One of the benefits of growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, next to the world’s largest naval base, was watching the Blue Angels practice for their annual air show. In case you don’t know, the Blue Angels is a kick-ass group of highly skilled Navy fighter pilots who travel across the country performing high-precision, death-defying maneuvers. Thirty plus years later, I can still hear the roar of those shiny blue jets, whizzing a terrifyingly small distance over the roof tops of my neighborhood — often upside down.
If you’re anything like most people, you would most likely turn down a supersonic jet ride upside down. Not me — it’s tops on my bucket list! Behind the flawless execution of those high-flying pilots is fanatical practice. They spend hundreds of hours in the air and even more time in a flight simulator, a device that mimics the cockpit and actual flight conditions. During their preparation, pilots train for every possible situation, including ejecting when things go really wrong. The insane amount of preparation and practice required to be a successful Blue Angels pilot reminds me of what it takes to be a successful speaker.
Interestingly, one of the most common questions asked by my coaching clients is how they should eject when their presentations go really wrong. We’re talking your worst fears realized: your microphone goes dead; instead of a PowerPoint, you’re staring at a blank screen; or, even worse, you totally lose your train of thought. Like a fighter pilot, the best way to deal with a presentation emergency is before it happens; in other words, you need a contingency plan. The easiest way to create one is to consider every nightmare scenario that could potentially play out on stage and walk through the exercise of thinking, “if this happens, I’ll do that” and “if that happens, I’ll do this.” Working out how to counter each scenario is the equivalent of being in a speaking simulator.
Your goal is to practice speaking to the point at which you can instinctively react to presentation threats. Generally, audiences are forgiving when things go wrong. The key to keeping your credibility intact is to immediately demonstrate control over the situation. For example, if you lose your train of thought, immediately ask your audience, “where was I?” No microphone? Hop down off the stage and speak while strolling up and down the aisle. Your PowerPoint stops working? Summarize what you’ve covered up to that point and turn your tightly scripted presentation into an open discussion with a compelling conclusion.
When faced with presentation emergencies, I highly recommend you employ the Triple A method, which is modeled after contingency plans used by fighter pilots. An easy way to remember it is to think of it as the AAA for your speaking engagement. It comes to the rescue when you’re in an untenable situation.
The first A is for Awareness, which means being alert, informed and accepting.
For pilots, this means constantly examining their physical surroundings and instrument panels. Once imminent danger is detected, the pilot usually has less than 60 seconds to react and, in extreme cases, they have to bail immediately.
As a speaker, your emergency is most likely not life-threatening, although it may feel like. As you’re flying through your presentation, be on the lookout for audio disruptions, non-responsive microphones and blinking or blank PowerPoint screens. Your first step toward gaining control is accepting the reality of your situation.
Once you reach the point of acceptance, move on the second A, which is Assessment — both pilots and speakers must accurately assess their situation to estimate the degree of the danger. The biggest decision for a speaker in the assessment phase is “should my presentation stop or continue?”
The final A is Action, comprised of two, predetermined steps designed to deescalate your situation. When pilots arrive at the brink of disaster, they pull a lever on their seat and ignite rocket boosters that propel them out of the plane and, hopefully, out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, you don’t have that option onstage (although it would make for an unforgettable close), so your first step is to assure your audience that you’re in control and the second is to activate your contingency plan.
The bottom line is, when you’re faced with a presentation emergency, you shouldn’t have to think about what to do. Instead, you should be able to rely on your hard-earned instincts to stay in control and safely land the plane.
Dez Thornton is a communications coach who helps you say the right words in the right way when they matter most! For more information, see www.dezthornton.com.