How to Recover From Mistakes During a Speech

how to recover from mistakes during a speech
Source: Dept. of Energy, Public Domain

Last week I was giving a really important speech and it almost went completely off the rails, due to technical and other issues. The only thing that saved me was my acting experience, which taught me how to recover from mistakes on stage.

When you’re giving a speech or presentation, you have to be prepared for absolutely anything. You have to control everything that’s within your control (your content, your attitude, your energy, etc.) AND you have to be ready for all those things that are beyond your control (technology breakdowns, audience disruptions, scheduling snafus, etc.).

But even in the face of the uncontrollable, you can still control one thing: how you respond to it. And that’s why I recommend improv and acting classes to anyone. That training saved my bacon last week.

Tough Lessons From Acting

Years ago, when I just started acting, I was doing a student show and the director was very hard on us. He himself said he was used to dealing with more seasoned actors, so the clash between his expectations and our aptitude made for a lot of conflict.

One night he was teaching us a song-and-dance number. Most of us were not trained singers and dancers, so it was very hard to pick up all the moves.

When we messed up, we did what’s natural to most humans: we grimaced and beat ourselves up and apologized and did all the other things people do when we’re frustrated and mad at ourselves.

Eventually the director let loose. He yelled at us and said we were acting like a bunch of stupid kids doing a junior high school production. Professionals don’t gnash their teeth and smack their forehead when they screw up—they just fix it and move on.

We Have to Get Over Ourselves

He had a very good point (even though he was a total jerk about it). The time and energy spent going through all those dramatics could be better invested in simply correcting the problem.

Plus it is kind of self-indulgent. One of the reasons we beat ourselves up is because we want others to know that WE know we screwed up. As if that helps our case.

And here’s a dirty little secret: most audiences rarely catch our mistakes. So if an actor drops a line, for instance, and just keeps going like it never happened, the audience is usually none the wiser.

I Worked and I Prepared and I Practiced

So there I was last week in front of a big group I really wanted to please. I was delivering a form of the 11 Deadly Presentation Sins speech, so there was already a lot of built-in pressure—when you’re telling people how to present, you want to make sure you do it well yourself!

On top of that, the audience was a bunch of professional communicators. So I’m talking to experts here.

And just to add an extra degree of difficulty, the format was brand new to me: an Ignite speech, which is a five-minute presentation with 20 slides. The trick is, the slides advance automatically every 15 seconds.

So obviously timing is everything. And preparation. I practiced it over and over and over—probably more than 100 times. I’d never done one of these before and I wanted to knock it out of the park.

Then the Whole Presentation Went to Hell

When I stepped up in front of the crowd … my microphone wasn’t working. This was probably my fault. There were four of us coming up one after the other, and in my haste I didn’t press the button on my mic pack hard enough.

So we got that working and I started over. Then my slides wouldn’t advance. The tech guy tried a couple of times to get them going, but they just stuck there. This, by the way, is why rehearsal (which we did not do) is CRITICAL.

On the inside I was definitely … troubled. Not panicked, just concerned. But I tried not to let that show through.

And then something amazing happened. The audience burst out in applause. They were rallying to my side, completely empathizing with my plight.

The tech guy gave me the remote so I could just control the slides myself and I was off and running. The rest of the presentation went off without a hitch and I got another rousing round of applause when I was done.

Here are five lessons from that experience that helped me recover from those mistakes and keep the speech from turning into a disaster.

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

I always say this: know your stuff—backwards, forwards and sideways. Practice it again and again. And not just in front of the computer. Deliver it in your head while you’re taking a shower, doing laundry or at the gym.

That’s the real trick: when you know it well enough that you can deliver it while performing other tasks, then you know you’ve got it down cold.

So when I had to stop and start and re-start, I wasn’t flustered.

2. Be Prepared for Anything

Don’t just practice in ideal conditions. You never know what might happen at showtime. A waiter could drop a bunch of dishes, the lights could go out, an audience member could yell something at you.

In the days leading up the speech, I joked to Facebook friends that I wanted someone to come over and heckle me and throw stuff at me (and I got several volunteers—including one who offered to run around my living room topless!).

So try practicing your speech with the window open or the TV on or with kids playing in the next room. The key is to make yourself unflappable in the most adverse, unexpected conditions.

3. When You Make a Mistake in a Speech, Remain Calm

This is a tough one. When a mistake happens, whether the equipment breaks down or you’ve skipped a section of your talk, you have to maintain your composure. You can’t flee the stage like Michael Bay. You have to act like this was totally expected, the most natural thing in the world.

Never let ‘em see you sweat!

4. Keep Smiling

One way to stay composed is to plant a smile on your face. Research shows that a smile is not just an indicator of happiness or peace of mind—the very act of smiling actually helps put you in that mindset. So keep on smiling!

5. Be Positive

You may be thinking, “Duh!” But our natural inclination in the moment is to focus on what’s wrong and to begin beating ourselves up and worrying about all the damage that’s been done.

But as with any crisis, if you can shift your thinking to the positive and focus on what’s possible, you’re going to have a lot more success.

Bonus Tip: Practice Your Ad-Libs

At my speech, there happened to be a baby in the room. Kind of unusual for a business conference, but it was a nice locale and people brought spouses and family and this was a breakfast session.

Anyway, the baby cried out right in the middle of my talk and without missing a beat I said, “Even the baby hates PowerPoint.”

The crowd ate it up. Later on, someone asked if that was really ad-libbed. The answer? Sort of.

Before the speech as I was scoping out the room (which you should definitely do in advance), I noticed the baby and thought, “What happens if he starts crying?”

I came up with several possible things to say and, sure enough, the kid cried as if on cue and I was ready.

Be ready for ANYTHING.

How You Recover From a Speaking Mistake is How You’ll Be Judged

Afterwards, several people made the same point: that if there was going to be a snafu, it’s a good thing it happened to a trained improviser.

So all’s well that ends well. In fact, I’m thinking of building fake mistakes into my act just for the sake of earning audience goodwill!

The important thing to remember when you’re giving a presentation is that your audience will forgive mistakes; it’s how you handle them that matters. Face them with composure, professionalism and a little bit of grace and you’ll win people over and get them on your side.

2 thoughts on “How to Recover From Mistakes During a Speech

  1. This is such an important topic – thanks for the insights. I really like the baby story! (With webinars especially, I say “INVEST time in preparing, TEST the tech, and if all else fails, JEST” – in other words, have some clever lines ready in case of the inevitable problems.)

    My most recent post’s about how I could’ve done my own Ignite talk better, so you might be interested in my takeaways.

    1. Thank you, Craig! I had a crazy virtual experience this summer when the tripod holding my then-webcam started slowly listing to the side. I would occasionally reach out to adjust it and it would slowly do it again. I apologized for making anyone seasick! That one I hadn’t planned. (And I threw out the tripod.

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