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.

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.

Improve your conference by getting speakers together before the event

Conference presenters often meet for the first time at the conference itself and know little about each other’s work.  For the 2014 Women in Mining WA annual seminar, the event manager took a different tack. She invited speakers to a facilitated discussion before the event. The result was confident speakers, interlinked key messages, and a logical flow to the day’s presentations.

I coached nine inspiring women for the seminar, including Emma Stevenson, WA Apprentice of the Year, and Suzy Urbaniak, winner of Outstanding Initiative Promoting Women in Mining. To help you get your speakers on track, here were the 3 outcomes for or tailored workshop:

  1. Each speaker identifies the unique expertise they bring to the conference
  2. They articulate the key message they want to share in their 10 minutes
  3. With everyone’s message clear, each devises a succinct and memorable presentation

Some speakers then refined their presentations at one-to-one coaching where we paid attention to structure, slide content, and body language.

On the day, Suzy Urbaniak (at that time she described herself as a fairly inexperienced public speaker) brought her audience to tears – and moments later had them in fits of laughter. This is the value of preparation! All speakers appeared confident and answered questions succinctly and from the heart. Each sentence uttered provided a new piece of valuable information for the audience.

Bring conference speakers together before an important event to uncover common threads in their stories and create a more coherent event where the audience feels they have discovered something new.

For more about creating a memorable conference email rachael@strategiccreativityatwork.com.au.

Sabina Shugg started Women in Mining WA eleven years ago to help women in the sector connect with their peers. The group now offers a diverse calendar of events, including a mentoring program and the Diverse Boardroom series, as well as this one day yearly conference which sells out well in advance.