Today marks the eleven year anniversary of 911. I remember it like yesterday. It was the nicest day of the year. There was a noticeable stillness in the air. I headed off to JP Morgan where I was speaking to a group of relationship managers in the private bank. The seminar was on sales presentation skills. We began at 8:00 a.m. A participant arrived late and told me the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. Thinking this was a fabrication for his lateness I was a bit skeptical. When someone else confirmed his story, I called a break and we all marched out to the lobby in search of a television. For the next few minutes we sat in stunned silence as we watched the towers collapse. I asked the manager if she wanted me to continue the seminar and she said no. We cancelled the seminar and I left to find a hotel since certain areas were on lock down and traveling home was probably not an option.
While this is an extreme case of speaking disasters, public speakers need to be prepared for the worst. The best advice for any public speaker is to have a recovery strategy. You never know when your presentation will be impacted by an unforeseen event.
Take the case of the man who was giving a motivational keynote speech to a large audience and suddenly there was a fire in the hotel. The hotel was evacuated and all the audience members were herded into the parking lot. Did that end the speech? Oh, no. This savvy professional speaker jumped on top of a car and continued to give his keynote speech in the parking lot. He believed the show must go on.
I remember when I attended a National Speakers Association conference. There were 2000 people listening to the keynote speaker on the big stage. All of a sudden, an audience member had an epileptic seizure. The audience was now riveted on the disturbance and she realized she had lost their attention. There is always that moment when you question what is the right protocol. She called out and said "Should I stop?" She paused for a bit and when they removed the man she continued her speech. Again, these are extreme examples but they do happen to public speakers.
It's more likely that when you give a presentation you'll encounter less dramatic mishaps. The most common speaking disaster is when technology fails. The recovery strategy for technology failure is to have a back-up. Put your PowerPoint presentation on a flash drive, send an email copy to the meeting planner, and print a hard copy.
What if it's an embarrassing speaking situation? One woman was giving a speech on a stage behind a podium. The elastic band on her half slip (undergarment) snapped and her slip fell to her ankles. She calmly stepped out of the slip and continued her presentation. This would have been a good moment for some humor.
Which brings us to the best public speaking recovery strategy. Take a line from Rod Stewart's song "Her ad lib lines were well rehearsed." In other words, plan some extender lines. Let's say the lights go off. You could say, "Next time I'll pay my electric bill." But what if they continue to flicker and go off again? If you have a few lines you can extend the humor by adding a new "ad lib." One professional speaker had a technology meltdown. He had five extender lines which he used. He later confessed that he was glad that the problem was fixed after the fifth attempt because he had no more humorous one-liners.
Anticipate what could go wrong in your every day presentations. I've spilled coffee, knocked over a flip chart, and hit the wrong button on the video playback. I even lost my train-of-thought when presenting on a panel. I knew what I wanted to say but couldn't retrieve the word. My brain froze. So I simply asked the audience, "What is the word I'm looking for?" They gave it to me and that was the end of it. When it comes to public speaking or any kind of presentation, the audience will not fault you for flubbing if you recover with grace.
Back in 2001 when my seminar was cancelled, we did recover with grace. We rescheduled the presentation a month later and the attendees performed well. They recovered emotionally and that was the best recovery strategy.
What were your worst public speaking disasters and how did you recover? What advice do you have for other public speakers and presenters?