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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