In my thirty years of representing and coaching public speakers at all levels I’ve seen few actually “blank out.” Five, to be precise. That’s five people out of approximately five thousand. It’s rare and therefore highly unlikely you will “blank out” at the podium. Think about it. You’re asked to give a talk, deliver a speech, present on a panel, teach a class or facilitate a workshop because you are an expert on the subject matter. And you’re anxious about messing up so you prepare your content meticulously and practice your delivery not until you get it right, but until you can’t get it wrong. You own it. Yet, you fear “blanking out.” Take comfort in knowing that the pause you come to in your delivery before the audience is just you temporarily losing your train of thought. And for that, I recommend three remedies that not only work to reroute you back to your message, but arm you with confidence, boost your rapport with your audience and enhance your reputation as an expert who is sophisticated yet approachable, humble and larger than any one glitch.
Humor works well with formal addresses before audiences of over one hundred. Recently I saw Theresa Caputo – the Long Island Medium – live before an audience of 3000. Before she began channeling, she gave a twenty-minute speech to orient the audience and introduce herself. At one point, she paused and exclaimed, “I forgot what I was going say.” And then she immediately followed that up with a smile and in a bellowing voice declared, “You think it’s tough talking to dead people; try giving a speech to thousands of the living!” The audience roared with applause and by the time it ebbed she was back on track and, it seemed, more beloved for her humility and humorous handling of her own faux pas. Tip #1 Prepare a humorous comment in advance of your talk – just in case.
Asking the audience for help is thrice nice. In hours-long classes, small workshops and all-day seminars in which I take questions as they arise, I sometimes lose my place. Simply asking the audience, “Where were we?” – while scratching my head and saying “Yikes!” for emphasis – invites students and program participants to contribute and help me out. That not only gets me back to my prepared remarks but also reignites a feel-good synergy between us. People like to be helpful and when someone can help a speaker gone silent, it engenders compassion and dispels the awkwardness we experience when a speaker struggles alone in the spotlight. As a practical matter, it also prompts the group to revisit their notes and that review of the material is reinforcing of my message. All in all, it’s a win-win-win. Tip #2 Practice asking sincerely for the assistance you need to get back on track – just in case.
Quoting someone of renown goes a long way in reminding ourselves and the audience that speaking before a group is a stressful endeavor for any human being – even the highly educated, empirically successful and very experienced. When preparing to address mature audiences, I practice saying with a wide smile “I am thinking now of Roscoe Drummond who said, ‘The mind is a wonderful thing. It starts working the minute your born and never stops until you get up to speak in public.’ Take a deep breath with me, will you, as I retrieve my mind from its coffee break!” Be mindful of those who paved the way in this medium – from Aristotle to Mark Twain to Tony Robbins – their perspectives on stumbles put ours in very good company. Tip #3 Borrow the eloquence, wit and stature of one who resonates with your audience and call them in as a life line by quoting them. Have handy that apt quotation – just in case.
Remember, prepared speakers can’t hide their preparation. Audiences sense it and know when a presenter has selected content with care and skill and when a speaker has practiced for a smooth delivery – even if a hiccup sneaks in. And, at the end of the day, you are boldly doing what 80% of people report is their number one fear in life. That brings you support and respect. Rather than magnify an “imperfection” in your delivery by melting down or apologizing or leaving the stage, let it work for you and for your audience. Graciously and skillfully turn it into an opportunity for a show of humor, humility or the words of the titans who have generously shared both with us.
Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels and as keynoters since 1988. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college courses on oral communication. She is President of Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a speakers bureau that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide. You can reach her at LisaBernard@SecuritySpeak.net and follow her firm at www.Facebook.com/PodiumTime.