People often ask me what to do if the worst case scenario happens on stage. You’ve probably thought about this at some point if you’ve ever given a speech. Maybe you’ve thought about someone in the audience interrupting, or a loud noise, losing your place, or anything that could distract you and throw you off your game.
And actually, these things happen all the time. Anyone who’s been on stage will probably have some horror story. Here’s mine (and how to recover if it happens to you).
I have no idea how many hours of my life have been spent talking to a group of people in a formal, “public speaking” setting (I can count at least 2000, but that’s only since I’ve been keeping track). As with anything in life, if you do it enough you’re bound to a) get better at it and b) have a few… ‘incidents’.
I happen to be an ‘incident’ waiting to happen (not just on stage).
So, it didn’t necessarily surprise me when I took a major fall in front of a group of about 30 people, while delivering a presentation.
For a lot of people, this would signal a public speaking fail. Things like, falling over, tripping, sweating through your shirt and vomiting all tend to top the list of “things not to do on stage.”
Yet, there I was…. really involved in this lecture I was presenting. And when I get really into my presentations, my body gets into it. I move around a lot, I use big gestures, and I don’t pay much attention to what is happening with “me.”
I had a cute outfit on that day. Black pumps (the pointy heel kind for those of you who don’t know your women’s shoes), grey slacks that were just a bit too long so I had them hemmed up in a cuff, which might not sound cute, but actually was. (I loved those pants.)
Unfortunately, the combo of pointy high heel and cuffed pant = high percentage falling over.
I took a step closer to the audience, really worked up about something I was talking about, and stepped right into the cuff of my left pant leg with the point of my right heel. My legs tangled, I got caught, and had one of those slow motion falls to the ground. You know the one, right? Where you see it coming, but you just can’t. quite. catch yourself.
Talk about an interruption.
Here’s the thing (and I realize this might not be comforting), these things happen. I’m a person. You’re a person. The audience is full of people. And people aren’t always graceful (especially me, ask anyone who knows me). And people sometimes trip, or cough, or sneeze, or otherwise act like people while delivering a presentation.
Does this make you a bad public speaker? Or does this make this a bad speech? Absolutely not. Because, that isn’t the important thing here. The important thing is that my audience understood my message, that they connected with me, and that I was able to effectively communicate with them.
And all of that still happened, despite the interruption.
Actually, the time spent on that interruption was relatively small. We moved on pretty quickly.
If you’re on stage enough, you’ll encounter interruptions. Some will be out of your control, some will be all because of you. Some are major, other’s are barely noticeable. Either way, don’t stress. Here are some things you can do to get everyone refocused on your message again.
Listen, I know that the impulse is just to push through and ignore anything you may have done wrong, or any outside disruption. But don’t leave that big elephant walking around the room without anyone acknowledging it – because what happens when there’s a big elephant that no one wants to talk about? It’s the ONLY thing you can think of.
And same with your audience. Now, I’m not saying you have to acknowledge every cough, sneeze or paper shuffling that happens during your speech, but if there is a major incident (like falling on your face), people are going to notice. If you act like you didn’t, you appear to be disconnected (imagine if I just kept talking as I was picking myself up off the ground? I’d look like a weirdo, lacking personality, right?)
Acknowledging it paints you as a natural and relaxed presenter who knows your stuff so well that you can adapt – almost like you’re speaking off the cuff (even if you’re not – I wasn’t, but my audience thought I was).
View this as a conversation. Not as if you are delivering a monologue. There’s room to veer off the path for unexpected circumstances.
Acknowledging the incident can be as simple as a little smile and nod to the interruption, or a full on pause with an added joke or story. The choice is yours.
The main goal is still to communicate the message. Make sure the audience is still with you and caught up before moving forward after an interruption. Just because you were at a specific place of your speech before the interruption, doesn’t mean you have to pick up exactly there.
If the interruption caused a commotion, or was especially distracting, just do a quick recap before moving on. The audience will quickly forget and get wrapped up in your speech soon enough. Again, this is a conversation. Not a monologue. Adjust as needed.
One thing I’ve noticed while working with new speakers is that a lot of people believe that if they want to sound and look natural on stage, they have to talk off the cuff. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Does it work for some people? Sure. But, they’re the exception. Not the rule. And, if you’re one of those people, you probably know it by now and have a very natural ability on stage.
To sound natural, you need to know your speech inside and out. This actually safeguards against things like losing your place or not recovering well from interruptions.
And when I say “know your content” I don’t just mean memorize the speech. I mean, know and understand the flow of the content. What are the common themes that weave through it? Know multiple examples, even if you don’t plan to use them (good for Q&A’s or expanding when needed). Know how pieces connect to each other.
If you know all of this very, very well, you’ll be able to pick up anywhere, at anytime, despite any interruption – even if it’s a major one.
What did I do?
Well, first I stood up – and I had to laugh because, who couldn’t? I actually told a short story to diffuse the situation about the same thing that happened the last time I wore those pants (at least that time I wasn’t in the middle of a presentation). Then, I did a quick recap and got back on track. Overall, the entire distraction was only a minute or two and was quickly forgotten (it didn’t end up on YouTube, I think that counts as a win these days?). Since I didn’t make a big deal about it, and didn’t awkwardly pretend like it didn’t happen, they didn’t view it as a big deal (mildly entertaining? Yes. Can’t believe that happened and this goes down as the WORST presentation EVER??? Not at all).
Next time you’re on stage and something tragic happens, just remember to keep your cool. Address it, focus on the message, and have faith in your expertise and knowledge on the topic. You’ll get through this!
Have questions about public speaking? With over 2000 hours of presentation time and after working with over 2000 people to help them create and deliver their presentations, I’ve seen it all. And I know how to deliver a speech that gets results. Let me know what you want to know by filling out this super-quick, one question survey and I’ll make sure I address it!
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What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done in front of a group of people? How did you recover? Let me know by commenting below!
Sandy empowers the young and talented to increase their power and influence by improving their ability to be heard and be clear. She does this by providing access to rigorously tested research in the communication, psychology, and marketing fields.