That question was answered when, about halfway through my two-hour presentation, at the climax of an emotional story, the hotel fire alarm went off and everyone had to evacuate. Some 200 attendees and myself raced down the stairwell to safety.
Though it'd be great if every presentation went smoothly, problems do occur. A difficult audience, technical issues, or maybe you're just not at your best that day. The difference between a good presenter and a pro is how well you handle an unfavorable situation.
What to do when the tech fails.
Many presenters rely on some form of technology, whether it's a PowerPoint presentation, video, or even a microphone. When that tech isn't working like it should, it can totally throw you off your game.
More recently, I was speaking at an event where, even after a successful sound check the computer suddenly wouldn't talk to the projector. Then the microphone stopped working.
The best way to handle tech failure is to first have a backup plan. If you typically use your computer to present, make sure you have a jump drive with a backup copy of your deck (which is what I did). If your presentation is complicated and you need the slides to stay on track, print your slides out and bring them with you.
From there, composure is key. The audience will get uncomfortable only if they feel you are uncomfortable. Tech fails happen, everyone knows it. A pro takes it in stride.
Of course, being too calm has caused problems as well; once someone accidentally turned out all the lights in a room during my presentation. It was just me and my slides in the pitch dark for more than five minutes. What took so long for someone to turn the lights back on? They thought it was part of the presentation. (I'm pretty proud of how I handled that one, actually.)
What to do when the audience doesn't seem to like you.
Once I was sitting backstage waiting for my turn to present and listening to the speaker onstage ahead of me. It wasn't pretty. She was great, but the audience was tough. They were silent; every joke flopped and when I walked out on stage shortly after her, I was met with the same serious demeanor. In front of 500 people -- awkward doesn't begin to describe it.
Ideally, every time you give a presentation, the audience will be totally engaged. They'll laugh at your jokes and give you a standing ovation at the end. Sadly, this isn't always the case. Your audience might be too tired, or too warm, or too hungover (for real). They might not want to hear what you have to say. Whatever the reason, there is little worse than standing in front of people who don't seem to want you there.
In these moments, be careful not to overcompensate. There is a reason you've been asked to speak -- be confident in that. Stick to your message, do your thing and they can take it or leave it. In the meantime, find a friendly face in the audience -- there's always at least one -- focus your attention there, and before you know it, your speech will be done.
What to do when it all starts falling apart.
The fire alarm goes off. There's a heckler in the audience. Phones keep ringing. People are walking in and out. When things just get crazy, the best thing to do is just do your best. Preparation helps in these moments. Knowing your material will keep you from falling into the mayhem too.
As for my first event of the year, once they assured us it was actually a false alarm, we all walked back into the ballroom, I turned my microphone back on, and picked up right where I left off. No one would have known my life flashed before my eyes. And when you handle the many unknowns of speaking like a pro, they won't know that about you either.