Snafu Survival

You’re giving the speech of your life. The room is top-notch, PowerPoint is humming and the club members are mesmerized. You’re on top of the world and nothing can stop you. Then your data projector shudders, spits and quits. Welcome to the world of snafu survival.

We all want to do well. No techno-glitches, bulb blowouts or loud snoring to spoil the presentation. But praying for perfection can set you up for a fall – one that can rattle your confidence and degrade your message.

Fortunately, there is a method to handle even the worst of surprises with aplomb. It’s used by NASA, the airlines and other organizations that need to adapt instantly to life-threatening change. It’s the art of contingency planning. Contingency planning is nothing more than having backup plans. When you’re contingency prepped, you perform better. You’re less stressed and better able to think clearly.

If you have backup plans and have rehearsed various solutions in your mind, those so-called surprises become manageable. Confidence blossoms. You take on a more or less crashproof mentality. In other words, there may be problems along the way, but nothing will stop or ruin your performance.

Consider the typical airline crew. By their very nature they expect trouble. This isn’t negative thinking, but rather a high form of positive thinking. In training, they simulate and solve a wide range of problems with predetermined methods of resolution, all applied in a calm and orderly manner. You can do the same in front of your audience.

The following three tips are borrowed from actual cockpit resource management techniques. Apply them to your very next presentation and you’ll find you can better handle surprises that threaten your performance. After a while, you will find nothing can stop you. 

Have an Escape Route
When the unexpected happens, make sure you have an exit point (other than the back door!). In other words, have a transition thought out in advance that you can smoothly execute. So, when your flipchart falls over, you’ll be ready with handouts.

A preconceived response, exercise or other fast-track resolution thought out ahead of time can make all the difference. The objective is to remain calm regardless of the situation. When considering your scenarios, commit your ideas to paper. Writing not only fleshes out the idea, but puts problems in their proper perspective so that solutions become more visible. 


                    "Don't act surprised. Don't even look surprised."


While writing out possible scenarios, be ruthless! Invoke Murphy’s Law to the max. Consider all kinds of possible snafus. The microphone quits, someone suddenly walks out, the projector begins to smoke...you get the picture. In considering your alternatives, keep in mind you don’t need a memorized comeback for every conceivable situation. Instead, the objective is to quickly adapt and smoothly bridge to your backup plan. 

Respond with Authority
When blindsided by a surprise, your initial response is critical. All eyes will be on you. If you have never given a thought to that situation, you’ll be taken by surprise ... and it may show in your voice, face or general body language. All that’s about to change.

You are captain of the ship and need to guide it with a steady hand. Therefore, at the first sign of a snafu, give your audience the impression that recovery is within your ability. Although you may feel as graceful as a train wreck at the moment, you want to appear cool, composed and in control.

There are two reasons for this “act.” One, your good cheer and command bearing sends a nonverbal message to the audience to relax and enjoy the presentation. It puts them on notice that whatever happens, you are in charge. However, even more important is your second reason - the nonverbal message you send to yourself that you’re crashproof.

Granted, some situations will be tougher than others, but if you breathe deeply, relax and put smile on your face, your physiology will prompt your mind to follow suit. Don’t act surprised. Don’t even look surprised. Instead, relax and roll with the punch. Make your audience think wow instead of whoops.

Keep in mind your body language speaks loudly. Make sure it communicates a relaxed message. Convey calm and you will stay calm through those first critical moments of surprise. 

Simulate Your Response
Aviation has long proven the effectiveness of simulation. The important point, however, is the behavioral change and skill enhancement that mental simulation provides. Olympic champions, actors, golf pros, professional speakers and pilots alike increasingly employ the magic of visual imagery to improve their skills.

The key is clarity. You want to get to the point where your imagery approaches reality. We call it “armchair flying” and you can practice right in the privacy of your own home.

Find a quiet room. Now sit down, close your eyes and imagine your Toastmasters meeting in minute detail – the more specific the better. See yourself walking up to the front of the room. Imagine feeling agile and energetic as you effortlessly stride to the podium. Your audience is smiling. You warmly smile back. Your posture looks great and you look great.

As you begin to speak you feel totally calm and in control. It’s like talking to a best friend. It feels good. It feels right. You’re speaking easy…and loving it.

Repeat this and similar visualizations until you’re able to “re-live” these experiences with less and less effort. However, keep one thing in mind – strive for positive images. No negative stuff. Remember, the audience is rooting for you. You are the expert, lion-tamer and leader all rolled into one. From here on, there is nothing you can’t handle… or so you should tell yourself!

If you find yourself wallowing in “what ifs,” refuse to dwell on your fear. Instead, be proactive. Have contingency plans in place and ensure that things will go your way regardless of a burned-out bulb, forgotten script or minor Armageddon.

So relax, enjoy the ride and practice your crashproof scenarios with clarity. You will tend to speak more and fear less as you become a confident and snafu-savvy speaker!


John Tillison, ATMB, is a member of Klassy Talkers Toastmasters in Sacramento, California. He is a flight instructor, professional writer, speaker and author of Hell Trains, Planes & Parachutes – Creating Crashproof Excellence in Your Life. For more tips, go to www.helltrains.com.




Tips From the Cockpit: How to Turn a Glitch into a Grin

Keep your presentations more enjoyable and your stress level in check with the following ideas. They will adapt to a variety of Toastmasters situations as well as unpredictable workplace environments.

  • Use your checklist. Take time to check off your vitals. Do you have an extra bulb for the projector, duct tape for the noisy latch-type door, or backup batteries for the lavaliere microphone? How’s the room temperature? Backup notes at the ready? Your checklist will give you piece of mind and can save you from an escalating crisis.
  • Practice emergency procedures. You’re in the middle of your speech and the microphone quits. Instant death? Not if you playfully announce, “This gives me a chance to pause and project!” Practice quips and comebacks for an assortment of potential emergencies and you will endear the audience to you and often turn the glitch into a grin.
  • Repel panic. The pilot’s worst enemy is stress-based paralysis known as task saturation. It’s the speaker’s worst enemy as well. If things begin to unravel, slow down for a moment and relax. Draw in a slow breath, make use of a brief, poignant pause, serenely refer to your notes, or initiate some calming self-talk. The objective is to relax on-demand to regain full control of the situation.
  • Don’t stall. Maintain your forward momentum. If a Table Topic stumps you, for example, refrain from freezing. Instead simply say, “I’m so glad you gave me that topic, because it reminds me of…” and branch to something more familiar. Be energetic and active. Your upbeat momentum will keep you flexible and your audience engaged.
  • Take on extra fuel. Have more material than you need. It’s been said that for every minute of presentation, you should have two minutes of material. For example, could you carry the day if your computer suddenly decided to be Powerpointless? Remember, don’t fight the flaw, but instead playfully roll with the punch and improvise until you regain control.
  • Look crash proof. You’re the captain in command, so look the part. Dress up, not down. Crisp attire not only commands respect, but in the event of problems, looking your best will subtly strengthen your self-esteem and confidence to handle a surprise.
  • Avoid low-flying birds. Stay away from negative people. Overcoming crises robs you of energy and confidence. Seek out people who believe in your ability and want to see you succeed. Fly with eagles. Dodge the turkeys!

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