When I was in grad school, we sometimes had professors from other universities visit our department to give guest talks. One of these guest talks, however, didn’t go as planned. Things started out just as they always did: the speaker, Dr. Allan Ross (name changed), and the organizers arrived early to set up; faculty members, students, and external guests streamed into the room; and everyone turned their attention to the front, wondering what golden nuggets of scientific knowledge the speaker would offer up that day. However, as people in the audience chatted with friends and colleagues while waiting for the talk to begin, the organizers and Dr. Ross scrambled to solve a problem: they couldn’t get Dr. Ross’s slides to display properly on the projector screen.
The organizers tried one trick after another to fix the problem, including calling the IT department for help, but nothing seemed to work. As the start time for the talk became increasingly delayed and the audience became increasingly impatient, the organizers realized that their biggest fears were about to come true: Dr. Ross would have to present without his slides.
Many of us couldn’t imagine giving a talk without our slides even if we were told in advance that we wouldn’t be able to use them. For this reason, it’s almost impossible to think about what we would do if we were suddenly told right on the spot that we’d have to present without our slides. And yet Dr. Ross found himself in this exact situation. He learned that he would soon have to start speaking without the slides that were supposed to display his key points, illustrate his research findings, and keep the audience engaged. Unless he planned to bolt from the room, it was going to be all on him to do the work that we often expect our slides to do for us.
Sitting in the audience and waiting for Dr. Ross to begin speaking, I was nervous about how the talk would unfold. Would Dr. Ross stumble through a talk that no one could make sense of? Would he freeze at odd moments like a deer in highlights? Would the next hour be just as painful for the audience as it seemed like it would be for Dr. Ross?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t.
If you had watched the talk and weren’t aware of the technical difficulties, you might not have known that Dr. Ross was supposed to present with slides. Using nothing more than his own voice, a whiteboard, and a dry-erase marker, he was able to lay out his points clearly and confidently. He was even familiar enough with his graphs to draw them on the whiteboard.
Having to present without his slides could have been a disaster for Dr. Ross; he could have mumbled incoherently for 60 minutes straight and left everyone to wonder how he had become a professor and who had made the insane decision to invite him to give a guest talk. Instead, all I heard after the talk was praise. People in the audience couldn’t believe that he was able to give such a good talk without slides. In fact, I think he seemed even more impressive to the audience than he would have otherwise because he had the opportunity to show how well he knew his data and the topic he presented on.
Now, I’m not saying that you should ditch your slides during your next presentation. In fact, in most cases, audiences expect you to use slides to help them understand your key points. That said, it never hurts to be prepared for the unexpected. Even if you’re not delivering a startup pitch or an academic job talk—a talk where your performance will make or break your immediate fate—being prepared to present under suboptimal circumstances can only work to your advantage. After all, you never know when someone in the audience at your next conference talk or corporate meeting could be your next investor, hiring manager, or client. Show them that you’ve got this no matter what.
Have any tips for preparing for the unexpected during a presentation? Share them in our comments section below.
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