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Dealing With Difficult Situations

Occasionally, a presenter can become too complacent. He or she has mastered the art of self-management and knows the material so well that no difficult participants would dare to "mess with him." At this point, it may be tempting for this presenter to say that he or she has seen it all. However, all of the presenters that we interviewed warned about complacency. It seems that, just as soon as they have said to themselves that they have seen it all, difficult situations and unforeseen circumstances arise to humble even the most seasoned presenter. In the final section of this chapter, we will look at how veteran presenters have learned to deal with difficult and unforeseen circumstances.

The first scenario deals with a noisy hotel renovation that was taking place just below the seminar room. To make matters worse, the hotel staff was trying to pretend that the noise of jackhammers emanating from the room below wasn't really interfering with the presentation. In this case, our presenter had to use the concept of Muscle Level with the hotel staff as the following example demonstrates.

Paul was presenting to a group of contractors about the new Safety Act that had recently come into effect. He had the audience's attention right from the start by telling them that 90 percent of accidents are preventable and predictable and how by judiciously applying the safety standards, there had been 25 percent decrease in industrial accidents in the past five years. He was about to continue when the sounds of construction began intruding into the room from the floor below.

The first thing that Paul did was to validate his perception that the participants found the noise distracting and they confirmed they did. Paul then called the hotel operator to report the problem from the phone inside the room. He was told that someone from maintenance would be sent up immediately. Five minutes went by and the sounds were getting louder and louder. Paul called again and was again told that someone would be there immediately. Five more minutes went by, and it was very difficult to keep anyone's attention. Paul was told that the construction workers would do their best to keep the sounds to a minimum but the construction had to be completed for a large convention that was coming to the hotel the following week. The sounds were becoming more and more intrusive.

Next, Paul called the hotel manager and asked him to address the audience of his presentation because they were all having difficulty doing the work that the session was designed to accomplish. The hotel manager addressed Paul's group. They told the manager that it was impossible to concentrate in the room. Paul pointed out the cost in terms of the hourly salaries of the attendees that were being lost as well as to the hotel's reputation as a meeting/convention site.

The construction was halted. The session was a success and the participants not only appreciated the content of the session, but also Paul's assertiveness. Through Paul's use of Muscle Level, he made sure that his attendees were treated as well as possible.

In addition to having to deal with circumstances you can control, self-aware presenters have to learn how to minimize distractions that they cannot control.

Minimizing a Distraction You Cannot Control

One of the most amazing presenters that Brad has had the pleasure of hearing was Yvonne Dolan. There were about 50 people attending her presentation and for some reason, the audio system started making strange high-pitched noises. The technical people went to work, but the noises persisted. Yvonne was completely nonplussed as she asked the attendees to think of the sound as baby whales calling to their mothers. Although the sound persisted, the intrusiveness of the sound did not. Eventually the technicians located the source of the problem and corrected it. In all his years of giving and attending presentations, Brad has never seen anyone deal with an uncontrollable distraction so brilliantly.

A colleague, Jim Comer, suggests: "Acknowledge the obvious. Whether it's a distraction or a disaster, don't pretend it did not happen. Acknowledge it, address it, and if possible, use it. If you ignore it, people will think you are oblivious to your surroundings. And if they think you are oblivious to your surroundings, they may infer that you are oblivious to your audience, and maybe even to your subject matter, as well."

Presenter Terry Pallson recommends that we have a few "saver" lines that we can use when things go wrong. In relation to too much noise or the microphone not working:

How many of you in the back of the room read lips?

Whatever that noise is, it's getting closer!

You know, I'm actually starting to like that squeal.

Another favorite example is from an interview with presenter Janet Laap. She was speaking at a conference in San Diego. The venue was a large tent, which had a huge echo, and there was absolutely nothing the technicians could do about it. Janet's response to the echo was to say to the audience, "It's actually a better deal because you can hear me twice." Janet added, "It's important that we give our audiences permission to relax, knowing that we are handling it."

It is also important to remember not to get angry, no matter how frustrating the situation or circumstance may be. Amateurs lose their tempers; professionals do not.

