You’ve finally scored that big speaking engagement, prospective client pitch, or the opportunity to present your big idea to management within your organization. You’ve spent hours preparing. You’ve tortured your colleagues by guilting them into listening to your presentation or speech ad nauseum. If the speech involves the participation of others, you’ve developed a material preparation schedule and schedule a series of pre-presentation check-ins to make sure everyone is 110% prepared (and if you are a kindred spirit of mine, you will have supplemented your handouts – any everyone else’s – with approximately 2,841 color-coded adhesive tabs and sticky notes). You get a good night’s sleep the night before the big event and walk into the room well-rested and pretty sure you are going to conquer the world.

…And then “it” happens. That breathtakingly stupid thing that, despite your best efforts, unfolds in what seems to be painfully slow motion before your very eyes. In some cases, “it” is a technology issue that results in your meticulously-prepared PowerPoint failing to project or – even worse – failing to load, treating everyone in the room to a blank screen or a prolonged viewing of the much-loathed “Loading” screen (aka the spinning blue wheel of death). In other cases, “it” may be a co-presenter going rogue and taking the presentation in the absolute worst direction possible. Or, “it” may take the especially amazing form of some loud-mouthed self-appointed “expert” in your audience who feels the need to raise his or her hand, hijack your presentation, and point out all of the things he or she believes you are not covering adequately and/or appropriately.

The instant you realize that “it” is indeed happening, your initial reaction – whether or not you are able to stifle it – can only adequately be described as the reaction of Michael McKean’s character in Spinal Tap (David St. Hubbens, named for the Patron Saint of Quality Footwear) as he watches in awestruck horror while a 36” replica of Stonehenge is slowly lowered to the stage next to him. And, as was the case for Mr. St. Hubbens, you will be confronted with two hard realizations: (1) something has gone terribly wrong, and (2) there is nothing you can do other than mitigate the damage. This, my friends, is your “Stonehenge Moment.”

To co-opt an oft-used expression about something equally as unpleasant, “Stonehenge happens.” Regardless of who you are, how many speeches/pitches/presentations you make, and how much you prepare, it will happen to you. What separates the good speakers/presenters from the rest is their ability to handle the situation gracefully and effectively. Instead of letting a Stonehenge Moment send them into a complete tailspin, good speakers are able to recover without missing a beat. While this skill comes naturally to some people (damn them), it is a learned skill for most of us.

 So…what do you do when Stonehenge happens?

  1. Take a breath, and do not speak until you are in a position to form a coherent sentence that you can articulate in a relaxed fashion. While this may sound overly basic, many times our initial impulse will be to start filing up any empty air with whatever stream of consciousness happens to be racing through our brain at that given time. Although it may initially feel better to fill the air rather than sit in silence, most things that come out of your month while you are in David St. Hubbens mode will not behoove you. (Additionally, if your “it” is situation number 3 above, you do not want to give your heckler the satisfaction of seeing that he/she rattled you.)
  2. Assess the actual impact (if any) the event had on your audience. When we Type As meticulously plan things out in our head, any deviation from that plan may seem like a HUGE deal to us, even if they are not  a huge deal to the audience. If your PowerPoint didn’t load, and you are in a room of auditory learners, perhaps it is not as big of a deal to them as it is to you. If that heckler in the audience is “that person” who insists upon being a jerk to every presenter, the audience may not give him/her much credence (in fact, they may apologize to you for his/her behavior afterwards). If your team member or co-panelist goes rogue, perhaps there is an opportunity to provide your viewpoint or steer the conversation back on track with minimal disruption to the overall presentation.
  3.  Determine what damage, if any, was caused. While this can sometimes be difficult to do in settings with large audiences, it is usually quite simple to do during smaller meetings. Look at changes in body language among your listeners, note what topics they seem to be asking questions about, and be receptive to any and all follow-up questions they ask. Many times, if a group is engaged in your presentation, they will ask follow-up questions to provide you with the opportunity to clarify any missteps and get back on track. If you feel that it would be helpful to provide the group with some additional information related to their questions in written form, you could offer to provide that additional information to them as a separate document following the presentation.
  4.  Determine what steps (if any) you could take to better manage future Stonehenge Moments. If, after at least 48 hours has passed, you still feel that that your presentation was indeed a disaster, pull the proverbial black box from the wreckage and analyze the data to see what you could have done differently. Looking back, would there have been any way to get into the meeting room early to fix any A/V problems? Would it have been helpful to have one last check-in with your panel/team immediately before the meeting to make sure everyone is still on the same page? Could you have found a way to politely ask the jerk in the audience to hold his/her questions until the end, or offer to discuss a topic in more detail with them one on one after the presentation, in order to keep the rhythm of your presentation going? While rehashing an unpleasant situation is painful, sometime it does provide some new insights.
  5. Move on. DO NOT let a Stonehenge Moment prevent you from accepting future speaking or presentation opportunities. While your initial desire may be to hide behind your desk (or under your desk in the fetal position), the more time you spend wallowing the harder it will be to get back out there and put your Stonehenge Moment in the rearview mirror. Turn the amp up to 11, and carry on!