Part 1 - Delivery
Fine speakers before you have stumbled and fallen, yet life goes on. Yours will, too. Making a mistake is excusable; compounding a simple error into a catastrophic one is not. Your goal when you goof should be to retain your composure, your poise, and your self-control.
If you mispronounce a word, only go back and attempt to do it correctly if, in your judgment, it’s crucial to your audience’s understanding of your thought. If not, just keep going. A botched-up sentence should be retrieved and corrected.
Spare your listeners the agony of apologies and childish excuses. They only distract listener attention from your message. Audiences do not expect flawless performances from speakers. They do expect a sincere effort to communicate. The morning after, only you will recall your blunder; everyone else has more important thoughts to recall.
Often you may find mistakes can actually be put to good use – to help build audience rapport. We discussed earlier the value of getting an audience to like you. Most listeners enjoy people who don’t take themselves too seriously, who aren’t arrogant and who enjoy a good laugh, even at their own expense. If I can let an audience enjoy a light moment triggered by a minor flaw in my performance, I do so. This seems to relax all of us. The grand master of this technique was Abraham Lincoln, who used many self-deprecating stories:
“In the days when I used to be on the circuit (traveling on horseback
from one county court to another) I was once accosted by a stranger,
who said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I have an article which belongs to you.’
‘How is that?’ I asked, considerably astonished. The stranger
took a jack-knife from his pocket. ‘This knife,’ said he, ‘was
placed in my hands some years ago, with the injunction that
I was to keep it until I found a man homelier-looking than I
am myself. I have carried it from that time until this; allow
me to say, sir, that you are fairly entitled to the property.’”1
Mr. Lincoln’s sense of humor was keen and well-exercised. Not everyone can use humor effectively. This will be discussed further in PART V.
Not all blunders and distractions are self-inflicted.2 The audience can supply their share as well. Slippery water pitchers, careless waiters, and listeners attempting to balance on the chair’s hind legs have all stopped the show at times. When such an unforeseen event occurs, deal with it immediately. If six people are helping a waiter to his feet, and gathering his scattered tray of dishes, wait until the task is completed before continuing. You can’t successfully compete with a distraction of that magnitude.
Should the distraction involve human health or safety (such as falling off a chair or seriously choking on food) stop to show your human concern for the victim’s well being before continuing. Do this tactfully without causing anyone undue embarrassment. Do not try to ignore distractions of this severity; deal with them immediately, and then continue as soon as possible.
Large problems may require bolder action. The exploding slide projector, a sudden and prolonged coughing attack, your memory lapse, untimely belching, and other horrors have all occurred before – and may again. If you belch, smile apologetically, excuse yourself, and continue. If the projector goes up in smoke, explain what happened briefly, and continue without it. If an acute coughing attack overcomes you, step away from the microphone, take a drink, and continue as soon as you can. You and the audience are spending some of life’s precious moments together in an effort to communicate. Don’t allow a momentary distraction to thwart that communication. Be calm. Use common sense and keep the show going.