All professional speakers, and indeed virtually all speakers, have had days when they’ve been at less than their best.  They’ve had days when illness has made it really, really difficult to keep going.  And they’ve had days when travel problems mean that they are unable to be physically present at the gig. 

None of these is an adequate excuse for not at least trying to give the presentation.  I worked with a speaker once who was stuck circling over the venue in an airplane because ground fog made it unsafe to land.  The speaker gave the speech over the radio, white knuckles and all. 

Needless to say, it was not ideal.  But the show went on.  And so did the speech. 

Another time, I was emceeing a conference where the first three speakers were on the same delayed plane coming in.  I had to entertain the audience, not for the 5-10 minutes I was expecting, but for 45 minutes. 

I earned my salary that morning. 

You may sometimes get lucky in these dire circumstances.  There may be another speaker who can step in on short notice and cover your speech for you if your plane is delayed, you miss your connection, and the dog sled team you hire as a backup runs in the wrong direction.  The conference organizers may be able to juggle things around so that you can be accommodated after you’ve finished getting out on bail.  Or you may be able to give a truncated version of your talk if the lights go out and the A/C isn’t working. 

I was once hit with food poisoning (from breakfast) in the middle of a speech.  I made it through with some breathing and prayer.  Needless to say, I didn’t stick around to chat with the audience after.  Instead, I made a beeline for the men’s room.  Since then, I’ve never eaten before a speech. 

I’m always amazed when I hear of speakers citing an excuse like illness the day before an event as a reason not to show up.  What part of “the show must go on” don’t they understand? 

OK, so there are circumstances under which everyone would forgive you if you didn’t show up – death, say, or a life-threatening illness.  But just about anything short of that is not a sufficient reason.  Public speaking is an unforgiving world.  And. . . the show must go on.

So what can you do to help you get through the tough moments when being on stage is the last thing in the world you want to do?

Remind yourself why you accepted the speech in the first place and reconnect to that passion.  You have the opportunity to change the world with a speech, and that’s worth a good deal of sacrifice.  It’s an honor and privilege to speak as an authority to a gathered audience of your fellow human beings.  In an increasingly virtual world, a face-to-face meeting is even more significant.  So if your topic matters to you, and to the world, this is your time. 

Remember that the real secret of a great speech is not the speaker but the audience.  Your job as speaker is to give the speech to the audience.  Think about what that means:  you’re giving the speech away.  It’s up to the audience to do something with it – to bring it to life or to let it die quietly.  So show up, give them the speech, and watch the audience to see what they do with it.  Without their help, you’re just talking to yourself.   

Remember that there is grace in small victories as well as in world-shaking events.  Sometimes the best you can do is just to show up.  This is a good time to remember that authenticity has its limits.  It’s not a good idea to begin a speech by saying, “I’m really sick,” even if it’s true.  I once saw President Clinton give a speech an hour late after arriving on a much delayed flight from Africa, sick with the flu, and clearly exhausted.  He did the speech anyway.  It was probably not his best effort ever, but everyone there will always remember the effort that he put into just showing up. 

The show must go on.  And audiences everywhere should remember that speakers are only human.  From the speaker we expect superhuman efforts to make the show.  Audiences, for their part, should extend compassion to the humans on the stage.   

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16 Comments

  1. Hi, Nick — last fall I got horribly ill the night before a conference speech. Thankfully (sort of), I’ve found I’m prone to stomach viruses, having come down with them every few years the past couple of decades. Few things are worse than being sick away from home, but I’ve learned to pack my travel kit with a prescription anti-nausea medication and pedialyte to treat dehydration.

    By the time of the speech I could finally stand up, but I was still feeling less than 50%. A fellow communicator said the adrenalin would kick in and take me over the line and it really did. So my advice is: pack meds and trust in the curative (or perhaps psychosomatic) powers of adrenalin!

    1. Rob, here’s hoping you have great health in 2019, and if you don’t you’ve got the meds and the adrenaline to get you through. And thanks for the share!

  2. Nick, the airplane “delay” excuses you cite are the speakers fault for booking a stupid flight (or the meeting planner if they accepted the air travel booked by the speaker).

    Always arrive the night before and always have a backup flight option. Yes, there will be situations where you still cannot make it (like post 9/11 when all planes were grounded in the US). But the examples in this post are all preventable.

    1. I agree with you David. I never fly in the morning of a speech, always the night before and ideally not on the last flight of the night in case something happens. Not once in 13 years has an event planner ever pushed back on paying for an extra night of hotel as a form of risk mitigation.

    2. Thanks, David. Agreed, of course, the flight excuses. That’s an easy category of problems to avoid. The harder times are the times when one is sick or suffering some kind of tragedy. When my father died a week before I was to give a speech, there was no question that I would go on. The question was, what would I bring or say at the event? Would I acknowledge what had happened, or not? I blogged about this dilemma at the time.

  3. I agree with David that anyone who flies in the morning of a big speech — and any organizer who allows that to happen — deserves whatever bad thing might happen. I host the Presentation Summit, a four-day event that is my biggest deal of the year. So big that my my mother was my registration manager for over a decade and she became beloved by our repeat patrons. She was “The Mom” to everyone there.

    In 2015, she suffered a stroke and passed away one week before the event — I learned about it when I touched down in our host city that year (NOLA) and had to turn right around and fly back to California. Three days later was her funeral and one day after that, I was back on a plane to New Orleans, arriving the afternoon of our kickoff evening.

    That was my show-must-go-on moment. http://www.altman.pro/mom.

    1. Rick, as I said in reply to David, I faced a similar happening when my father died, though that was a week before a speech. So my heart goes out to you and I know how hard that was.

  4. thank you Nick for this post. As a bureau owner, years ago I decided to include a clause in letters of agreement that speakers are contractually obligated to book a flight with at least one back up. This is a nearly fail-safe way to avoid MIA speakers. And clients love it.

  5. I contracted a nasty virus from my toddler grandson a few days before a speech at a major political event. I literally lost my voice and 24 hours before the speech it had not returned. It did come back in time for the speech, but my voice — and my body — were still extremely weak when the time for the speech rolled around. I decided not to cancel, but to simply do my best. I gave the speech, and though my wife (who was in the audience) said she noticed I had less energy than usual, no one else seemed to. I learned an important lesson that day: Show up, do your best, and even if you’re not at your best it’s likely most people won’t even notice.

    1. Thanks, Louis, and so true. Audiences are busy interpreting what you’re saying, taking in the scene, thinking about where they’ve been and where they have to be, looking forward to the bar scene at the end of the day — it’s no wonder they fail to notice your energy level!

  6. Nick, I agree – when I’m sick, I remind myself that I’m there for the audience who is hungry for my message. David, I agree – the speaker needs to arrive the previous evening and create margin by booking an earlier flight.

  7. Yes, building margin into our schedules by booking an earlier flight is important. I always build in plenty of margin preceding and following an event in order to network and connect with people personally.

    1. Good point, Lynn, again — the speech is only a part of the occasion, and there’s lots a speaker can (and should) do before and after to continue the conversation. I should do a post on that:-)

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