Recovering In The Middle Of A Public Speaking Goof

Having worked with a number of consulting clients on their public speaking events & presentations, I find that the biggest, hoariest, hairiest elephant in the room is “What if I forget what I’m supposed to say?” Well my friends, here’s the thing: it’s not an IF, it’s a WHEN.

Oh yes! Get that through your head right now, IT WILL HAPPEN. The key, and what makes a great public speaker, is recovery. It’s not the moment you lose it that matters, but what you do in the moment after that is a mark of excellence. Every actor in the world, including the greatest stage actors, can attest to “going up,” that moment when the planets align precisely so that you can’t remember your own name, let alone pages of dialogue or text. Public speaking is live theatre with an X variable that you can’t control. Technology will fail, the microphone will cut out, people are closer/farther away than you anticipated and some jerk will undoubtedly answer a phone call during your speech. It’s inevitable.

Here are four ways you can recapture the next moment and become a public speaking icon:

1a.    Rehearse, prepare and rehearse some more. If technology fails, you must know your material well enough to do it without slides and fanfare. Don’t allow technology to be your crutch - it’s the back up, you’re the show.

1b.    If technology fails, acknowledge the failure and quickly move on. You will lose the audience’s good will if you wallow or spend too much time trying to recapture failed technology. It’ll be death to your presentation.

2.    Breathe. Seriously, breathe. In that moment of panic, I’ve seen speakers freeze and hold their breath. No good comes from that. One fellow I saw actually passed out. Allow yourself the space to breathe. The audience may see it as a dramatic pause and you can use it to mentally run down where you are in the scheme of things.

3.    Use movement. This is an actor’s tool. If you’re not standing behind a podium with your notes at hand, take a breath, take a beat and move across the space. Often, the act of moving and gesturing will remind you of where you were and what’s next. And once again, the audience may see it as a dramatic moment. 

4.    Use humor. If you’re seriously lost and can’t remember what comes next, bring the audience in on the joke. Admit you’ve lost your place while you check your notes. Be calm and the audience will relate and hopefully laugh with you and not at you. Humor is the best way to recover, hands down. It creates rapport  and a shared moment with your audience. Include the audience in the goof.

Arm yourself with the understanding that no event ever goes exactly as planned. You can, however, capitalize on the goofs and gaffs and make the event more memorable than it would have been if all had gone perfectly. That is the mark of an excellent speaker.


LB Adams is the Founder of Practical Dramatics headquartered in Charleston, SC.  Her company provides a wealth of soft skills training events that utilize theatre strategies to help humans grow more profitable conversations with other humans.