Managing a Disastrous Presentation or Speech – What to do When Things Go Wrong During a Speech

Most people experience some degree of apprehension when speaking in public. After all, sometimes things do go wrong, leaving both the presenter and the presentation in a precarious position. Yet public speaking is an es-sential skill in today’s business environment. So is being able to mitigate or move gracefully through mishaps and keep the attention where it belongs – on your presentation, not you.

The first way to ward off a disastrous appearance is to avoid obvious reasons speeches bomb. They include:

  1. Lack of preparation
  2. Lack of skill or technique
  3. Lack of expertise on the subject matter
  4. Technical difficulties or unforeseen circumstances such as poor attendance, weather conditions, tardiness, etc.
  5. Illness or sudden malaise

Being unaware of the dynamics at play on a stage. Those all can be handled ahead of time. What should you do if things head south while a speech or presentation is underway? The first thing is recognizing things do go awry. As much as it may sound cliché and simplistic, it is precisely because things happen on our watch that we can do something about them.

Essential to recovering from a disastrous speech is learning to manage the moment as it unfurls or in the imme-diate aftermath. Here, then, are some ways to maintain some control of the situation.

  • Recognize it’s human to become mildly tense, shy or anxious. Mistakes are normal, so learn to tolerate and even welcome them. When a speaker makes a simple and harmless mistake – such as mispronouncing a name – he or she mustn’t draw attention to it excessively. Simply “move on.” It demonstrates professionalism.
  • Remember that you are an expert, not a martyr. No one ever perishes from publicspeakingosis, though a major gaffe may seem mortifying at the time. Still, one way to avoid the fear of “dying on stage” is to remember: Your credibility on a subject comes just as much from what you believe about yourself as it does what you accurately convey on a topic. Project confidence, but remember that a little humility goes a long way as well.
  • Keep in mind public speaking borrows from theatrical convention. A speaker willingly gets in front of an audience and delivers rehearsed lines. As such, it’s a voluntary act, created for a stage much like an actor inter-nalizes a script and then replays it with conviction for dramatic effect. Your content might be critically serious but the delivery is theatrical. You are an actor playing to an audience and must become accountable at that level. Remember: You did not wake up on that stage unaware, you chose to be there. Therefore, remembering why you are committing to speak can greatly reduce some of the inevitable nervousness and subsequent mistakes.
  • A speaker is in charge of all aspects of a presentation, including mishaps. Think of the notion of the captain of a ship. A speaker is the captain. Welcome the role rather than shy away from it.
  • Audiences are “actively passive.” It is precisely because an audience is aware of what goes on that the speaker must be upfront about what is going wrong. Assume your audience is always aware, even if they say nothing. So, the first thing to do is to acknowledge mishaps as they occur, maybe even ahead of time if you smell a disaster brewing. The situation will only be made worse if you try to hide it. For instance, if I drop my glass of water and then proceed to pretend it didn’t happen, I have robbed myself of my audience’s focus. Now everyone is thinking about the glass of water and why I pretended it didn’t hap-pen.
  • Use humor to demonstrate that you are human and that you have dealt with similar situations in the past – especially if it is true! If it isn’t make a joke out of the situation and demonstrate your “lighter” side!
  • Treat your audience as a partner. Respect them by confirming that what they just witnessed did hap-pen and that you are still in charge of the situation. Stay present. Don’t act out a character in your pres-entations unless you are damn sure of what you are doing and have tested it before. For instance you may have been told to use humor and crack jokes, but it’s really not your thing. In other words leave act-ing to actors and instead “be yourself.” Dazzle them with what is genuine about you not with what is in-authentic. If I’m in the middle of an “pretend act” that I’m not too confident in or rehearsed with, when something outside of my control happens I will feel and look like a fool.
  • Avoid “catering” to an audience, or trying to draw them in artificially. They will turn their backs on you. You cannot make an audience like you or like what you are presenting to them. Often when something goes wrong or not as well as planned, we turn on the “pleasing” act. We find ourselves compensating. We smile when we don’t feel like it. We move about when we should stay still. We lose our sense of self. Stick to your program. You can’t win’em all! If a presentation is not well researched, prepared or rehearsed, be up front and tell your audience. You will win points by being straight. Audiences are passive but not necessarily stupid.
  • Be watchful of your mood or attitude, especially if something goes wrong. You may wish for an error-free speech, but what if it doesn’t go so smoothly? Try not to be seduced by negative feelings, such as anger, that can somehow be projected out to the audience. An attitude results from something; it isn’t organic. It’s some-times a good reminder that embracing a moment’s bad mood can (backwardly) spell DOOM.
  • If you are nervous to an extreme point, stop! Collect yourself by breathing deeply two or three times and stay in your body. In a worse case scenario, take the audience in confidence and reassure them that it will pass or that it will only take you a moment to recover. Know that at that point they are worried about you. Apologize authentically. Remember that an audience wants you to succeed.
  • Understand physiological and psychological reactions to nervousness. Your body responds to stress in the same way it responds to imminent physical danger. The nervous system produces chemicals that flood your bloodstream. This can feel wonderful or it can leave you exhausted. Accept that nerves are part of the package.
  • Remember that self-consciousness comes from two sources: (1) not trusting how we feel and (2) not committing to what we are doing physically and emotionally. Try not to catch yourself thinking more about your actions instead of just doing them. Actions must be carried to completion. If they aren’t, the speaker should explain why an action was aborted, interrupted or changed to serve another purpose.
  • When in doubt, stand still and do nothing. Breathe. Smile. Yeah, it’s that easy. o Make visual and tactual contact with the room and items in it, such as lights, objects, furniture, people, and so on. It anchors our focus in the physical world, which has the grounding effect to help avoid nervousness and consequently potential mistakes.
  • Beware of apologizing, self-pity, mocking, preaching and demeaning as visible means of communication. It usually spells disaster. The same applies to overt or covert anger towards someone. These are traps and/or very poor choices. Sometimes a speaker simply does not realize that his or her performance contains these forms of expression. He or she should become aware of the devastating affect it has on an audience. The only exceptions naturally are when the speaker who apologizes, explains or views himself as a victim does so pur-posely to illustrate, entertain or make a point.

Copyright © 2007 Speakers & Artists International, Inc.