Article Category: Speaker Habits

The Only Thing to Do When Disaster Strikes Your Speech

Imagine… you’ve just been introduced.

In a few seconds, you’re going to deliver the speech of your life. Your opening hook is crisp. Your closing is powerful. Your stories are polished. Your attire is impeccable. You are confident.

And then the power goes out.

Or someone spills juice on you.

Or music starts blaring from outside the room.

Or the CEO leaves the room.

Or your key prop is missing.

Or a mild earthquake shakes the room.

Or your shirt ripped.

Or your computer freezes.

Or … (insert your worst nightmare here) .

There’s only one thing you can do — only one thing you must do.

The One Thing You Should Do

Keep going.

It may be the last thing you want to do, but it’s the one thing you must do.

No matter what the distraction, you’ve got to stay focused and continue on. Unless someone needs medical attention, the best thing you can do is deliver the speech as best you can. Improvise if you have to, but keep going.


First, your audience sympathizes with you. They’ve probably been in your shoes before. They understand that bad things happen unexpectedly. But sympathy doesn’t mean you get a free pass to quit.

Second, your audience still wants to hear your speech. They came to hear you speak for a reason, and that reason didn’t change just because of a loud noise, a power failure, or a wardrobe malfunction. You have an obligation to continue.

Third, you’ll feel better if you keep going. While you can’t control disasters that happen to you, you can control your response to them. By continuing on, you will achieve a moral victory, even if the speech you deliver isn’t 100%. Moral victories are important in public speaking. They improve your confidence and your ability to handle the next disaster that comes your way.

You may be compelled to apologize. It’s okay if you do, but it really isn’t necessary. The apology keeps the focus on the disaster, and away from your speech. [There’s more about apologies in a previous Six Minutes article: Should a Speaker Apologize to the Audience?]

This Really Happened

I was inspired to write this short article because I attended an event this week where disaster struck.

As the event began, so did the noise —  not from next door, but from the roof! Roof repairs were underway and, in a stroke of bad luck, they were repairing the section of roof directly above the meeting room. For most of the meeting, the drilling sounds echoed intermittently as if a dentist was drilling into my teeth.

Two of the speakers were, I assume, aware of the roof repairs since they worked in the building. The third speaker, however, was a guest. I can only imagine what was going through her head in the minutes before she was introduced.

Despite the disastrous environment, all three speakers kept going. The first two delivered humorous speeches and strategically placed the punchlines before or after the intermittent drilling. The third speaker (the guest) had the most difficult task. She was delivering a serious, inspirational speech to a crowd she didn’t know. She, too, delivered a wonderful speech. After an uneasy opening minute, the annoyance of the drilling didn’t seem to phase her at all. As her speech went on, her stories made us unaware of the noise around us. She connected, and we were better for it.

Stewart, Yanna, and Libby, thanks for handling an impossible situation with poise. Bravo!

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Comments icon8 Comments

  1. Great article, Andrew, and of course, right on the nose!

    I had my own incident in January. The power went out down the whole street, at night, in a dark rural neighborhood where I was presenting with PowerPoint to my women’s networking group.

    Instantly the group sprang to action. Cell phones lit up, the host (did I mention we were in a house that’s for sale, with next to no furnishings or belongings in the whole place?) went off to find lanterns, and we all gathered around the laptop, which was running on battery power.

    We were thrown off for about a minute, then I continued on where I had left off, and the rest of the presentation was perfect. You just have to hike up your boots and keep on trudging!

  2. Great article, but I would go even further. Two steps to take: 1. It’s essential to acknowledge the “elephant in the room” when disaster strikes. As the article points out, the audience is on your side, so say something that allows them to laugh, or groan, or sympathize with you.
    2. Enlist the audience’s help in solving the problem, if it’s something that can be solved. I have seen the following scenario go badly or well, depending on the speaker’s response: something goes wrong with, say, the technology. The slides won’t advance, or the sound doesn’t work on the video. If the speaker takes it on his or herself to fix the problem, then you have an audience waiting in agony while the seconds tick by. If, on the other hand, the speaker asks for help from the audience, then you have a group of people working together to solve a problem. Entirely different vibe in the room.

  3. There is nothing worse than seeing someone lose control of their speech.

  4. How about no key to even get into the venue, and 200 people turning up in the next 30 minutes?

    We ended up doing the entire 1 hour presentation in the entrance foyer. We used handouts instead of projector and screen. The audience had to stand (or sit on the ground) in a space more suited to 20 people than 200.

    It was still a great night! I think everyone kinda got into the spirit of the shared adversity.

    Bottom line? A bit of adversity won’t kill your talk, unless you let it.

  5. Disaster…yes I remember one. The air conditioning went out at a conference that I was speaking. It was a very warm May day and everyone was uncomfortable. And yes…I ignored it and went on. I did take off my jacket since everyone else in the room did. 🙂

  6. DXmusic says:

    Well, no doubt your article is great… the same thing our teacher say, that no matter what is happening around you just give your 100% in front of audience…

  7. Disaster! Ugh! As we presenters know, Andrew, it’s going to happen sometime. I’ve had a couple minor issues crop up. I trained myself to adapt and plow on. The one problem with stopping to apologize or correct (unless it’s a major problem) is that you will disrupt the flow of the presentation and turn a molehill into a mountain. Replace a boo-boo with good material, and that’s what the audience will remember.

  8. Vittles says:

    Yeah, this can happen to anyone and keeping you’re composure when unexpected scenarios happen is so hard. And you’re right, just keep on going no matter what.

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