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Everyone Hated Your Presentation. Now What?

So you flubbed it. Here’s how to turn today’s damage control into tomorrow’s comeback.

Everyone Hated Your Presentation. Now What?
[Photo: Flickr user Tendenci Software]

You’ve just finished presenting to your leadership team, and you’re feeling conflicted. You said everything you wanted to say, and you don’t think you made any major slipups. But the mood in the room seemed a bit chilly, and you just can’t shake the feeling in your stomach that it wasn’t quite what they were looking for.

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Now here comes your boss. “I need to give you some feedback,” she says. Your heart sinks. This can’t be good. Sure enough, your presentation missed the mark, and your boss isn’t mincing words. How do you respond when you feel so vulnerable? Here are four tips for handling that critique with poise and professionalism.

1. Breathe

First, recognize that you’ve just been thrown off your balance, and it’s important to keep your emotions in check. When you’ve put a lot of effort into doing something right only to realize it’s fallen flat–and you don’t yet know why–it can be disorienting. But there will be time to vent later. For now, focus on listening and understanding, not challenging. Above all, do not interrupt.

One useful technique is just to concentrate on your breathing: Exhale to a count of four, and then take a short breath. You’ll get into a calmer rhythm, and you’ll discover that your boss will also get beyond her anxiety over having to give you criticism. Physiology matters when it comes to how we receive and react to information in real time. So by calming yourself down, you’ll be clearing the ground for real understanding, and deliberately coaching yourself out of a more instinctual defensive response.

2. Find The Loose Connections

Getting to a complete understanding of what went wrong requires going beyond the detail questions. Don’t worry about who said what, and don’t ask, “What did I say that was wrong?” Most of the time when you give a presentation or deliver a project that doesn’t resonate, it’s not a matter of the details; it’s a problem of connection. So be proactive about sussing out the loose links. Go back over the goals you’d set for this presentation. What were the two or three big takeaways you were trying to impart? Which of them fizzled out, and why?

Try giving your boss a few options of where you went wrong. Not only does it show you’re genuinely interested in learning from this experience, it might also helps your boss frame and contextualize her feedback–which she probably wasn’t planning on having to offer up on the fly.

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For example, you could say, “I’m wondering if I didn’t focus on our key priorities right now, or if I focused too much on just one of them and overlooked the others. I’ll also admit I was concerned that I was heavy-handed on the statistics.”

3. Remember It’s The Message, Not The Messenger

You’ve probably had the experience of getting negative feedback from someone you don’t respect. (“Why should I believe that jerk? What does he know about anything?”) While negative feedback isn’t always constructive, don’t try to analyze the psychology or motives of the messenger. Instead, focus on the message and what you can take away from it.

It’s hard not to take things personally, but if you can remind yourself that your boss is offering criticism not because she’s cruel or nitpicking, it will be easier to remember that the issue comes down to this particular presentation, not your overall competence or value as an employee.

4. Make Big Changes For Next Time, Not Just Tweaks

The best way to capitalize on negative presentation feedback is to knock it out of the park at the next opportunity. To do that, you need to take a big swing. Small adjustments probably aren’t going to cut it–if that were the case, you’re boss would’ve come up to you afterward to say something more along the lines of, “Let’s talk about a few of the details later, but nice job.”

This time, though, you really missed the mark. Which means that the next time you have to present to the same audience, you’ll be up against the preconceived notions they’ve formed about you as a presenter. That can be a daunting, frustrating thing to consider, but it’s also the starting point for your comeback strategy. Put it this way: If your lasagna gets terrible reviews, don’t just add more tomatoes to the sauce or use a different kind of cheese. Just make a different dish!

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Receiving negative feedback hurts, but how you react and move forward can be critical to your career. After all, just about everyone–including your managers, colleagues, and clients–likes to see someone reemerge after a setback and do better the next time. We respond positively to others’ improvement. You may have messed up this time, but you’ve just set the stage for doing better the next time. By keeping these four tips in mind, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.

Related: Are You Good At Public Speaking?

About the author

Anett Grant is the CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc. Since 1979, Executive Speaking has pioneered breakthrough approaches to helping leaders from all over the world--including leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies--develop leadership presence, communicate complexity, and speak with precision and power. Executive Speaking offers both one-on-one private coaching and group Leadership Speaking Bootcamp 360 programs.

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