Ep #26: Why “Failing” on Stage Isn’t that Big of a Deal

by | Podcast


If you’re a speaker, you’ve undoubtedly thought of (or experienced!) the following scenario: you’re on stage, looking out into the audience… and you forget everything you were going to say. Or this one: you’re ready to give the biggest speech of your career, and you realize too late that you forgot your notes at home.

When we think of these situations, it’s our brain trying to protect us from the scary (and exhilarating) experience of public speaking. But does your brain tell you how to bounce back from these mistakes? Do you think through how you would recover?

This episode is all about what to do if you mess up on stage. I share some of my own gaffes, some mistakes of my clients, and even some famous mess-ups. I talk about how you can get back on track if you get off-topic and how you can ensure that you’re the best steward possible for your audience’s experience. A mistake can be a learning moment – you just have to have the right tools to make it one.

If what you heard here today was useful, you’ll love the free guide I’ve created for you at speaksoitmatters.com/yes. Sign up now and get immediate access to our Power & Grace Speaker’s Toolkit (including The Only Presentation Outline You’ll Ever Need).

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How I recovered after realizing I was giving the completely WRONG talk to a group I’d been wanting to speak to for months.
  • Why honesty is your best policy when correcting mistakes on stage.
  • Whether or not you should make a joke if you mess up on stage.
  • Why it’s best to move on quickly from mistakes.
  • Why it’s good to have a backup plan if your technology setup fails you (slides not working, no WiFi, terrible A/V, etc.)
  • How to be a great steward for your audience by remembering that your talk is not about you – it’s about them.

Listen to the Full Episode:

Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Speak So It Matters podcast, Episode # 26. Welcome to Speak So It Matters, a podcast that helps leaders and entrepreneurs release anxiety and feel clear and confident when delivering presentations on any stage. Tune in each week and learn how to attract amazing clients, and enjoy serving as the speaker you know you're meant to be. Let's do this my friends.

Hello speaker friends. Ooh, it's so exciting. We are having our second conversation wearing our new outfit called Speak So It Matters. I'm so excited to have Speak So It Matters podcast just out in the world as it is, and I just wanna really thank you for all of your excitement about this new podcast name, and really the heart of where we're going with Speak So It Matters. I'm just kind of overflowing with gratitude as I enjoy all of the appreciation for the soul of this change. I can just tell that you're feeling into where we're going with this podcast, but really with this mission overall. I wanna send a special flow of love and gratitude to Susan Donnelly. Hey Susan. She just spoke so directly to the mission of this podcast and our work in the world at Speak So It Matters. This renaming of Speak So It Matters represents our commitment to amplifying voices for good in our world right now, when we clearly need our voices for good the most. So so much love to you Susan, and to all of you for all of that recognition and appreciation, and really for being a part of this mission.

Okay, now on with the show as they say. I guess they say that in the movies, but since we're saying it now here to. So today we are going to go there, to the place that we don't really wanna talk about, but is on our mind so much when we think about speaking. We're gonna talk about failing onstage. I mean if there is such a thing as failing. I'm gonna share with you some of my most embarrassing mishaps, and I'm gonna share a few stories from clients and colleagues, and even some famous people. So you know why we're going to go there? Because I know you're thinking about it. We're all thinking about it.

It's our sweet little brain's favorite speaking, thinking pastime. Tossing around all the ways that we might humiliate ourselves onstage. Fun news though, we're also gonna talk about why it doesn't really matter that much. And what I mean by that is, you can turn that flop into a delight for your audience, or at least a story of inspiration that they can share with their friends. So I was giddy excited to be speaking to this non-profit organization audience. I'd been courting this organization and this connection for a long time, because I believed so strongly in their work.

And I'd finally gotten the green light to serve their volunteers as a speaker at one of their events. And I'd spent hours preparing. I created handouts and was mining, digging around in all my experience, myself and with clients and with my own volunteer work, looking for stories that I could share, I was just so ready for this event. I walked into this jam-packed room, I mean people were sitting so close together, that it seemed impossible that they would actually be able to take notes in this session. 'cause I was thinking about those handouts that I had in my hand. I thought about how I could modify my presentation so they didn't need to write as much, and I'm just looking out over this audience kind of thinking okay, how can I do this, like the best I can, how can I serve them the way I've dreamed of and imagined, and planned, in all those hours of prep.

