How to Recover from a Terrible Speech (Bombing on Stage)

How to recover after giving a terrible public speaking performanceand bombing on stage – how I did it after a disastrous speech in college, and how you can too.  Ever have one of those situations where we are asked to do some public speaking, and things just don’t go well?  Whether it is from public speaking fear or presentation anxiety, or if the poor performance just came from preparing for your speech in an inproper way, it happens.  Even public speaking pros can bomb a speech.  These are a few things that you can do to recover.

Public Speaking Fear comes from Past Failures (or Pervceived Failures)

The first thing to remember about having a terrible speech is that public speaking fear comes from situations like this where we have a failure — or even just a perceived failure.  Anytime we try something, and we don’t perform very well, we will become more nervous when we try to attempt the skill again.  Think about it…  What would have happened if the first time you ever drove a car, you had a terrible accident.  If that drive was your only experience behind the wheel, it will be nerve-racking to get back into the driver’s seat.  If the first time you ever used a computer, you accidentally erased the hard-drive, you would be very timid about trying again.  This is what happens to a lot of people try to develop presentation skills.  They give it a try, things don’t go so well, so they give up.  In our heads, when we don’t perform well in front of a group, we think that we absolutely failed.  However, in most situations, you probably did a lot better than you think.  We tend to exaggerate our failures when we think about them internally.

For example, when I was in college, I was the youngest intern at a huge Fortune 500 company, and at the end of the summer, before going back to school, I had to give a presentation to the intern committee, my intern peers, my boss, and quite a few of the corporate vice-presidents who flew in just for the presentations.  I was the third to present.  I had memorized my entire presentation and got to where I could deliver it flawlessly within the 15 minute time limit.  However, when I get nervous, I speak REALLY fast.  I gave the entire presentation in about five minutes and said every word.  I was so nervous that I had sweat on my forhead that I kept wiping off my brow with the sleeve of my shirt.  When I sat down, I knew that I had totally failed.  I was embarrassed, and it was torture to have to sit around the table for the rest of the afternoon as each of my peers got up and presented flawlessly.  Interestingly, though, a friend of mine who was one of the other interns is an attorney in my hometown, Ft. Worth.  I saw her a few years ago, and I mentioned that I had spent the last 12 years trying to overcome that horrible speech that I gave when we worked together.  She looked back at me puzzled, and said, “What horrible speech?”  The performance stuck with me, but I suspect that most of the people in the room probably didn’t really notice.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t perfom well, but it should give you a little confidence in that we are typically a lot harder on ourselves than the audience is on us.

Change the Way that you Prepare for a Speech

One of the biggest mistakes that I made in that big speech was that I tried to memorize my speech.  Writing a talk word-for-word and trying to memorize it is the absolute worst way to prepare for a speech.  When I created the Fearless Presentations ® class, one of the first things that I designed was a simple way to prepare for a speech without memorizing it.  We typically spend a couple of days helping participants master this skill, but in a nutshell, the technique works like this.  First, narrow down your topic to something pretty specific, because the more that you try to say in one siting, the less likely anyone in the audience will be to remember it.  Once you narrow down your topic, organize your speech into just a few key points.  Three, four, or five key points will work well in most situations.  I design my presentations by choosing which key points are most important to explaining the topic.  Let’s say that you have a broad topic, and you have about ten or fifteen things that need to be said about the topic.  Chances are that after you cover the first few points, your audience will start to drift off anyway, so instead of covering all ten items, pick the three or four most important items instead.  Give a couple of pieces of proof or support for each key point.  That way, if you have three key points and a couple of support for each item, you really only have to memorize about nine things.  You could write nine things on one note card and have room to spare.

Get a Good Coach

One of the fastest ways to recover from a terrible speech is to get a good coach.  I don’t mean get someone to critique your performance.  A lot of well-intended coworkers or friends tend to do this, and it just makes things worse for the most part.  What you want instead is someone who can identify a few of the key strengths that you have as a speaker and who can help you develop those strengths.  For instance, where a coworker might tell you that you are monotone, a good coach would help you see that your pretty detail-oriented and have a knack for providing solid support.  Since that is a tallent, if you stop trying to memorize your speech (see above) you would automatically increase your enthusiasm.  Another example would be where a friend might point out that your hands are shaking, a good coach would see that you have a talent for building rapport with your audience (even though you might feel a little shy).  If you develop that skill, your nervousness will decrease and your shakey hands will diminish dramatically.  Focus on the things that you do well versus trying to correct symptoms, and you’ll have a lot more success.

Bottom-line is that when you have one of those inevitable poor public speaking performances, it’s not the end of the world.  You can recover from it.  If you use it as a learning experience, you’ll become a stronger speaker the next time that you give a presentation.

Doug Staneart is a public speaking coach for The Leader’s Institute headquartered out of Dallas Texas. He is the founder of The Fearless Presentations Public Speaking Class and author of the book, Fearless Presentations.


Author: , Date Published: 07/20/10


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