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
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!