The Antifragile Speaker

I strongly advocate careful preparation, and having checklists and backups before important presentations. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from over two decades of presenting for a living, it’s that Mr. Murphy always tags along, and often manages to find something to break down or go wrong. Bulbs burn out, computers crash or don’t work with the projector, rooms are locked, demos don’t work. One time just before a big sales presentation in St. Louis, I pressed my white shirt only to leave a huge black mark from the iron.

When it happens during the middle of a presentation or speech, it can be really bad—or it can actually be one of the best things that can happen to you, depending on how you handle it.

I first learned this lesson when I was competing in a regional Toastmasters contest for impromptu speaking. In front of about 200 people, I began quoting the serenity prayer. I got through, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change…” and that’s when I froze.

I totally forgot what to say next.

I stared out at a sea of faces for several seconds, and I guarantee it seemed a lot longer to me than it did to them.

Then I said the only thing that came to mind: “Boy, I really screwed that one up, didn’t I?”

The audience cracked up, I regained my stride, and I finished the presentation. I ended up winning, and one of the judges later told me that my recovery from the breakdown was the main thing that put me over the top.

More recently, last year airline delays caused me to arrive in Bangalore for a one day training session 15 minutes before the scheduled start (instead of 24 hours as I had planned), only to find out that through a misunderstanding, none of the participants had their class materials. Despite that, we were able to quickly improvise a workaround and we began class almost on time. I thought to myself: “Cheer up, things could get worse,” and I was right—they did.

About a half hour into it I got a nosebleed! I was determined not to make it a big deal, so I acknowledged it, grabbed a paper towel, held it against my nose, and kept going, although I did give the class a break earlier than anticipated. I doubt anyone will soon forget that class.

Keep in mind that most people have a fear of speaking in front of groups, so they have a lot of respect for the person on the platform. When they see you have a problem, it’s like their own worst fears are realized, so they watch closely to see how you will resolve it. In effect, it’s like going to a mini horror movie—people don’t mind being scared as long as there is a happy ending.

There are three rules for handling mishaps in front of an audience:

  • Acknowledge it. The joke’s on you, but you’re letting them in on the joke.
  • Don’t apologize. They know it’s not your fault. The only exception is when you mistakenly say something the audience considers insulting to them.
  • Keep cool: Give Mr. Murphy the finger!

There is always a chance that something will go wrong. But you have two weapons against Mr. Murphy: preparation and mindset. Thorough preparation will make you robust, and a mindset that sees each preparation as an opportunity, will make you antifragile.

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