What to do if you stuff up during a talk

“What advice do you have if you stuff up in the middle of your talk?” This was posed to me in question time after my workshop at the Local Government Professionals Women’s Forum.

There’s a big difference between forgetting your words, and the crowd throwing tomatoes because you’ve said something uninformed, racist or otherwise insulting. So I asked if he had a specific situation in mind.

He didn’t. Rather, his question reflected a fear many of us have: the fear that something terribly bad (but as yet unknown) will happen in front of a lot of people.

While there is a risk your worst nightmares could play out live on stage, how many conference stuff-ups can you recall right now? If anything, we are more likely to negatively remember speakers who were boring and wasted our time, and forget or feel endeared to those who forgot their words, or cried, or broke a shoe.

My short answer to the question about what to do if you make a mistake: presuming you have prepared appropriately, your audience really doesn’t mind. In fact, mistakes can sometimes yield benefits.

People like to see humans
No one goes to a conference to listen to an automaton. If you say something silly, trip or lose your place, it reminds the audience that you are an ordinary person, just like them. Being relatable is useful if you want other people to think they can do what you’re advising them to.

The audience expects you to be ready for the talk
While you are allowed to make mistakes, kindliness towards errors only applies if you have put some effort into planning your talk. If you haven’t considered who your audience is, what they want to hear from you, and how to deliver that in a coherent, engaging style, your listeners will not be so patient with fumbling and forgetting.

Let the audience in on what’s happening, and move on
Did you research your topic, rehearse and do everything you could to ensure the audience would get value from giving up their time to listen to you? If you have, then all you need to do is say something like, “Hmm…sorry, i seem to have missed a whole chunk. It was really important so if you don’t mind I’m going to go back to it!” Breathe in, and resume when you are ready.

Mistakes can be opportunities
I myself lost my place in this very workshop. Since I am a speaker coach I thought I should follow my own advice: after a moment of internal panic I paused, said to the audience, “I have completely lost my place”, and looked down at my notes until I worked out what happened.  Rather than demonstrating my utter failure to maintain perfection for 90 minutes straight in front of 150 people, an audience member told me she appreciated it. “Seeing you confused about your slides and finding your place again was really good. It helped us see the human element”.

Bonus advice: Strategic mistakes
When I used to perform clown shows (modern kind, not slapstick) mistakes we made by accident were often so funny for the audience we would work them in the following night. Perhaps I should make losing my place in this workshop a built-in feature for next time.

If this post doesn’t apply because you’re so reliant on a script there’s no possibility of making a mistake, try How to deliver a presentation without notes

Or read more about speaker coaching for your next conference or professional presentation.

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Speaker | Coach | Founder Yoga for Pain Care Australia

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