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This article was first published in the January 2019 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Accountants can often find themselves standing in front of an audience to explain a technical topic, or pitching for business from new clients. When you give a presentation there is always a possibility that something will go wrong. It may be a technical issue, an internal political issue, the Q&A session may become difficult or your nerves may kick in unexpectedly.

Technology is often the culprit. On one occasion I was pitching for funding. For the two speakers before me everything went swimmingly. When I stood up, however, the technical guy could not get my presentation on the screen. He kept trying, but nothing appeared. It is a reminder that you should always test the technology before your presentation – and even then it can go wrong. This is an opportunity to demonstrate your professionalism.

Take a deep, slow breath in and exhale slowly for around 20 seconds. This will help you detach and give you space to refocus. Remind yourself that you know your subject and have planned what you are going to say.  

This is also a good technique to use if you get a bout of nerves or a mind blank at any point.

If you think technical support will solve the problem given time, if it’s appropriate to the situation, you could keep your audience onside by telling them something about the topic or asking a quick question. Is something related to your topic in the news? If so you could ask for views on that.  

Always have a copy of your presentation printed. If the technology won’t work you have a back up to work from. If there is a flipchart or whiteboard in the room, be ready to use it to illustrate points.

Keep calm and carry on

Demonstrating your ability to keep calm and carry on can only enhance your credibility both with clients and colleagues.

Q&A sessions can be very stressful if you feel for any reason you are losing control, perhaps to someone in the audience who asked a hostile question.

When someone makes an objection – perhaps because they have a different view on a technical issue from you – answer them. Often you’ll find this will trigger other people to ask relevant questions and move the discussion on.

Alternatively, it is possible that your audience stays silent. Where possible have the meeting organiser or a colleague primed with a question to get things started. Alternatively, you can say: ‘A question I am often asked is...’ And then answer it. This should break the ice. Always keep control by ending a Q&A with your key message. This means managing your time so that you have a couple of minutes after the last question to summarise, reiterating your solution or call-to-action. This will keep the energy high at the end of your presentation rather than drifting to a close.

For any presenter, sizing up an audience and handling the room is a key skill. Clearly you will have done your research when pitching to potential clients. Make sure you know as much as possible about who will be attending the meeting as you can use this information if the presentation gets tricky.

In business meetings you may encounter, as I have, the disrupter. This type of person attends the meeting, is passive aggressive, or asks deliberately awkward questions.  

You need to handle these people very carefully because they could be decision makers with authority to make or break a deal. There may be times when you are unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle of internal client politics. 

An answer for disrupters

There are several strategies to handle this situation. Listen to the person, thank them, let them know that it can be revisited at the end of the meeting. When their turn comes, give them a minute or so. Then, politely, cut them off with something like: ‘You seem to have quite strong views on this subject, can we take it outside this meeting as we are running out of time. Hope that is OK with you? Thanks a lot.’ 

If someone interrupts frequently, politely take the control back when he or she comes to a pause. You can also avoid making eye contact, unless there is a point when you want to give your interrupter a cue to speak. Otherwise focus on other audience members and keep going.

Other challenges can include the over-enthusiastic smartphone users. You need to work hard on preparing the opening of your presentation so you grab their attention. Once engaged you can keep the audience with you.  In some situations you may be able to give explicit instructions to have phones turned off!

Inevitably presentations will go wrong from time to time. If you’ve prepared, know your subject and your audience you’ll be able to handle whatever occurs. 

Sudha Mani is a business technology consultant and representative of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that provides communication and leadership skills.