At some point or another, you are going to have that “brain fart” in front of an audience. It will happen. You’re going to say something you didn’t mean that will either be highly offensive or highly embarrassing. You’re going to blankly stare at your screen when you forget the argument or statement that you’ve never had problems remembering before. You’re going to accidentally horribly insult someone, and it was the last possible thing you meant to do. These events happen, thankfully not too often. So what do you do to manage these utterly horrendous situations?
Firstly, people don’t care
It’s important to recognise the sad fact that most people in life don’t care about you or what you have to say. This goes tenfold for a conference or speech at work. Most attendees will be bored and unless you have them utterly engaged with your presentation, will probably be sneaking a look at their phone. It’s a harsh reality, but one that we’re best off accepting.
That’s fine though. This is the number one comfort you can usually rely on. Even if you find something you said to be glaringly horrifying, chances are it’s not that big of a deal to them, most of the audience probably didn’t even notice what you said. Just know that you’re probably going to be fine.
The best thing you can do is not draw attention to your gaffe and just move on. In the various presentations that I have given throughout my corporate career I’ve certainly found myself in the middle of stories that were irrelevant, too long, and boring as watching paint dry. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and say “and wow, I’ve taken this story off track, let’s move on” and do exactly that.
As with most things when you’re on stage, staying humble is a good quality to have. You’re pretty exposed, and if you mess up, be honest about it. If something obvious happened that you can’t sweep under the rug easily, put your hat in your hand and say “wow, I did not mean to say that… sorry!” or “crap, totally blew my train of thought, let’s circle back on that”. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the audience generally wants you to succeed, they’ll be accepting of your errors and will support your humble efforts to get your presentation back on track. Don’t sweat or panic when an error happens, just calmly steer the ship back on course.
Minimise the likelihood of mistakes occurring
A good approach is to always have a strategy in place to minimise the chance of mistakes from occurring. Practicing your talk frequently and in a variety of manners is great, but it’s also a good idea to be strategic, when you can. I normally ad-lib the start of my talks by telling a small joke or tell a funny 30 second story (and make these applicable to the topic where ever possible), just to get people interested. If I’m concerned about losing my place, I make use of my notes or power point slides. There’s no reason you can’t use all these things to your advantage to make it less likely you’ll mess up. It’s also critical to have a sound routine in the lead up to your talk. I personally ensure that I am well rested, have eaten a good breakfast, and have exercised either that day or the previous evening before a big talk. This helps me manage stress and go into the speech with a positive mindset.
And remember, everyone makes mistakes, even the pros. Just recently Tony Robin’s caused a number of participants at one of his events suffer from burns to their feet while walking across hot coals. Could you imagine trying to stay humble and calm following that blunder?
If you’ve found this information useful you may also be interested in reading about how to handle a hostile audience or how to improve your public speaking through storytelling.
Also, if you’re after a short online course in public speaking, I cannot recommend ed2go’s online public speaking courses enough. I’ll be posting review of their online courses in public speaking very soon.