an undisclosed location, where you'll communicate only by e-mail and handwritten notes.

Relax. You gave a less than stellar presentation. This is not your life, or your health, or your family.

Take a break, and get some perspective. As soon as you get a chance, go for a walk. Look at the sky. It's still there. It hasn't fallen, and neither have you. Not unless you propose to give up – that would be a failure.

Take responsibility

"This is on me," Mr. Obama repeatedly told supporters after his disappointing debate performance.

Spoken like a true adult. Many others aren't so grown-up.

Some senior executives have spoken badly in public for decades, because they haven't had the courage to seek out and implement the feedback that would help make them better, and because the people around them haven't had the courage to tell them the truth.

However, the days when an executive could continually address audiences poorly and retain a leadership position, are rapidly coming to an end.

We live in a communication world. You can fail occasionally. But you can't fail consistently.

Conduct a thorough review

Almost always when we've fallen short in a presentation, it's because we've made the interaction too much about ourselves, and not nearly enough about our listeners.

Once you've regained your composure following your communication malfunction and you can look at the situation more dispassionately, ask for feedback from the organizer of the presentation, and from several audience members.

Don't presume to know how they're feeling, and don't become defensive if they make observations that you consider unfair or erroneous. Perception is everything, and this is invaluable feedback. It's a gift – a tremendous learning opportunity. Your attitude should reflect it.

Look at the recording

The fastest way to improve as a speaker is have your presentations digitally recorded, so you can review the footage later and see yourself as others have seen you.

This isn't an exercise for the faint-hearted, because presenters everywhere tend to be incredibly hard on themselves – predictably criticizing their appearance, their voice, and their gestures.

Cut yourself a great deal of slack here, and make sure you review the recording only when you're feeling good about yourself. Otherwise, you'll drive yourself into a presentation-limiting depression.

You should be observing and assessing how you engaged and served your audience, not obsessing about losing your hair or putting on a few pounds. Deal with your body image issues separately.

A fearless review of the recording should involve how you carried out your responsibilities as a speaker. Did you "connect" with your listeners at the outset by telling them why your remarks would be of value to them?

Did you begin by speaking slowly and clearly? Were you relaxed and conversational? What would have you have done differently?

They're tough questions, but they have to be asked if you're going to recover and prevail as a speaker.

Indeed, they're critical to the process of developing speaker resilience.

Get back to the lectern – soon

As a speaker and communication skills coach, I like to say that I've made every mistake in the presentation handbook, and then some.

In fact, I've invented mistakes.

Following a downer outing (down now, mercifully, to a couple a year), I've always headed back to the lectern as quickly as possible, in order to banish any residual speaking demons, and to infuse my new offering with lessons learned.

If you're coming off a weak presentation, find an audience (pay a bunch of neighbourhood kids to listen to you on your front lawn, if you have to) and speak again.

This time, ensure that your preparation is exhaustive (call a few of your listeners in advance to ascertain their information needs, as well as their preferred style of communication), know your story cold, check out the venue in advance, and rehearse with discipline.

Speaking effectively to others is all about taking as much pressure off yourself, so you can be yourself, selfless, engaging, and well-positioned to tell your listeners stuff they don't know.

When that happens, it's all good.

Jim Gray is a senior associate with Sussex Strategy Group in Toronto. A speaker, and media and presentation skills coach, he is the author of How Leaders Speak. His second book, The Young Leader, will be published in 2013. E-mail: