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 a question raised after my “Finding Your Voice workshop at the Local Government Professionals Women’s Forum.

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

Turned out he didn’t have a clear example of the kind of mistake he worried he might make. Rather, his question reflected a fear many of us have: that something terribly bad (but as yet unknown) will happen in front of a lot of people.

Take a moment now, to think about how many conference stuff-ups you can recall.

For myself, the few negative memories I have are of speakers who were boring, didn’t prepare, went overtime and wasted the audience’s time. Those who forgot their words, cried, or broke a shoe I tended to find endearing – human. Especially if they handled it with humour and grace.

So, 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 often 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.

Caveat: The audience expects you to be ready for the talk!
While you are totally allowed to make mistakes, kindliness towards such errors applies only if you have put some effort into planning your talk. If you’re waffly and mumbly ‘coz you haven’t done the hard yards, your listeners will not be so patient!

If you totally lose it, why not let the audience in on what’s happening.
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? Great! Then all you need to do when you lose your spot 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. It might even get a laugh.

Mistakes can be opportunities
I lost my place in this very workshop! Since I am a speaker coach, I thought I should follow my own advice so, 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 where I was. An audience member told me later that she appreciated my approach! “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 clown) 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 you’re relying on a script so there’s no possibility of making a mistake, you may like to check out How to deliver a presentation without notes

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

3 (more) tips for more confident, live presentations

Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales and Jamila Rizvi were just some of the impressive professional speakers headlining this year’s Women in Mining WA Summit. With 800 men and women in the audience (three years ago the summit catered to about 300 predominantly women), the discourse about diversity and inclusion has stepped up a notch. A good speaker can help a good cause immensely, so here are three tips from these experts to help you give better, live presentations about the cause you care about:

1. Remember to connect with your audience
In How to use notes AND look at your audience when you give a presentation I explained how Annabel Crabb uses notes, and looks at her audience. The key to doing this effectively is good preparation. Preparation gives you confidence to take in your audience, rather than vaguely glancing at them before looking down to work out what to say next. If you want a technical word for this, use the clown term “complicité”. It’s the non-verbal connection you develop with your audience.

2. Acknowledge other speakers
Professor Bill Wood is invited annually to WIMWA for his rigorous presentation of data on myths like “merit-based” employment. One thing Bill does that I really admire: He continuously references other speakers. This shows Professor Wood recognises his talk is part of something bigger, that he has respect for the other speakers, and that he is prepared enough to be able to pay attention to everyone else.

3. Take off your high heels
This one comes direct from Jamila Rizvi. I’ve never heard it before but it’s wise counsel. “Nothing like high heels to make you feel unstable,” Jamila said in her conversation with Leigh Sales. If you don’t have the ankle strength to own stilettos like an Amazonian, leave them behind and let your strength and presence show through your great talk.

If you’re not yet prepared enough to think about which shoes you’ll be wearing start with Tips for giving great presentations: my experience as a TEDx speaker coach

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

How to deliver a presentation without notes

Image: Henderson Graphics

Most TED talks are delivered without notes. This only happens because speakers prepare, prepare and prepare some more. My own TEDx talk commanded almost full time preparation for a fortnight before, not to mention weeks prior of evenings and weekends.

It is possible to speak eloquently without notes. Here are 3 tips for preparing to present without notes.

1. Use key headings as rehearsal prompts
Once your talk is more or less on track, write down the key point of each paragraph. Transfer these to a single page and use them prompts to practice your talk. Look at the key point, take it in and “feel” what the paragraph is about. This should take at least one breath. Once you feel anchored, look up and speak from the heart.  Repeat for each paragraph.

2. Aim for a memorised talk, delivered naturally
A talk you have only just committed to memory can sound tentative, even rehearsed. Once you really know your words you will feel more comfortable being yourself. Rehearse individual paragraphs over and over until you deliver exactly what you want to say, naturally. Your precise words may vary, but you should feel that your tone of voice, body language and words combine to express something you believe in. If you can’t deliver a memorised talk naturally, it may be that your words do not accurately reflect what you believe deep down. Go back to the planning stage and re-assess your key messages.

3. Get comfortable with pausing to think
When you forget your words in front of a big audience, it’s tempting to rush on and hope no one has noticed. Unfortunately, this usually has the opposite effect: you talk faster and even less coherently. Better to breathe in, take in your audience and mentally re-find your place. These pauses feel like forever for you but are a mere blip for the audience. And actually the audience usually loves pauses because they have time to digest your important words! Resume your talk on a breath out.

Delivering a talk without notes and that actually makes a useful point takes time. This investment pays off though as a good talk can be delivered again and again to new audiences.

If you do need to use notes (which is completely allowed and not a sign you are a more fallible human being) read How to use notes AND look at your audience when you give a presentation.

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

How to use notes AND look at your audience (inspired by Annabel Crabb)

When a conference speaker reads directly from their notes it doesn’t usually make for the most exciting listening. As an audience member, when someone is looking down you don’t feel connected and it’s hard to pay attention.

“I could have just read the journal article”, you might think.

There’s nothing wrong with notes – except for the fact that almost everyone who does so ends up with monotonous “reading voice”.

The exception is the likes of Annabel Crabb, who I watched read from her notes at the 2017 Women in Mining WA Summit, while remaining gloriously entertaining and engaging. Here are 4 tips for being more Annabel-like fabulous in your next public speaking appearance, by using notes more effectively.

Step 1. Double check that you wouldn’t be better off writing a blog post or recording a podcast than talking to hundreds of people
If you need to read your notes for a talk, would a podcast or written article be more effective? You can reach thousands of people and archive them for later use. If you decide you do really need to speak live, a blog post or recording can capture some of your points as ‘pre-reading’ or followup to compliment your talk.

Step 2. Don’t believe yourself when you say “I’ll have my notes just in case”
Plenty of high-profile speaker use notes (Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales are two great examples). If you will give a better talk with notes, you are allowed to have notes too. But if you are telling yourself you want your word-for-word script in your hand “just in case I lose my spot” you might be kidding yourself. I find this generally doesn’t work. The instant a public speaker with script in hand loses her place and looks down, she starts reading. Rather than a check to re-gain her place she becomes reliant on those notes. Instead: make a conscious decision to use notes or not to use them, and rehearse appropriately.

Step 3. Train yourself out of vague glances to the audience
You learned in highschool that it was important to look up at your audience. It is. But you may have noticed that speakers often look up for a quarter of a second without actually connecting with you.  This serves no purpose because you haven’t achieved the point of looking at the audience: to make them feel connected with you. In fact, this kind of audience “vague-ing” can have the opposite effect: losing your place makes you nervous, so you rely on your notes more.

Step 4. Look at your audience, intentionally, take them in – and then read
As MC at the 2017 Women in Mining WA Summit Annabel Crabb relied heavily on notes. If you’ve watched her on TV she often does this in her interviews – for good reason. But Annabel did not use “reading voice” or throw vague glances at the audience. Instead, she looked intensely at her audience in the pauses. Her gaze was intentional, and long enough to feel she had seen us. She then began to read – but magically not in “reading voice”. My clown teacher would always remind us to be their for the audience. With Annabel, we always felt she was there for us.

The next time you are public speaking, remember that what you are doing is, above all, for your audience. Connect with them, and their energy will fuel you, igniting you to give even more.

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

The best communicators aren’t listening to words

When I met underground mining engineer Jayne Finch at a speaker coaching workshop I ran for Women in Mining WA, I was impressed by her warmth and welcoming presence. She paid attention to what I said and there was a care in the way she asked me to repeat things she didn’t understand.

Jayne clearly possessed one of the most critical qualities of a good speaker: attentiveness.  Her voice also had a beautiful resonant tone which, if you’ve ever listened to the radio or taken a yoga class, you will know affects how much you want to listen.

I later discovered Jayne was influenced by years as a jazz singer, which no doubt taught her good breath control and annunciation, and from childhood had always tried to build rapport with those around her.

But Jayne taught me something else about what makes a skilful communicator.

I really wanted to be a mining engineer, but…

Mid-workshop (i.e. one hour after I made the above judgements) Jayne announced she was deaf. The context was recalling a poignant life moment using the “Hero’s Journey” template* I created to help speakers succinctly share a story about a challenge they have faced, what they learned, and the message they’d like to share with the world in their next presentation. Jayne said:

I really wanted to be a mining engineer but didn’t think I could because I was over 30, a woman and deaf.

Let’s put aside the notion that a woman over 30 who can’t hear can’t consider a career in mining (which is a story in itself). Instead I want to draw your attention to the fact Jayne hadn’t heard a single thing I had said during the first hour of the workshop.

As you’ve probably guessed Jayne was lip-reading. She was also paying a great deal of attention.

If we could all lipread it wouldn’t matter if the Skype microphone worked or not

My speaker coaching with Jayne continued via video call with Jayne in Kalgoorlie, I in Perth. As often happens on Skype, Jayne and I spent several minutes trying to work out the sound. We mouthed, “Can you hear me?” at each other.

Needless to say, Jayne was fine. She didn’t need sound to understand me because her lip reading was exceptional. I, however, was absolutely dependent on it.

It was my lack that meant Jayne and I couldn’t communicate without a proper Skype connection.

I felt as if I had turned up in Latvia expecting to be understood in English (because shouldn’t everyone speak English) and discovering the first person I meet speaks Latvian, Russian, and German (but no English). If I want to be understood, it is clearly up to me to find a way to be understood.

If I had written this article in hieroglyphics, would it be your fault you couldn’t understand, or mine for not writing in a way my readers can understand? Is it up to Jayne to master lip reading so she can understand me, or mine to communicate so she comprehends?

The dis-ability isn’t deafness, the disability is not being able to understand

Jayne described a conversation with a fellow engineer who is deaf (Jayne’s only deaf friend, incidentally). “Not a sound was uttered,” she said. “In fact, I forgot Faye was deaf.”

I tend to think of deafness as the problem. But the real challenge for someone who can’t hear is understanding what is communicated. If everyone could lip read and sign, would deafness be a disability?

In 2009 I shared a flat in London with a girl called Kate who worked in disability services. Kate used a phrase that was frowned upon in Australia: “the disabled boy”. This was in stark contrast to Australia where it was considered correct to put the person before the disability. In Australia we would say “the boy with disability”.

Kate’s response to my quizzing was:

Geoff isn’t disabled because he uses a wheel chair. He is dis-abled by society.

By ‘the disabled boy’ she meant the boy who is dis-abled by the fact we don’t live in a world with ramps (or rocket-powered chairs) and that Geoff can’t participate in sports he loves.

If Geoff could live the life he wanted (not the one forced on him) where is the dis-ability?

I’m lucky to live in an era with computers set for finger typing. If I landed on a planet where they used toes, or elbows, to type I would certainly be dis-abled. (As I found out at contact improv dance jam recently where due to injury I asked fellow dancers to dance with me, without using toes, fingers or their left knee. Needless to say we struggled).

Diversity creates a rich society, not a gesture of equality

In The Difference Makers Alicia Curtis and Nicky Howe write that “diversity is about what makes each of us unique…it is a combination of the visible and invisible differences that shape our view of the world, our perspective and our approach”.

The VisAbility building (formerly Association for the Blind) in Victoria Park, Western Australia) is specially designed for the visually impaired. It’s also a really well-designed structure. Good use of space, signs are clear, taps in the bathroom easy to operate.

Oliver Sacks wrote many stories about aphasics – those who can’t use or comprehend the language of words, often after stroke or other injury to the brain – who learn to understand other people by their expression, body language and the context.

Jayne has this same capacity to read faces. She also understands verbal language.

I can tell a lie a mile off. I’ve often said to colleagues, “Your mouth is saying one thing, but your face is saying something completely different.” Because I am “lip-reading” I think of it as “face-reading”.

Her colleagues laugh realising they have been called out. Perhaps they didn’t even know there was a discrepancy between what they thought and what they said.

Imagine a meeting where everyone speaks the truth, and where people speak up when they don’t understand something

Jayne began her speaker coaching work with me intending to talk at the Women in Mining WA summit about the power of vulnerability. Her message had been that we must ask for help with our weaknesses, because it’s only when others know we need help that they can provide it.

But by the end of the conversation, we were asking – what if you asked for what you need because you are a human being with something to contribute?

For more about speaker coaching and finding your story please get in touch at rachael@strategiccreativityatwork.com.au.

*The Hero’s Journey was coined by Josef Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It describes the quintessential human journey within every myth, every story – and even Star Wars.

3 things you should never do in a conference presentation

1. Apologise for your slides
If you have to apologise to your audience for too many words on your slides, because the font is so small the audience can’t read it, or because your slides are confusing – change them before you get to the stage.

2. Go overtime
When you take more than your allotted time, people twitch in their seats. They are so busy worrying about their next appointment they won’t be able to pay attention. Not to mention that you shortchange another speaker when you go over.

3. Read verbatim
If you need a full script for your talk and can’t multi-task to also take in your audience like Leigh Sales or Annabel Crabb, turn your speech into a podcast and you can have listeners all around the world.

For more guidance to make your next conference presentation hit its mark book a speaker coaching session.