I began my presentation as I often do, with a story of inspiration. I talked about the first time that I stood before an audience as an advocate for a cause that I cared deeply about. I was impassioned, and full of rich detail about the experience. And, I was kind of quickly struck by the confused looks on the faces of this audience. So as I moved from this opening story into the core message of my talk, it became painfully clear that something really was amiss. Finally, I just couldn't ignore their facial expressions any longer, which of course you shouldn't ignore their facial expressions.

So I stopped. And I basically just asked what was happening. And that's when one of the volunteers said we thought we were here to talk about how to have difficult conversations with our clients. And I was totally stunned. I'm like really? Because I had come in fully prepared to help them become really speakers on behalf of the organization. How they could be advocates and do outreach to other groups about this organization, to bring on more volunteers, to bring on more donors, and it just became very obvious to me that I had had a big miscommunication with the director of the organization.

And honestly, you might be thinking to yourself wow, how could you have missed on that? And I still wonder that, honestly. We had a few phone conversations, I thought I knew what we were gonna cover, but we had explored a number of different ideas, and there was some back and forth with the board before they brought me in, and somewhere in there we missed on what they were expecting me to talk about, and what I had come prepared to talk about. So here I am in this moment, right, where everything I've prepared, and really, the center of my expertise is around public speaking, and how to use speaking for good in the world. So the room is like spinning, because I really wasn't prepared for a conversation about how to have difficult conversation. That's not even really at the center of my expertise.

I mean, I do know some, of course about how to have difficult conversations. I've volunteered at organizations like that one, where we were having difficult conversations with our clients. I also taught college, and in that experience talked about all kinds of communication topics. So I taught not just public speaking, but a lot of communication topics. Kind of the overview course in college. But I hadn't prepared that material. This is the moment we're all afraid of as speakers. Or at least this is a version of that moment, right? The one where it's clear that we've totally blown it. Because I had gone full fledged into this conversation and setup around them being advocates and speakers on behalf of the organization. And it's clear in these moments when we know that we've made a big mistake or had a big fail, or flop, or whatever, that we have to figure out what to do. There's a next moment, right?

Here's what I want most for you to hear, anything can happen when you're speaking. Anything. And it can all be okay. Really, it's all about how you handle it. You are a steward of your audience's experience. I'm just gonna say that one more time. As the speaker, you are a steward of your audience's experience. This means it doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be well cared for. Whatever happens, it's about you joining in in this leadership position. And moving them through it, back to a place where they're getting what they came for. So when something unplanned, and maybe not so awesome happens onstage, it's your job to care for this experience as best you can.

So in order to do this, you want to be honest about what happened, and real about what to do about it, then you correct the situation with the audience in mind, and you get back on track quickly. That's it. It really is that simple. So much of what blocks our ability to do that, is all the mayhem that goes on in our brains in that moment. And that's normal. That's actually a normal part of the human experience. So recognize that you're gonna have a moment where the room spins, and you consider just like turning toward the door and walking out. And just let that happen, and then go back to your job. Be honest about what happened, and real about what to do about it, and then correct the situation with the audience in mind to get back on track quickly.

I once stood looking full face at the CEO of an organization where I was hired to do this training. And I got completely lost in this example that I was sharing. I was the kind of lost where you seriously, you're just saying these strings of words, I don't know if that's ever happened to you, it's happened to me a few times. I just happened to be in that moment as I walked the room during this training, in that moment I happened to be standing in front of the CEO while I'm lost in this string of words. And literally, I can't even, I'm not even tracking what the words were. It was absolutely pitiful. And everything in me just wanted to pretend that it didn't happen. I thought if I just kept talking, that somehow I would sort of spiral out of all those wacky words. But it wasn't happening. And I realized that I had to do something different.

So instead, I stopped mid-sentence, looking straight at the CEO, and said oh wow. I am totally lost in this example. And I explained that this is a concept that I talk about regularly, but I had this sort of like new way of explaining it that I hadn't really tried out with an audience before, and I just said, let me start that over. And I went back to the way I normally explain that concept. Again, the goal was of course for them to understand the concept, and in that moment my job was to recognize that what I was doing wasn't working. So that's the first and most important thing, be honest about what happened. I got lost in that example.

