Presentation skills training: May's ill-fated speech and coping with interruptions in presentations

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May's ill-fated speech and coping with interruptions in presentations

Let’s face it, as speeches go Theresa May’s key address at the Conservative Party conference could hardly have gone any worse.

A constant cough, failing voice, an ambush by a comedian designed to humiliate, and a message which literally fell apart around her all made for some pretty awkward viewing in Manchester on Wednesday.

As if that was not enough, there was even a suggestion parts of the speech had been lifted from the television drama The West Wing.



With distractions like that it's little wonder what had been billed as a ‘make or break’ speech ended up as a shambles, with key messages and policy announcements completely lost as attention focused solely on what went wrong.



Although your presentation is unlikely to be interrupted by a prankster brandishing a P45, or face the same media and social media scrutiny as the Prime Minister’s did, interruptions and distractions can and will happen.

So how should you handle them?



The key with hecklers is for speakers to maintain their composure and control their emotions.

We tell delegates on our presentation skills training courses, that any display of anger, no matter how brief, will take the focus away from your messages and give more attention to the interruption. It could also alienate the audience.

Humour is a good weapon here and a light-hearted remark can often defuse the situation as long as it is not aimed at the heckler. Despite the negative headlines, the Prime Minister used it well when dealing with the interruption from comedian Simon Brodkin, quipping that the only P45 she wanted to give out was to Jeremy Corbyn.



This suggests she is at least trying to move away from the ‘Maybot’ performances which so undermined her general election campaign.

Another option is to politely ask them to save any questions or observations until the end. This will help you to appear reasonable and willing to listen to your wider audience and show that you are encouraging them to participate.


Ill health

If public speaking feels daunting when you are well, it can appear even more intimating when you are under the weather.

There were times on Wednesday when I wondered whether Mrs May would actually be able to get to the end of her speech.

But she did and other speakers are likely to have to give a presentation at some point when they are unwell.

The key is not to start your talk by announcing to everyone you are feeling poorly. An apology at the start of a presentation does not create the strong first impression most speakers are looking for.


If you do decide to address it later on, humour again can be useful. When Philip Hammond handed the Prime Minister a lozenge to try and help with her cough, it prompted her to joke: “The Chancellor giving something away for free."

Other options include trying to shorten your presentation a little, if you think you can still get all the necessary information to your audience.

But you must still pace yourself. Rushing through key messages in an effort to get to the finishing line means the audience may well miss them and you also run the risk of burning out towards the end of your presentation.

It is also vital you have a drink to hand. While water is always a good option, tea with honey can be soothing.


Failing sets and technological interruptions

Towards the end of Mrs May’s speech the stage backdrop began to fall apart with the letter "F" in the Conservative slogan ‘Building a Country that works for Everyone’ falling off.

And more letters gave up the ghost shortly afterwards, eventually leaving the writing totally incomprehensible.

While it is quite bemusing how something of that nature could happen during such a high-profile event, public speakers will at times have to cope with things going wrong.

Laptops and microphones not working and slides failing to load can leave presenters feeling nervous and exposed.

On our presentation training courses we always advise delegates to ensure they arrive early to the venue they will speak at and test the equipment before anyone else arrives so that when you take to the stage for real you can begin confidently.

But if the worst happens, the key is to focus on the message and the audience – not the problem.

'If things go wrong during a presentation, focus on the message and the audience – not the problem' via @mediafirstltd

Try to keep your audience involved while you try to rectify the situation, perhaps making a joke about your predicament to keep people engaged.

But the audience’s patience will only last so long and if you can’t solve the issue quickly, move on with your presentation as best you can.



Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 


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