George Torok, professional speaker, executive consultant, business author

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George Torok, specialist in thinking and communication skills.   Articles for Business Professionals

Fire alarm rings during your presentation

What do you do when the fire alarm rings during your presentation?

I've witnessed this disaster happen to two other speakers and this week it was my turn. It's a lot easier to think logically about it after it is over. It might never happen to you - but perhaps you should be prepared for the fire alarm to ring during your presentation.

About eight minutes into my breakfast presentation to the local chamber of commerce at a fancy restaurant the fire alarm rang. The alarm was annoyingly loud so naturally I stopped speaking and forced a smile.

You can imagine my first thoughts. They were angry selfish thoughts. Why now? Why me? However I did not convey those thoughts on my face.

We were not immediately able to discern if the fire was real, however I did smell smoke. After the alarm stopped and started two more times over the next five minutes we left the room and several folks moved outside the restaurant. No one panicked. For some reason I was reminded of the scene on Seinfeld when George noticed what he thought was smoke at the children's house party and ran out of the house yelling, "Fire, Fire". In his panic he trampled the old lady. Of course I didn't think that anyone would see the humor at the moment so I said nothing.

After about 10 minutes we learned that there was a kitchen fire that was extinguished. We regrouped in another room that was free of smoke and I resumed my presentation. Of course I had to shorten my presentation to finish on time. Yes I left some things out. Always to be prepared to shorten your presentation.

There is no question that the talk of everyone that day was about the fire at the breakfast presentation they attended. Perhaps they also talked about the great speaker.

The fire might have been a strange blessing because it made the breakfast presentation much more memorable.

What should you do when the fire alarm rings during your presentation?

Stop speaking and look calmly at your audience.

Stop thinking about your presentation and think about their safety and comfort.

Make eye contact with the meeting MC or chair and ask him/her to check it out.

When the alarm stops announce that we are checking it out and will let you know immediately if there is any danger or need to leave the room.

Do not ignore the alarm. It might be a real threat.

The audience is looking at you as the speaker to take charge and some of them will be mildly concerned or even deathly afraid.

Point out the exits to your audience and remind them to move calmly if they need to leave.

State the oblivious - "We don't yet know the nature of the problem and anyone who wishes to leave is welcome to move calmly to the exits". Give permission to people who want to leave. The folks in the back corner will be most nervous.

Select two or three other people to check out the hall ways and exits and report back to you.

If you don't have solid answers after about five minutes direct everyone to leave the building. If you see flames or heavy smoke - that is a solid answer. Then move people quickly.

I hope that this presentation disaster never happens to you but in case it does - be ready to act appropriately. Lives could be a stake. The most important lesson for you is that your presentation is not that important.