How to Pilot Your Way Through Presentation Emergencies

By Heather Baldwin

Next time you’re winging your way across the country to give a sales presentation, take a lesson in polished presentation delivery from the pilots up front, suggests Richard Peterson, chief presentation officer at Thornhill, ON-based Peterson & Associates (, a company that coaches professionals to become more powerful presenters. Peterson isn’t suggesting you tell your audience to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight; rather, he observes that pilots’ preparedness and their ability to handle emergencies is a model for any presenter.

First, he says, consider how commercial pilots train to handle equipment emergencies. They don’t just read about them in a manual, they physically rehearse them in simulators several times a year. Likewise, presenters should not only have contingency plans in place for when their technology mysteriously fails, they should rehearse those plans. So you’ve got a back-up CD of your presentation in case the one on your hard drive suddenly takes a vacation? Great, says Peterson – now practice switching to that CD in the middle of your presentation until you can do it effortlessly and with composure every time. Do the same thing with the handouts you carry as a backup to a total technology failure. In your mind, it may seem an easy thing to switch from projected slides to paper worksheets, but only when you actively rehearse that transition will you be able to pull it off like it was planned all along.
Pilots also provide a model for how to handle the audience during emergencies. They don’t describe every detail about how they’re handling their challenges; they simply pass on information the passengers absolutely need to know, such as when to fasten seatbelts. “Minimize the event,” says Peterson. “Don’t make a grand announcement that something can’t be fixed and now you’re going to shift tactics. Just indicate that now you’re going to take the audience through some printed materials and make the shift. Minimize what took place.”
Finally, when pilots are in mid-flight or you’re in mid-presentation, handling emergencies is all about speed. Peterson says if you can’t solve your technology failure within 90 seconds move on. Resist the urge to keep giving yourself just a few more seconds or you may wind up like the presenter Peterson witnessed spending 20 minutes in the middle of his 45-minute presentation trying to fix a computer glitch. He lost his credibility and his audience, and he never did solve the problem. So practice timing your repair efforts and then switching to the backup plan when 90 seconds ticks by.