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[Speaking-Out-Loud November 2013] When stuff happens
November 30, 2013

Welcome to the November Issue of Speaking-Out-Loud's newsletter to help you effectively 'talk your walk'.

In this Issue

Stuff happens

Stuff happens. Challenging stuff, sweeping you and your presentation sideways into alternate realities. In those time invariably stands still and panic mounts a takeover bid.

The stuff? It's the unforeseen; the things reminding us that public speaking is a live, here-and-now event, when what can go wrong, sometimes does.

How you handle an unscheduled sideways shift can make all the difference between recovery and *disaster.

Common stuff

Mind blanks - the next idea, a person's name or a particular word evaporates from memory. There is nothing there. You find yourself scrabbling around looking for clues to get back on track while fighting the temptation to bolt.

  • Instead pause, breathe, take a sip of water. Often taking a moment to be still is enough to jolt the memory into action. The audience will not notice there is anything amiss if you don't alert them.
  • Or back up and restate the previous point. That can work too.
  • If you have notes or an outline check it.
  • If you still can't find the route back into your speech, ask the audience; "Now, where as I?" Have them prompt you and don't fall into the trap of apologizing which simply draws more attention to the lapse. Everybody has forgetful moments and nobody expects perfection.

Running out of time - suddenly your allotted time is up, the next speaker is waiting but you haven't finished. This one is tricky but with forethought can sometimes be negotiated.

Time gets cut short for all sorts of reasons. Some you can control. Some you can't.

You can help by:

  • Knowing how long your speech takes to deliver. Rehearsing with a stop watch will help you trim your content to fit.
  • Having a prearranged time signaler to let you know when you've only got a few minutes left. If you're not through because you detoured off track quickly decide which bits you can leave out and begin your summary.

When it's beyond your control because the speakers prior to you have run over time, don't assume you will be allowed to as well. Instead have a plan B - a shortened version of your presentation that you can adapt to fit.

If you find yourself really stranded without a hope of covering what you need to or fitting in your planned conclusion acknowledge you've run out of time and offer to email your notes to people wanting them. It's not ideal but better than slipping away leaving your audience with incomplete information. Try to keep positive. People will remember your grace under pressure which is a lot better than being recalled as the one who whinged and whined.

Equipment failure
The computer that seizes, the slides that freeze, the volume that won't budge above a whisper, a power cut, a display screen with a mind of its own, power leads that won't reach the only available socket ... These are just of few of the many ways you can be left gawping.

The only way I know to deal with it is to think it through from a 'what is the worst that can happen angle' and have a back up plan. Rehearsing with everything you intend to use in the venue helps but it's not a fail-safe guarantee.

Having a print copy of your outline on hand is good as is a duplicate USB (memory) stick. If you have complex diagrams you need the audience to see make sure you can print them off as handouts.

Not so common stuff

The dreaded heckler or persistent red-herring questioner
This is the person who asks one too many off-target questions, disagrees dis-respectively, is deliberately insulting, wants to hijack the audience to grandstand or any other variation.

Knowing your audience is the best place to start and then thinking through (and rehearsing) ahead of time some useful strategies for meeting the challenge of a heckler/a persistent questioner politely but firmly.

You will need to use some discernment about which technique to use. Is the interruption a deliberate attempt to score points, to throw you off balance or is it a genuine request or comment?

These could include:

  1. Thanking the questioner and inviting them to meet with you later to discuss their query more fully. This is good if the subject they wish to talk about is off-topic, or has already been covered. I've found it works very well.
  2. If you're not restricted to a stage moving directly to where the person is sitting and standing behind or beside them. This automatically makes them the focus of attention and is often enough to settle the situation without having to comment.
  3. Deliberately withholding eye contact and ignoring the person while inviting comment from someone who has been participating positively.
  4. Inviting the person to stand up, take the stage, and expand on his comment. This is often enough to close a person down who wants to snipe anonymously and safely from the sidelines.
  5. Preparing a collection of neutral inclusive toss away lines like: "Yes, we've all had days when shouting at the messenger/boss/teacher/... was exactly what we wanted to do."
  6. Waiting in silence for whatever the disruption is to stop: fiddling, whispering, receiving texts or texting

Try not to escalate the situation by becoming noticeably anxious, hurt, or aggressive. That makes it personal which is more difficult to manage with dignity. A slanging match, crying or coming out with 'it's not fair or nice' type statements will alienate and embarrass the majority of your audience. If you have to, leave, before it comes to that. There is no shame in recognizing when to go.

