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When to cancel a presentation

Should you give that presentation?
Should you give that presentation?
Image: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
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Military strategist Sun Tzu once advised, “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

The same is true for business presentations: You have to pick your moment with care, and sometimes—when you are not set up for success—you should just cancel the presentation entirely. If you only present when you are set up for success, your presentations will tend to go better. That will in turn give you confidence, which will help your presentation even more.

Cancelling is not ideal, of course. It is difficult to schedule people, so there is no guarantee you will be able to get the group together in the near future. This is a particular problem if you need the meeting to make a key decision; a delay can leave you in a frustrating state of limbo. In addition, a last-minute delay or cancellation will inevitably raise questions. People will think, “I wonder why they cancelled the presentation,” or “Well, I guess they just weren’t ready.” This will weaken your position when you actually do hold the meeting.

Delaying a presentation also means you will spend more time working on it. This is good and bad; extra refining is helpful, but it can go on and on. A presentation is never perfect. At some point it is good to be forced to call it done.

Still, cancelling a presentation sometimes the best move. Here are four times when it is the best approach.

The team doesn’t agree

A presentation goes well when the team is in agreement. You put forward a recommendation and your cross-functional peers nod along. When a senior person asks a specific question, someone jumps in to answer it, in the process reinforcing the recommendation.

Things get bumpy very quickly when the team doesn’t agree. Worst case, you are halfway through your presentation, or even wrapping-up, when your sales counterpart jumps in, “This is a nice pricing recommendation, but it will never work in the field.” When this happens, you are big trouble; your recommendation is in tatters and senior management is uncertain. There is little chance that the senior team will approve the proposal, and a high risk that you’ll end up squabbling with your sales contact.

If you find out shortly before a meeting that you have dissension in the ranks, you should probably cancel the meeting. It would be much better to spend the time working through the concern: Is it a real issue? Are there ways to mitigate it?

There are ways to handle disagreements in a presentation. You can present both sides of the issue, for example, and explain why you favor one side. You can proactively surface the concern and explain how you will deal with it. However, this requires preparation and structure; you need to know this well in advance.

If you find out shortly before a meeting that the team isn’t aligned, cancel the meeting and discuss the disagreement.

The numbers are off

There is no quicker way to damage your personal brand than to get the numbers confused. For most jobs in business, the numbers really matter; people who understand the figures and present them with confidence advance. People who make mistakes and get confused have enormous troubles.

I used to work as a marketer at Kraft Foods, and while there I witnessed several traumatic presentations. In one meeting, a sales planning manager presented a financial update on the cost of a summer sales promotion. A senior executive asked about anticipated utilization rates, and the planning manager paused, clearly unsure of the answer. The executive asked a follow-up question, and the presenter provided a number, then revised it. The questions started to fly until it was clear the manager simply didn’t understand the assumptions driving his cost estimates. The meeting did not end well.

If you think the numbers in your presentation are incorrect, you should cancel the meeting. Pressing forward is risky. You will be nervous that someone will ask about the figures, and this will come across. When the questions come, you will stumble and look unsure.

The downside of losing track of the numbers is huge. It far exceeds the awkward process of rescheduling.

Your audience is distracted

When you deliver a presentation, you want your audience to focus on the topic. If you don’t need them to pay attention, you shouldn’t be holding the meeting at all. If you know that your audience won’t be focused, then, rescheduling is your best approach.

On September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to deliver a presentation to the CEO of Kraft Foods on the BBQ sauce business. It was an important update; we were in the middle of a significant turnaround plan and early trends were not encouraging. While we had anticipated the results, senior management was still concerned.

Shortly after a plane crashed into the World Trade Center, it was clear that we wouldn’t be meeting. There were other, bigger issues to address. If we had pressed on with the meeting, it would have been unsatisfying; People were focused on other things. We rescheduled for another day.

You don’t have a clear purpose

Presentations generally go best when you have a clear objective. If you go into a meeting with a goal of getting support for a new product launch, you will prepare for the discussion and often walk out with agreement.

If you don’t have a clear purpose, however, meetings can quickly bog down. There is no energy. Your audience will be bored and wonder why you called the meeting in the first place. Your presentation will wander around, likely a data-intense, plodding document.

When you don’t have a clear purpose, you should cancel the meeting.

Great presenters understand that timing matters. It is important during the presentation itself, but it is even more important when deciding whether you are set up for success at all.

 Tim Calkins is a clinical professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the author of the forthcoming book, How To Wash A Chicken – Mastering the Business Presentation.