'Stop, compose yourself, and never apologise': How to handle a public speaking mishap

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

While it may be impossible to anticipate every mishap, you can learn how to deal with the most common public speaking calamities.

Here's how to play it cool when you're dying inside.

As a starter for 10, watch former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer have a bad day. Then just try to do the opposite.

But let's turn to a professional for some real in-depth insight.

Gerry Prewett is the editor of a Toastmasters newsletter in Perth, Australia. He's also had the unique honour of receiving the prestigious Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) Award.

Great to talk to you Gerry. Tell us a little about your own public speaking journey.

When I attended the inaugural meeting of Cannington Communicators Toastmasters Club back in March 2008, I decided there was no point hanging back. So I gave my Icebreaker speech.

Within that first year, I gained the club's first competent communicator award and joined the committee as vice president of PR.

I was gradually getting the hang of this toastmaster thing. In time, I achieved my competent leader award and, in 2009, I was asked to serve as an area governor.

It's been a long road since then. I now serve as editor and have been fortunate to earn the DTM Award.

What have I learned? I learned it's all about the journey, not the destination. Whilst the DTM is a fabulous reward, the learning process and leadership opportunities among great people are what's truly fantastic.

What are the most common challenges for novice speakers?

The most common are nerves, displayed by ums, ers, looking at the ground, walking or moving around aimlessly, talking too fast or even seizing up.

Overuse of notes or having a very carefully scripted speech (this used to be my major challenge) are also common.

And what about experienced speakers? What do they still grapple with?

Going over time.

Most Toastmasters speeches are 5-7 minutes, and many experienced speakers reach 8-9 minutes before they realise the audience has become bored.

Then there's lack of preparation, or trying to say too much.

What can we do to avoid falling into these traps?

An absolute key is don't panic.

Lost your place? Well, the audience does not know what you are going to say – so you can always make it up.

Also, have a couple of 'mantras', such as:

  1. Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you have just told them.
  2. Pose a question that does not require an answer.
  3. Have a shocking opening.

George Burns said the secret of a great speech was to have a strong opening, a strong closing, and to make the two as close together as possible. Very wise advice.

I once opened with:

I crossed the finishing line at the 2000 Sydney Olympics ahead of the official winner.

Then my closing line was:

I was actually 5 months ahead of the winner as I was taking part in the demonstration race held to test the course.

All the way through the speech I'd kept this hidden and left the audience guessing what was going on.

If you keep um-ing or er-ing, just take a breath before the um or er comes out of your mouth.

Join a Toastmasters Club, it's a very enriching friendly environment where people are there to help you.

We've all been there, done that, got the t-shirt. You get very helpful and constructive feedback.

What is the best way to carry on after a 'mistake'?

Stop, compose yourself, and move on. I once spoke at a Mining Convention in front of an audience of 300 mine managers and scientists.

I told a joke about a JCB that fell completely flat. I heard the silence where there should have been laughter – so I just moved on.

And never apologise, it only brings the attention back to the mistake.

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