Managing a runaway mouth
Do you sometimes hear yourself saying things that you wish with your whole heart you hadn't? That's a runaway mouth. It blurts without thinking of consequences. Sometimes it's a quick quip at someone's expense. Sometimes it's gutter language - entirely inappropriate for the situation and sometimes it's purely and simply, a stupid reactive comment.

The situation where you are most vulnerable to fall victim to runaway mouth is in impromptu or unscripted speaking. The prepared presentation is finished but you're asked for a few comments "off the cuff" and to your horror and embarrassment you hear yourself saying things you'd never say if you thought before you opened your mouth.

How do I know? Because I've done it!

Now I have a simple rule. I have to mentally count to three while taking a deep breath before responding. That's usually enough time to edit and reword. I also ask for clarification or rephrasing if I'm unsure about what I am being asked.

Following the standing ovation
The speaker before you was brilliant; thoroughly deserving all the applause they got. It's a hard act to follow but you must.

What do you do? Take 3 deep breaths and graciously acknowledge that you too found the previous speaker captivating, interesting, inspiring ... and then move enthusiastically into your own material. To not say anything will appear churlish.

Wardrobe malfunctions
What if my zip breaks? What if the buttons pop on my shirt? Or the clasp on my belt stops working?

Hopefully it shouldn't happen because you will have done all the sensible things well beforehand. You will have tried on your clothes, rehearsed in them and replaced those pieces that were too tight or had dodgy fastenings. But if it does and it's obvious, deal with it as best you can immediately: "One moment please, I've been upstaged by a button beyond my control. Is there a safety pin in the house?"

Maintaining cool while being clumsy
You've tripped over a cord, spilled your water, or dropped your notes ... Take a moment to breathe, then play it back on yourself good-humoredly and move on.
"Isn't that everyone's worse nightmare? You'll be on stage, everybody watching and you'll fluff it up. I've just done it so you don't have to. Now moving right along ..."
"Murphy's law scored 10/10 with that one."
"It takes hours of practice to get maximum audience impact from seemingly random events. Did you like that one?"

Humor, honesty and humility

Humor directed at yourself is good, in moderation. People will find it awkward and uncomfortable if you go on too long or are too self-belittling. The ability to laugh at your own foibles, prejudices and weaknesses makes you appear more human - more like anyone in the audience. For more check: how to use humor effectively.

Honesty is always the best policy. If you pretend, exaggerate your expertise or try to bluff your way through something you don't know, it will be seen. 'I don't know' is a perfectly acceptable answer if you're asked a question outside the scope of your knowledge, particularly if it's followed with, 'but I will find out and get back to you', or 'perhaps somebody else here can answer that for you?'

You may be good at what you do, have achieved well but presuming 'betterness' than your audience, condescension, sets up unnecessary barriers. Be proud but not full yourself. There's a difference. Arrogance instantly issues an invitation to 'bring you down to size'. Humility attracts respect.

*Disasters - If you are going to put yourself in front of an audience, they're going to happen. You will be challenged sooner or later. They come with the territory. Everybody who regularly speaks in public will have their stories of the time when ...

You can minimize their occurrence by preparing a checklist. There's one here I've called Bring-It-On covering off the major areas where snafus are most likely to occur. (You'll find it at the foot of the page.) Adapt it to fit.

How about sharing? What was your biggest disaster?

Mine are many. They include running out of time, becoming visibly flustered by a disruptive late comer whom I allowed to get under my skin, preparing a set of old fashioned over-head projector slides with erasable ink pens and then finding all the content had rubbed off when I went to use them, forgetting critical names, leaving my notes at home and so on. These days I use a checklist!

What's your story? Enter it on Facebook to share.

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A round up of posts I found stimulating. I hope you enjoy them too.

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Until next time,
Happy speaking,


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