Now you don't have to make a big deal of this, just acknowledge it and move on. Again, you are a steward of their experience, and believe me, they want you to recover almost as desperately as you want to recover. You know that because you've watched speakers stumble through an experience, right? And there's something that rises up in us that says oh my gosh, get back on track, find your way. ‘Cause we're human, and we care, and we don't wanna see a person just totally lose themself. So you be honest about what happened, and then you be real about how to move forward. In my case, it was just a matter of going back to an example that I had used previously. As I explained. Clearly, I just wasn't ready to share that clever new example yet.

So another example of this, Steve Jobs, in his 2007 iPhone launch, if you've seen that. If you haven't seen it, it's really interesting to see. And in fact, we'll put a link to this clip of just this part in the show notes. There's this section in his 2007 iPhone launch, which is a captivating presentation at points, where his clicker just stops working. And you know, there's a moment where he's trying to make it work, and Steve Jobs is kind of a perfectionist, at least from what I hear. I don't know him personally, but I've read quite a bit about him, because he's one of the most well known and respected business communicators. And he would prep like crazy for talks. So his clicker wasn't working.

And you see him kind of try it a few times, and he says this isn't working. And he mentions, oh geeze, back stage they're all flailing around right now. So then what does he do? He immediately starts telling a story. And he tells this great story where he even sort of like contorts his body into this shape while he tells a story about when he and Wozniak were back in college, and you'll have to watch the clip, but the point here is, he knew that he's a steward of the experience of the audience. And in that moment, he needed to buy some time while they figured out the tech. Luckily he had other people figuring out the tech. But while they were figuring that out, he took them through a storytelling experience.

One of my clients, another example. One of my clients was speaking at his annual company conference. And he had the lavalier clipped to his belt, but he had turned it off of course as he went to the restroom. While the MC talked logistics with the audience. And so he did what you do in the restroom, and he's coming out and going to wash his hands, and he didn't realize that along the way he had tapped the on button on the lavalier. Fortunately, this happened just before he began washing his hands, this obviously could have been worse. But they could hear over the loudspeaker the sound of the water, so it was still this awkward situation in this large, large conference room where he had gathered his whole company, and some associates as well.

So this is not a comfortable situation, but it's also just important that he recognized what happened, and moved through it. So as he came back out and spoke to the audience, he made a joke about at least now everyone knows that he washes his hands when he uses the restroom. So how can you acknowledge what's happening and maybe make a joke out of it, if it's relevant. Sometimes a joke isn't appropriate, but often times we can do something light, add some levity, and just move on. Because really, what the audience wants, is to get what they came for. Period. The first thing is, be honest about what happened. The second thing is to correct the situation with the audience in mind. If there's some correcting to do. As in the example with Steve Jobs, and the iPhone launch, that story was a delight for the audience, and it bought time while they actually fixed the issue, so that he could move smoothly through his slides and do the rest of the presentation as everybody had expected when they came.

A story about one of my clients who was delivering a talk in a hotel conference room. He's in the middle of delivering this impassioned and meaningful part of this presentation, and suddenly a voice comes over the intercom. And it was clearly intended for another part of the hotel, and it happened a couple of times in a row. And he was just at this part in his presentation that he had really prepared for, he really wanted it to land. And there's so many things that can happen that are out of your control. So he made a joke about it, he didn't try to pretend it didn't happen, he didn't let it mess with his flow, he just made a quick joke about it, the audience laughed, and they all moved on. And he reiterated the important parts of what he was saying. The key was, he didn't let it get in the way of serving this audience in the way that they came to be served.

I'll admit, that day, in that room full of confused volunteers, as I stood there delivering the completely wrong presentation, and it was so obvious to everyone, I really did want to turn on one heel, and walk out that door. I could see it so clearly in my mind. I was flushed, just red, I know it, but then I remembered what my role is. I'm a steward of their experience. My job is to serve to the best of my ability. That's it. That's my job. And this allowed me to remember that I actually do have something to share that will help them. Because I let myself go through that moment of the room spinning a little bit, which is a normal thing, I was able to just gather my thoughts and ask can I really help this audience in a way that they are wanting help right now?