David: I had a circumstance in which just about every piece of equipment I was using failed. The LCD projector wouldn't project. The sound system cut out intermittently. The lighting couldn't be adjusted. The easy thing to have done was to blame someone, or make disparaging remarks about the facility. But I knew that would be a bad reflection on me. Instead, I laughed off each problem as a "new learning opportunity." The audience understood my frustration, but they appreciated my poise. Whether the problems that arise are your fault or not does not matter. What does matter is the grace with which you handle them.

Roz Useroff, who teaches etiquette, says the sign of a real host is that he or she makes his or her guests feel comfortable. The most effective presenters make their audiences feel comfortable—even under the most trying circumstances.

Hidden Agendas

Hidden agendas can be some of the most difficult situations with which any presenter has to deal. However, if you handle them correctly, you have a great opportunity to enhance your credibility as the following two examples illustrate.

David: I teach a Business Writing Basics course. Though some people will admit they are not good writers, almost everyone comes in with an attitude of "I already know this stuff." Aware of that prevalent attitude, I acknowledge the obvious: "I know that you are effective writers or you wouldn't be here today. It's the people who sent you who really should be here, right?" This gets a modest laugh and lets them feel superior. Then I say, "But even effective writers can be better if we eliminate a few blunders that even careful writers make. So let's take a quiz to see just how careful you are." Then I give them a quiz on the common writing and grammatical issues that confuse most people. It's a fair and relevant quiz, but a hard one. We grade the quiz as a group and then I say, "If you scored 100 percent, you don't need this class—go home, you're finished for the day. So who gets to leave?" No one ever raises their hand. Then I ask, "How many of you made an A?" Rarely does anyone score this high. "How many Bs?" Perhaps 25 percent fall in this category. "How many Cs?" The majority scores in this range. And then I ask, "And how many of you don't want me to ask the next question?" Nervous laughter follows. Then I say, "So we've found a few of you who need a little refresher on some of the basics, right? And that's what we're here for today—to remind you of what you already know and to help you be just a little bit better." The purpose of this activity and exchange is to emphasize two key points: 1) to acknowledge that attendees know a lot already, and 2) to assure them that I can supply them with at least a few tips to make them even better. It effectively diffuses the "I know all this stuff" attitude that can be so counterproductive if left unchallenged.

Brad: It was mid-August, and the organization I worked for had a contract to do a workshop on Participatory Management to a group of mid-level managers for the federal government. When I began the presentation, I couldn't help but notice that the audience was incredibly hostile. I had a room of 20 apparently very angry participants staring at me in defiance. When I asked them for their expectations, the answers were non-existent, hostile, or sarcastic. I immediately stopped the presentation and asked what was going on. Did I get an earful.

Paradoxically, although it was a workshop on Participatory Management, the participants had been told by their manager that they would, in no uncertain terms, attend the workshop in mid-August. The fact that many of the participants in the room had already asked for and were granted this time for their summer vacations—including one family's trip to Disney World that they had saved for more than five years—seemed to make no difference to this group's manager. The irony of forcing people to take a workshop on Participatory Management would have amused me, if I had not been tasked with teaching the workshop.

I then asked the group to look at the options we had regarding the workshop. Although many of them would have liked to cancel the workshop, this was not a viable option. After I allowed them to vent and they could see that I was not part of the problem, they agreed to learn as much as they could and deal with their manager in another way. To this day, I am still very appreciative of the maturity of the participants who were in that workshop.

Always Expect the Unexpected

Sometimes even if you work at being as well prepared and as well informed about the audience as possible, things will happen or be announced at the last minute that will put a pall over the group to whom you are presenting and there is nothing you can do but go with the flow and salvage as much as you can from the presentation.

Brad: At one point, I did a lot of staff training at a local university. The staff had never had training in the past and was very appreciative of the training, which made them a pleasure to teach. Imagine my surprise when I entered the room to teach a course on Improving Personal Productivity and was met by a sullen group with hostile stares.

It seems that it had been announced the day before that the vice president of operations for the university had just hired a consulting firm to do a time and efficiency study on the university's staff. Both the staff and their union felt that the process was very intrusive, would lead to staff reductions, and would produce poorer levels of service at the university. The fact that the time and efficiency studies would only be conducted on staff, and not on the university's administration, was particularly galling to the staff. The fact that I was being introduced to give a presentation on improving productivity by this same vice president of operations also added to my less-than-welcoming reception.

