You're giving a speech that could cinch a promotion or a sale. You've fine-tuned your presentation, and now you're cruising to the finish line with your eyes fixed on the winner's cup. Suddenly, the microphone shrieks and dies.
Or a fire alarm goes off. Or the computer controlling your slides shuts down. Or the mind controlling your tongue locks up. Your presentation sputters and stalls. What happens next -- whether your
speech regains momentum or chokes and dies -- depends entirely on what you do.
If you speak often enough, sooner or later Murphy's Law will come into play and something will go wrong. I know from experience. In 23 years of public speaking, I've encountered -- or brought on myself -- most of the predicaments that speakers dread. Sometimes I limped away from the podium with my self-esteem in tatters; other times I escaped with barely a scratch. But each time I promised myself, "I won't do that again."
By trial and error and by comparing notes with other speakers, I've learned how to deal with, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that speakers are heirs to.
My approach relies on developing two different, though interrelated, proficiencies: connecting with an audience and being prepared for the most common problems.
The problems we face as speakers -- whether they're of our own doing or beyond our control -- become more manageable if we first connect with our audiences.
As we learn early on in Toastmasters, forming a bond with our audiences turns them into partners in a dialogue, allies in our presentation. They will overlook our nervousness and lack of polish. They will laugh at jokes they've heard before. And they will give us the benefit of the doubt even if they lose the thread of our logic.
Connecting with an audience helps us deal with podium pitfalls in two ways. First, it gives us confidence. With the audience on our side, we can relax. And as in other endeavors, when we are at ease we become much less likely to make mistakes in the first place. (I think 80 to 90 percent of speaker errors are caused by nervousness.)
And second, having audience rapport, we can call on the audience for assistance when we do mess up or when something goes wrong. Because they feel a sense of ownership, they'll help us out and feel even more connected to us as a result.
My Boy Scout troop leader took seriously the Scout motto, "Be Prepared." During each meeting, as if he were conducting Table Topics, he called on one of us boys, posed a problem, and asked what we'd do. "You're crossing a bridge when a car spins out of control and plunges into the river. There's a woman and a baby inside the car. What do you do?"
Although I laugh now at some of the hypothetical situations he concocted, I've adapted his approach to speaking. I think of all the many problems that might occur, and I devise possible solutions for them.
The snafus we face for the most part fall into one of three categories. A glitch is a mechanical failure, like a malfunctioning microphone, projector or computer. A blunder is a human error -- a polite way of saying we messed up. And a mishap is a potential or full-blown emergency.
Glitches happen. It's the nature of gadgets - especially sophisticated gizmos like wireless microphones and computers - to go haywire. And, as a rule, they break down at times and in situations most likely to discombobulate us. We can be irritated, exasperated and inconvenienced by glitches, but we shouldn't be surprised by them. Instead, we should have a plan.
If equipment breaks down:
If you have ever forgotten your place in a speech or had your mind go completely blank, you are in good company. At an area speech contest, one contestant was halfway through what seemed like a winning presentation. He had a moving message, a commanding presence and a self-deprecating sense of humor. Then panic filled his eyes. He stood stock-still for about a minute, which felt like an hour to everyone in the room. Finally, he sat down in defeat. (He returned the next year with an award-winning speech about the experience.)
If you lose your place:
(If you tend to forget parts of your presentation, you may need to look at your speech construction. You may be trying to accomplish too much in a single speech. Or you may not be doing a good enough job of linking your main points.)
If you go blank:
Check your attitude. Perfectionism is the undoing of many speakers. It cramps our style and chokes us at the throat. It's based on the illusion that if we work hard enough, we can avoid making mistakes, losing control or looking foolish. I suggest replacing perfectionism with an attitude of service. Don't try to give a flawless presentation; focus instead on serving your audience to the best of your ability.
A mishap is a glitch on a cosmic scale. It's often an emergency or a potential emergency, and it requires an immediate response.
An etiquette expert, fielding questions from radio callers, was asked what to do if a person was choking on a fish bone at a formal dinner. "Do whatever you have to," she said. "Saving a life takes precedence over decorum."
Similarly, we can get so caught up in our presentations that we may block out more serious matters, like life and death. It's healthy to remember that attending to an emergency is more important than anything we have to say.
When something goes seriously wrong, our audiences will look to us for direction.
In case of emergencies:
In speaking, as in life, we are not in control, and even with the best of intentions and efforts we can't steer clear of every mini-calamity. Our response to the unexpected says a lot about us and about our professionalism as speakers, and it determines, to a great degree, our chances for success.