Have you heard the advice that you should only picture a positive outcome for your talk? That you should only visualize a successful speech in which everything goes according to plan, you breeze through your material, and the audience is lavish in their praise and applause?
I have. I’ve heard this bit of advice come from venerated speakers programs and respected speakers alike. And there is some truth to it – it can be a worthwhile exercise. But by itself, it can be a bit hollow and facetious.
There is another visioning exercise that I think is just as important: picturing the worst thing that is likely to happen. That word “likely” is key: the thing you have to picture must be possible and reasonable.
For most people, unreasonable worst-case-scenarios are:
- Bombing so badly you get fired
- Being laughed or jeered out of the room
- The audience becoming forcefully angry with you
- Not being able to recover if you lose your train of thought and abandoning the presentation half way through
- Hyperventilating, passing out, or crying uncontrollably
- Being publically shamed for not doing a good enough job
Much more likely and reasonable are scenarios look like this:
- Having to debrief with your manager after a not-so-good presentation
- Fielding some tough questions from the audience
- Boring your audience
- Forgetting a bit of your material than remembering it afterwards
- Losing your place and needing to check your notes to get back on track
- Feeling nervous
- Not landing the prospective client you were presenting to
That second list contains things that just about anyone would be able to relate to, and is much less doomsday-ish than the first list of unreasonable scenarios. The second list of realistic poor outcomes is less threatening. It labels your fears and shrinks them down to their actual size.
Once you’ve thought about your realistic worst-case scenarios, you must then think of ways you can mitigate those scenarios. Most of those situations can be remedied with a little bit of planning and effort. Creating those strategies puts you back in control, which further lessens the threat of those scenarios. Here are some sample strategies:
- Create proper, clear speaker notes to refer to if you lose your place
- Practice your material ahead of time so that you are familiar with both your content and the pace of your presentation
- Write down questions that your audience is likely to ask, then think about how you might answer those questions
- Plan on reviving bored or tired audience members by giving them a short break so they can stretch or by including audience participation pieces in your presentation (such as asking them to share their own thoughts, stories, or questions at specific points during your talk)
- Get the audience’s contact information so that you can send them information you may have missed or send them responses to questions that you couldn’t answer during the presentation itself
- If you don’t land a client contract, review the presentation and improve it for the next presentation you give to a prospective client. Keep thinking forward instead of ruminating on the one that got away.
Seeing worst-case scenarios for what they are – realistic situations that you are capable of handling – gives you power as a presenter. It acknowledges that just because things go wrong it doesn’t mean that the presentation was a disaster or that you are a hopeless speaker. It also makes you get in touch with different angles of your presentation and get an even deeper feel for the content and your audience. It’s a powerful activity, one that is often much more useful than just picturing sunshine and rainbows.