Bill Caar, a humorist, talked about being asked to give a humor presentation to a particular group. Just a few minutes before Bill was to present, the company's CEO announced that one of the company's most cherished and youngest employees had just been killed in a tragic car accident. The CEO then asked for a moment of silence before Bill was supposed to start his "humorous" presentation. Another example is that of an accountant who had to give a presentation to the company's employees telling them that the company's chief financial officer had just been found to have embezzled most of the employees' pension funds. As Bill Caar says, "Sometimes it doesn't matter how prepared you are, you can't recover and you just have to ride it out."

Unforeseen Circumstances

Barbara was giving the most important presentation of her life. Not only were her boss and boss's boss there, the entire board of directors of her company was in attendance. Barbara had never prepared a presentation so carefully in her life. She conducted numerous dry runs, and then the big day finally arrived. What Barbara hadn't planned on was that her laptop would die just before she began her presentation.

Unfortunately, she didn't have the presentation on a flash drive or DVD, if she had, she could have just borrowed someone else's computer. Because she had never had a single problem with her laptop, she hadn't thought to make transparencies. What she did do, however, was to make detailed handouts. Like a true pro, she started her presentation with some humor that she had a slightly used laptop for sale and then began her presentation as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. Because Barbara was so composed, her audience didn't notice that they didn't have the planned version of the slides to look at. You can also be sure that now Barbara never travels without a back-up DVD.

There are other unforeseen circumstances that are impossible to ignore.

Brad: I was teaching in South Carolina, on September 11, 2001. We started at 8 a.m. We took our first break at 9:45 a.m. I was in the process of organizing some of my materials when one of the participants came up to me and said that there had been a terrible accident—a passenger plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers.

We decided to continue the class until the second break at 11 a.m. At that time we heard that another plane had hit the second World Trade Tower—that it was probably a terrorist attack—that several other planes had been hijacked—and that the potential loss of life in New York was horrendous. There was a surreal sense in the room. Could what we were hearing really be true? There were no television sets in our training complex; however, the participants were getting both similar and sometimes quite different information from their cell phones. As a group, we decided to work until noon and take an hour off for lunch to fully assess the situation and see if this unbelievable chain of events could possibly be true.

When the participants came back at 1 p.m., we knew that the unbelievable stories were true. We determined that no one in the room had relatives in New York so we decided to proceed for another hour, which would give me time to assign a short homework assignment and end the course for the day at 2 p.m.

It was a difficult choice. If I continued the course, it would be disrespectful of the thousands of people who lost their lives, and I wasn't sure if any of us could pay attention to the course material. If I had cancelled the course outright, it would seem like the terrorists had achieved their goal of disruption even more. So I decided what could be left out and still give the participants the best course possible under these terrible circumstances, and asked the participants if they could work for an additional hour. They agreed that this was the best option under the circumstances.

I started the next day with a minute of silence for all of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack. It felt like we were under the weight of a heavy burden. However, the participants worked hard and we made the best of a very difficult situation. On the third day of training, it was announced that their company would donate $1 million to the American Red Cross disaster relief fund. At this, everyone in the room felt proud to be associated with their employer. There was something that their company was doing that was concrete and tangible. It also helped us focus on the work at hand.

I was surprised that the course evaluations were as good as they had always been. There was, however, one particular piece of feedback that I will always cherish: "A special note of ‘Thanks’ and a big ‘well done’ too for recognizing the impact of the bombings on Tuesday's class and for having the professionalism and skills to not only salvage the course, but to make it worthwhile."

Accomplished presenters have the seasoned judgment to know when to recognize that there are circumstances that are affecting the participant's ability to learn. They have also learned how to deal with these types of situations as sensitively and tactfully as possible. They also know when to ask for feedback from the group that will aid in making the best decision possible about if and how to proceed.

At this point, you have developed a dynamic presentation, have done your homework so you know your audience, developed superior organization, and made your presentation memorable, actionable, and transferable. You have also practiced so much that you know your presentation cold. You have also mastered how to deal with yourself, difficult participants, and difficult situations. You are now miles ahead of most presenters. However, there is still one critical difference between you and the skilled presenters interviewed for this resource. These presenters don't stop here. They constantly engage in the process of total quality improvement, and that is the subject of our next strategy.

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