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You’re speaking. Something goes wrong…
What do you do when you’re in front of an audience and suddenly the unexpected happens?
You wouldn’t be the first, that’s for sure. You do enough speaking, and sooner or later you’ll run into a SITUATION. Like this…
I had just begun my talk at a professional association meeting. It was a late night; those folks had been in that room for hours. They’d listened to a bunch of updates and award-giving and plans for the coming year. The energy in the room was low.
That put some pressure on me to liven things up. Interaction almost always helps… so I invited questions and comments from the get-go.
What I had in mind, of course, was questions and comments about the topic of my talk: speaking with authority.
Instead, I’d barely started speaking when a guy waved a mic-runner over, stood up, and told me, “I like your jacket. Where did you get it? And how much did it cost?”
That could be a show-stopper.
You might guess, I wasn’t going to stop mine. I’m about to tell you what I did. Then, why it worked. And how you can do the same to avoid being derailed.
- First, for a moment, I did nothing. I paused and looked at the rest of the audience with an expression that said something like, “Isn’t this interesting?”
- I walked to my right, stopped, and turned to the audience.
- I shifted to a more casual, relaxed posture as I paused again.
- In a conversational, just-between-us tone, I said, “I’m about to do the women in the room a big favor. My jacket’s from Caroline Rose. They make fabulous clothes in Oak Park—they’re sold at high-end places like Nieman’s and Saks. Where I don’t shop.”
“But… they have a sample sale half a dozen times a year. Right there in Oak Park where they do the designing and cutting and sewing. And the prices are unbelievable! You can call them and get on their mailing list, so you’ll know about the next one.
“Or just reach out to me later… and I’ll put you in touch.”
- I stopped talking. Walked back to center stage. Grounded myself so I owned the space.
- Then I picked up where I’d left off, describing words that undermine your authority when you’re speaking.
You’re not likely to get comments on your wardrobe during a business presentation. But things can go south, right? Technology fails. You forget something and have to backtrack. Someone pipes up with an unwelcome comment. Or they try to take you off on a tangent.
Here’s what you can learn from my experience.
- Pause. Give yourself time to shift gears. Sometimes we think we have to jump right into a quick response or we’ll look discombobulated. It’s the opposite. When you take a beat, and breathe, you seem calm and in control. And you give yourself time to get control.
That pause also builds expectation. I could see the audience leaning in, paying attention. The thought balloons over their heads said, “How’s she going to respond to that?” In that moment, 230-odd people were completely with me.
- Moving to another spot on the stage, I was using my physicality to separate this moment from the rest of my talk. I indicated “an aside” – by literally moving to the side.
- Again, the pause. There’s no rush here. I’m not at anyone’s mercy. This is my show.
- Shifting into a casual, conversational posture and tone signaled—this is something different, even special. You’re getting a look behind the curtain, so to speak.
- My commentary about Caroline Rose was authentic. Everyone could see and hear that they were getting “the real me.” And they were getting a great wardrobe tip, too. I heard from several women later who got in touch with the designer.
I kept it short though. The message: I’m open, willing to answer your questions. But you’re not diverting me from my agenda. (Did I mention?—this is my show.)
- Another pause. The break indicates another shift in the action. So, this interlude is over, now we’re moving on. As a bonus, pausing is a sure-fire way to exhibit command of the room.
- Action! Back to center stage. Always grounding myself, sensing my feet on the floor. Open and taking up space. Establishing myself as the expert with valuable information to share, someone they want to listen to. (Because… who’s show is it?)
Now, when it’s your show, you can do the same things.
Pause. Don’t feel pressured to rush into a response to whatever’s gone wrong. And breathe.
Change positions. You’re using your body as an anchor. This spot, where you’ve been speaking, is associated with your authority and expertise. So when you step into another role… you also literally step into another place.
The movement is a visual cue to help your audience stay with you. And it preserves your ability to go back to being the expert after you’ve dealt with the distraction.
Depending on the room, you could walk ten steps away or two steps away. In a conference room, you might shift from standing to sitting or perching on the edge of a chair. In front of a Zoom screen, maybe you just lean to the side or rest your chin on your hand. You’re looking for something that breaks the “presentation state” and sets a different tone.
Be you. Because people will sense it in an instant if you put on a mask. Almost always, when something goes wrong while you’re speaking, people are pulling for you to work it out. They’re on your side. They want you to succeed. But you blow that good will if you get phony.
But be nice. You want to keep them on your side, and for the most part, people don’t like arrogance or pomposity. Some speakers, comedians, radio personalities have become famous being rude to their audiences. For the rest of us? Best to be positive.
Even if you think somebody is intentionally throwing a wrench into your work, it doesn’t serve you well to get into it right then. You might be furious that the projector went out again. Now’s not the time to blast your tech people. Or you feel like an idiot for skipping that important point. Stay light about it, weave it in, and get back on track without a lot of self-criticism.
Remember whose show it is. It’s yours, right? Whatever happens, deal with it, move through it, and make it part of that show. Turns out those moments can create surprising—and lasting—impact.