It was a sign of worse things to come when nobody laughed at your opening joke. The large room that could comfortably hold 100 people and their pet elephants now has only 13 bored-looking stragglers who apparently wandered into your workshop by mistake. You made a remark that you hoped would prompt spontaneous applause, but instead it earned you shocked silence.
Sooner or later, even the most accomplished public speaker ruins a presentation. Things can start out well and then disaster strikes. The sound equipment fails. Your slides are out of order – how in the world did that happen? You forgot to turn off your phone and it rings.
You make a wrong reference and everyone catches it. You misread the initials of the company you are speaking about and the president and key managers are in the room. You are asked as you arrive to lengthen your speech by half an hour or to shorten it by 15 minutes.
How do you make a comeback when you feel yourself crashing and burning during your presentation?
It could be something that you let slip that would have been better left unsaid. You might have used humor but in the process discovered that the subject of your joke was a sensitive one to your audience.
You may be well into your presentation when you discover that the person who told you what kind of audience to expect was wrong, really wrong. The audience could be very difficult and aggressive. You may have been told that the presentation was informal but discover as you stand there casually dressed that it is very formal.
You may generate cringe-worthy moments all by yourself. Remember James Cameron yelling “I’m the king of the world!” in his 1998 Oscar acceptance speech or Sally Field’s obsessive “You like me, right now, you like me!” When emotion rules the day, the speaker generally pays.
The minute you make the mistake, you are often aware of it yourself. But what do you do then to save the day and not go down as the supper table gossip of “how bad can it be?”
Pull yourself together right away. If you made a mistake, as in with a company name, use a bit of self-deprecating humor and a quick “I was always horrible with names …I call my brothers 1 and 2 to stop hurting their feelings,” and then move right on. Don’t dwell on the mistake. Clean up the mess as best you can and forget about it; so will your audience.
If your slides got mixed up, deadpan that this is a new technique to stimulate creative thinking by ensuring that what you say doesn’t match the slide. Wink at the audience and take it all in stride. Then instead of drawing attention to your faux pas by fussing over the slides, turn them off, make eye contact with your audience, and continue your remarks full speed ahead.
If you expected 100 and 10 show up, respond enthusiastically by telling those present that in small groups you can really get to play with new ideas and invite them to sit close to you in a more informal arrangement.
In all cases, as long as you know your objective, your key message, as you step onto the platform, you will be unshakeable. Even if you lost the written copy of your speech, if you have practiced it sufficiently, you should be able to proceed.
The whole essence of pubic speaker is built on the premise that like the proverbial Boy Scout or Girl Guide, you must be prepared.
But what happens if you make a mess but you are at the end of your remarks before you realize it? Positive action is always the best strategy for a comeback. You may realize that your topic was wrong, that your audience was expecting something completely different from what you delivered, or that every single person disagrees with your point of view.
Proceed to make your strong conclusion, get out of there, and then conduct your own autopsy to figure out how it could have gone so wrong. As long as you are interesting and entertaining, much can be forgiven.
What can’t be forgiven, however, is leaving your audience let down. There are five ways guaranteed to do that:
- You end by saying “thank-you for your time.” That’s not respectful; it’s lame.
- You end by saying “well, that’s all she wrote,” or “that’s it folks. That’s uninspiring.
- You end with a sales pitch. When you do that, everyone in the audience feels let down, as if they have just been conned into listening to a long commercial.
- You end with a question and answer session to fill your time slot. People won’t remember what you said; they will remember your lame answer to the misinformed questioner with the microphone who badgered you to the ground. Call it a rookie mistake and just say no next time.
- You end without some single inspiring message, a call to action eloquently expressed. People deserve something to take away for their time and attention. Give it to them.
Sometimes you feel like you are making a mess of things when you speak because you observe the audience and they look disinterested. Don’t be swayed by what you see. Very few people, unless they are politicians or sales people or people used to being in the public eye, will strike the poise of an intrigued listener. Most people just sit back and relax and listen to you the same way they would watch a television show. They aren’t into performing. Don’t mistake their blank looks as disinterest. They don’t think you can see their faces so they see no point in looking like they are active listeners.
At any stage of a crisis on the stage, if you aren’t sure what to do just stop for a second and breathe slowly as you figure out your next step. Your brain needs oxygen and your mind needs a minute to come up to speed to advise on the crisis at hand.
Remember that no matter what happens, you always have options. Even if you fall flat on your face as you approach the podium, you can get back up, dust yourself off slowly, look at the audience and smile, and say something like “It is kind of funny when someone falls that elegantly, isn’t it?” Let them have a little chuckle and move on. Or if there’s a local sporting hero known for their great moves on the ice or in the ring or gym, says “that’s a trademark move I just invented to give to so and so. I just wanted to practice it first a little.” Then launch right into the remarks.
As long as your audience feels like you’ve got a handle on whatever is happening, they will stay with you. They only get uneasy and judgmental when you appear lost.