And I was able to, I was definitely able to have a useful conversation about how to have difficult conversations, and it turned out to be a deeply meaningful conversation, and I was asked back many times by that group over the next few years. So again, it is about correcting that situation with the audience in mind. They came there to get something. And then lastly, you gotta get back on track quickly, again, so that they can get what they came for. Have you ever been in one of those presentations or talks where the person just can't get over their own error, like they keep bringing it back up, reminding you of it, don't be that person. Sometimes it's funny to refer back to it quickly, it can even become kind of an inside joke, but we do wanna keep that to a minimum. Because again, it's not about us, right? It's not even about our errors. Ultimately, it's just about giving this audience what they came for.

One of my colleagues was facilitating a training at a really big company where you would think that the AV was super fancy, and handled by a big staff, you'd be surprised how that's often not the case, or not the case as often as I had expected it to be. And it turns out in this case, that was not the case either, so when she asked for help because her slides weren't showing up on the screen, she had tested them, she had done all those things at home, but she had just come in kind of late, not ideal to be coming in late, but sometimes that happens, travel's pretty crazy right now.

And they basically told her when her slides weren't showing up that no one on the staff knew anything about their new system, the person who had helped get the system set up was on vacation, and there was just no one there to help. So she really could have been taken down by this. Especially if she felt like her slides were the only way that she could serve. A little nod to the fact that you don't ever want to count on technology, whole ‘nother conversation that we'll have at another time. But instead, she asked for a white board, and the audience was thrilled with their learning. Because she had done her practice and prep, and she was able to use that whiteboard for the visuals that would be most helpful. She actually gave a very powerful training, and they were thrilled with what they learned.

This reminds me, when I interviewed Chris Brogan, who is a business coach, media company owner, I'm not sure what exactly the right title is, but he was one of my earliest mentors and just an awesome person to learn from. And I was interviewing him for my book Soul Power to Your Message. He talked about forgetting his notes for this big keynote talk, and then giving the best talk he'd given to date. It was like his lesson that wow, sometimes my notes actually get in the way of my best delivery. Again, you are a steward of their experience. That's all. So when you fail, or something goes wrong, again, I use the word fail very loosely.

Something goes wrong, just not the way you expected, your job is just to get back on track and give them what they came for. Such good news that it's not about you, right? It's all about them. Here's the thing, stuff's gonna go down. You will forget what you're going to say. You might forget to turn off your lavalier in the bathroom. Try not to let that happen, 'cause that really can go pretty tricky. But even that you can recover from, when you remember that it's not about you. It's about this audience and how you can serve them. It's really all in how you handle it. Your audience wants you to fulfill that promise of your talk, your presentation title, the description ata minimum, they're hoping you'll delight them, and they wanna feel like you're a human being, sharing a useful human experience with them. Which you are, so you're in great shape.

You really can recover from whatever might happen on that stage, I promise. In fact, you can end up delighting your audience in ways you or they never even expected by showing up as your fully human self. So get on those stages my speaker friend, you've got this. And you know I wanna help any way I can. That is why I created the Speak With Power and Grace Toolkit that includes all kinds of guidance and support for you, including the only presentation outline you'll ever need, you know that template that basically you can print out and fill in and structure your talk like all very quickly. And you can get yours at SpeakSoItMatters.com/Yes. That's what we've got for this week, my speaker friends. I am over here risking the fail flop, everything doesn't go perfect experience right along side you on this thought leadership adventure. Some day let's share some fail stories, and rising stories over a cup of dark roast, do you want to? Meantime, never forget you were made for this. You know how I know? Because you know. Now go get 'em my speaker friend.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Speak So It Matters podcast. If what you heard here today was useful, you'll love the free guide I've created for you at SpeakSoItMatters.com/Yes. Not only will you get immediate access to our Power and Grace Speakers Toolkit, including the only presentation outline you'll ever need, but you'll also receive weekly updates with our best resources as they're created. I can't wait to see you out there shining your beautiful light and changing lives with your message.

Enjoy The Show?

  • Don’t miss an episode, subscribe via iTunesStitcher, or RSS.
  • Leave me a review in iTunes.
  • Join the conversation by leaving a comment below!