If you give speeches more than once a year, you will experience speaking catastrophes.  Here are 7 that have all happened to me and my clients, and will almost certainly happen to you – and what to do about them.

1.  Your Mind Goes Blank.  You’re going to have a Rick Perry moment – mostly likely more than one.  As our lives move faster and faster, the odds that our brains will occasionally get left behind go up.  What do you do?  The answer is wait.  It will seem like forever to you, but it will be only a few seconds in real time.  So wait it out.  The words will come to you.  Your brain will catch up with your mouth.  Just give it time.

If the time is going by, however, and nothing is happening, then turn the problem over to the audience.  “I lost my train of thought!  Where was I?”  will get a lifeline or two from the audience, and you will either be able to get back on track because of one of them, or the answer will come to you while you’re waiting.

2.  The Technology Crashes.  If you use technology, it will crash.  The answer is to have a version of your presentation ready to go – always – that doesn’t depend on technology.  Be prepared to tell good stories without those colorful slides.  Have a Plan B.

3.  The Speaker Before You Runs over Time.  Just as you have a non-tech version of your talk ready to go, you should also have a short version ready to go for the inevitable time when the speaker before you gets logorrhea and won’t stop talking.  That allows you to look like a hero for getting the agenda back on track.  In extraordinary circumstances, you can take your time out of the next part of the agenda, but get the conference organizer both to agree to it and announce it.  Otherwise it’s your fault and everyone will hate you for keeping them from their lunch.

4.  You Have a Wardrobe Malfunction.  If it’s a minor malfunction, acknowledge it and keep going.  If it’s a major one, get help from the audience – a jacket or something to throw over the problem – before continuing.

5.  You Get a Lousy Introduction.  Introductions are important because they set the speaker up for success, and they do the boasting for you, so you don’t have to.  If you get set up for failure by a lousy intro, then first engage the audience by telling them a crackerjack story or a fascinating bit of information that hooks them in.  After the audience is engaged, then give the missing bits of introduction.  This technique is the speaking equivalent of engaging the audience with a few minutes of heart-stopping action before rolling the opening credits in a movie or TV show.  Most of Hollywood entertainment uses this device now so that they don’t lose their audiences.  You should do the same.

6.  The Audience Size Is Different Than Expected.  If you get a much smaller audience than expected, then say, “I am delighted to have this chance to have a more intimate conversation with people who really care about this topic.  Let’s dive in.”  If you get a much larger audience than expected, and people have to stand in the back or sit on the floor, do your best to get as many people seated as possible, and then keep an eye on the folks who are standing or seated uncomfortably.  When they start to suffer, call a halt to the proceedings and suggest that anyone who wants to leave should feel free to do so.  Wait for the noise to subside, and continue.

7.  You Get a Heckler.  The human instinct with a heckler is to avoid him or her, because the whole experience is unpleasant.  But fight the instinct on this one and do the counter-intuitive thing.  Move toward the offending person.  Most hecklers simply want to be recognized.  If you stand next to the person, 99 out of 100 will stop heckling.

What disasters have you witnessed, and what did you do about them?


  1. I’m fearful of missing a gig because of airline disasters.

    So now I always fly the first flight out from my home airport. Always. Even if that means departing on a 6:00 am flight. The first flights out mean the plane is already there (you’re not waiting for it to arrive from somewhere else). If there is a weather issue, planes almost always take off but sometimes don’t land. If there is a mechanical problem you can usually get on another plane because you have all day to get where you’re going.

    With international gigs, I arrive a minimum of two nights before I speak because if there is a flight cancellation it usually means a 24 hour delay.

    1. Thanks for the comment, David, and it’s a great point. The first flight of the day is usually the last one that takes off on time, in my experience. And your international rule helps with jet lag in a big way. Nice idea. Not to mention that you get some time to experience the country.

  2. This is great Nick! I actually recently had a very lousy introduction just as you noted. To compensate I wove in a story of engaging with senior execs to develop the system so the audience saw me as the executive leader and not just as the nurse that was highlighted in the introduction. Think your tips will work even better so plan to try that next time.

    (Oh and requested that the person who did the introductions follow the brief bios she had in the future since thats what people feel contains important information about them. She gladly supported the suggestion.)

    1. Lisa, thanks for the comment and the reinforcement. It’s important for speakers to provide their own introductions. And even then introducers will screw things up, or deliver the intro in a lame way that doesn’t set up the speaker well. We often work with clients to create a video introduction — control and consistency, as well as the opportunity for stirring background music — highly recommended.

  3. I’ve had most of those.

    My mind went blank for about 5 seconds during an international speech contest. I pretended I was thinking, the suddenly I was back on track. And I still won.

    At another international speech contest,l I was wearing a blazer with gold buttons. The main one fell off just minutes before I was due on stage. But I had a gold lapel pin and used that. No one noticed.

    Last year, at the UK Business Speaker of the Year, I got the worst intro I’ve ever had, so I gave my own intro before making my speech.

    Some years ago I was heckled, and drew the heckler into my speech. Ever since then, another speaker has repeatedly praised me to others for the way I handled that.

    At a conference in Amsterdam a delay in starting meant I was asked to cut my presentation in half, which I did, because I knew my stuff. As a result, the organisation has promised to recommend me for future conferences in other cities.

    The common factor is confidence, and that derives from knowing what you want to say and why the audience should hear it from you.

    1. Thanks, Philip for sharing the ‘great’ list of experiences. I’m sure they were stressful at the time, but no doubt also you’re a better speaker now because of them and the confidence surviving them gave you.

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