Feature

If you ever become embarrassed by a mid-presentation blunder—if PowerPoint freezes or you sneeze on your audience—remember that it could always be worse.

You could be Jennifer Young. As a psychology and social work graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Young was planning to use her thesis findings for an hourlong presentation for her research methods class. But more than halfway through the semester, her boyfriend accidentally wiped out her computer's hard drive, destroying all her work.

With no time to start over, Young pulled out of her thesis and arranged an alternate plan for credit. But her professor insisted that she still present at the end of the semester. She decided to speak on a topic she says she pulled out of the air: the flaws of research methods. For two weeks, she searched for points to make, stayed up nights to write and tried not to panic.

When it was her turn to present, Young stood at the front of her class with a slideshow and a heavy heart. "I literally did an hourlong presentation on nothing. It was like an episode of 'Seinfeld,'" she says. "I was stuttering. My classmates were looking at me with pity. It was the longest hour of my life and totally humiliating."

While most graduate presentations won't go quite so horribly wrong, presentations can be fraught with peril. Many elements of presentations are out of the presenter's control: technology fails, nerves surface unpredictably, audience members ask unexpected questions. As a psychology graduate student, you'll face these unknowns often, while presenting at conferences, in front of corporate clients or during job talks at universities, for instance—and all too many of those presentations will derail in some way.

But it's possible to recover from a presentation gone awry, and occasionally there's even a silver lining to be found.

"People should keep in mind that the best way to deal with presentation disasters is to embrace them. They're probably inevitable," says Patricia DiBartolo, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Smith College, who specializes in public speaking anxiety. "There's no such thing as the perfect presentation."

Tales of woe

A presentation disaster can begin well before the audience is even seated, as Dolores Farhat, a University of Miami psychology graduate student, discovered last spring.

En route to a poster presentation to the American Educational Research Association in New York City, a flight attendant asked Farhat to store her posters at the front of the plane, which is where she left them when she disembarked.

She realized her mistake only after she'd cleared the security checkpoints. Despite her pleas, airport staff wouldn't let her return on board without a ticket. Farhat bought another plane ticket, waited in the security line, then sprinted back to her gate to catch the plane before it took off with her posters. (She got them.)

Kopitzee Parra-Thornton, a PhD candidate in consulting psychology at the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management at Alliant International University, remembered her materials, but forgot something even more important. Parra-Thornton had developed a presentation on leadership for a group of high-level executives as part of an internship. Her talk was thorough and well planned, with a nicely designed PowerPoint to accompany it. She'd prepared for days. "I thought I was going to nail it," she says.

Parra-Thornton had gone through her first few slides when it became clear she'd made a classic presenter's mistake: not considering her audience.

"I realized I'd prepared a presentation for students, not business professionals," she recalls. "Students like details. But these were people who didn't want the research behind the point, they wanted the point."

Saving yourself

Parra-Thornton made an impressive recovery: She salvaged her presentation as soon as she noticed her audience's eyes glazing over. She took a moment to regain her equilibrium by passing out handouts to the group. Then, thinking fast, she explained to her audience that there were extra slides if they were interested in more details on a particular subject and proceeded to skip most of the 90-plus slides she'd prepared, focusing on her most important points instead.

As the best comedians will acknowledge that their joke has failed, so will a good presenter take the side of the audience and try to bring them back into the presentation, says Peter Pufall, PhD, a Smith College psychology professor emeritus. Even Young, as she stood before her professor and classmates with nothing to say, was able to complete her presentation by relying on a few time-tested strategies. "I got through it with cue cards and my slides, and didn't focus my gaze on any one person," she says. "It was better than running out of the room."

Soldiering on is sometimes the best you can do, adds Nancy Zarse, PsyD, an associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. "I expect you to make mistakes. The more significant issue for me is how you recover."

In fact, Zarse believes presentation disasters are a great opportunity for students to learn how to cope with imperfection. Her students worry that good public speakers never make mistakes, and that's an attitude that sets them up for failure, she says. "But if you expect to make a mistake, then you'll be OK when you do. That's one of the best things that you can learn."


Pamela Worth is a writer in Boston.