How to Transform a Presentation Sh*t Show into a Swagger-Fest

Leslie Ehm
5 min readNov 19, 2018

We’ve all been there. We’ve planned, prepped and practiced. We’ve positive self-talked ourselves up the ying yang. We’re pumped, swagger-filled, ready to slay…

Aaaaand then something happens that causes it all to go to hell in a hand basket. Maybe you misunderstood what the purpose of your presentation was. Or you’ve accidentally exposed something that made your boss look bad. You got some numbers wrong or made an impolitic joke that fell flat. Perhaps you were way and wide off the content mark. Or maybe something you said triggered the alphas in the audience into a full on cockfight.

Whatever it was, you now find yourself the focus of someone’s discomfort, disappointment or worse — rage. The SVP is glaring, scowling, and huffing and puffing from the exertion of tearing you a new one. Your usual champion is looking away nervously, afraid to smile supportively lest some of the negativity spill over on them, and your team is falling apart under the stress. Worst of all is the dawning reality that you are on your own. Ain’t no one willing to step up and bail you out. You experience the sudden and irresistible urge to pee, run, die, or all three at the same time.

It’s official. The presentation shit show has rolled into town.

What to do??

Instead of blundering on or running a full retreat, take a deep breath and try some of these butt-saving tactics that will disarm even the most hostile of audiences and keep your swagger intact:

Drop the shovel. And fast. When you realize that you’ve somehow dug a hole for yourself, the best thing you can do is STOP DIGGING. The one thing an audience will never forgive you for is making them feel really uncomfortable. So as soon as you realize you’ve inadvertently ignited a clusterfuck of any degree, the best thing you can do is bring the presentation as planned to a halt. From there, you can move on to points 2, 3 and 4. At the end of the day, the fact that you’ve had the cojones to own the problem will in turn earn you their respect. Or, at the very least, they’ll appreciate being put out of your misery. It takes a true bad ass to do this.

Own and state your intention. Hey — we humans are flawed. But we’re usually just trying to get it right. So when the people around us have a clear understanding of what we were INTENDING to do, they’ll often give us a pass. Remember that swagger is about truth, intention and self-belief. Try using these words “OK — so I’m getting the sense that this isn’t working for you. Let me explain my intention here. I was trying to help you to understand (insert important purpose for you standing in front of them here) but I can see I’ve missed the mark. Was my intention correct here?”

Ask for their wisdom. A common reaction to feeling attacked is to defend. You might feel wronged or hard done by but now is not the time to express it. Instead, swallow your ego and remember that all great presenters are such because they have a true passion for communicating their ideas and are in service of their audience. Swagger requires humility, self-acceptance and authenticity. So instead of telling them why you weren’t wrong, apologize for not bringing them what THEY wanted or expected and ask for specifics on how you could have accomplished your goal for THEM. Then listen — very carefully. Even better, makes notes as they talk.

Be an active listener. Use active listening skills to repeat and reflect their core issues in your own words. Bring insight and understanding to their comments. With this technique, they’ll hear empathy from you and it’s way harder to yell at someone when you’re getting the psychological equivalent of warm milk and a hug. Finally, tell them that you want to convene the presentation and ask for permission to come back and deliver the presentation they were expecting.

Don’t hide. Once you’ve escaped from the room, resist the instinct to lay low. Seek out your haters and have a little human chat about what happened. If you feel that an apology might be required, then eat it. If someone was just being an asshole to you, go and do a little rapport building so they’ll be more onside next time. Looking them in the eye as soon as possible after the debacle will also stop a bad moment from becoming a long term fear. Shit happens. To ALL of us. This is your chance to be reassured of that.

Bottom line — no one ever died as a result of a presentation gone south. Graceful recovery, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a healthy ego can get you through even the worst shit show possible.

But there’s one thing you should NEVER, EVER do when someone comes for you in a presentation.

Do not let them take your power.

If you’re in a situation where someone is using the opportunity to make you feel small, less than, or incompetent and is clearly looking to gain power by belittling you, you need to stand your ground. This doesn’t mean you have to fight back per say. Rather, acknowledge their ‘disappointment’ in the situation: “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to deliver the presentation you were hoping for.” And that’s it. Stand tall. Look them straight in the eye and give them nothing more.

Remember, no one can ever take your power unless you choose to give it to them. And if they’re trying to take your power, it’s likely because they have no real power themselves. Everyone else in the room will see them for what they are. But more importantly, they’ll see you for what YOU are — a swagger-filled, authentic, badass.

Leslie Ehm is a keynote speaker, author and President & Chief Fire Starter at Combustion Training. She’s been on both the winning and losing ends of countless presentations — the worst of which found her lying face down on a boardroom table surrounded by orange ping pong balls. Don’t ask.



Leslie Ehm

Leslie Ehm is a Swagger coach, author & speaker. Her book SWAGGER: Unleash Everything You Are and Become Everything You Want arrives May 2021.