When catastrophe hits

Even the best speakers have a bad day. If a speaker claims to have never experienced something that feels almost catastrophic on stage, then the person has not been in the industry long enough. Unforeseen events that throws the speaker off can happen anywhere at any time, and the key is not to avoid the situation (this is almost per definition impossible) but instead to be prepared and know what to do.

The microphone or projector does not work

This is usually out of your hands as this is depends on the organizer. You can take some precautions: arrive early and test the technical setup, so there is room for repairing any loose connections. However, sometimes it is not an option to arrive early and sometimes electric wires just disconnect without further notice. In these cases you need to be prepared for what to do.

One thing you can start off with is to introduce yourself and your topic. Tell the audience why they are waiting – maybe even crack a joke about the failure of the technical setup. Most likely the audience will find it amusing and while you spend 5 minutes telling them about yourself, you can only hope for the organizers to have fixed the issue.

You forget what to say

This is classic. It happens to any speaker at some point in their public speaking career. It can be highly uncomfortable when it happens and you can almost feel like you just want to escape and get of the room as quickly as possible.

The trick is to not panic (which is probably the worst advice you ever received). This is where it will come in handy, if you are passionate about your message, this can be your life line. In that case you will always have an anchor to get back to. You do not forget your passion. It is not your passion that stresses you on stage. It is the circumstances, maybe the attention, maybe the audience, maybe the fear of forgetting important details – but it is never your passion that stresses you. If it was, it would not be your passion.

Take a short break, breathe into your stomach and recall why you chose this scientific field in the first place. Be honest: tell the audience that right now you forgot what to say, so you will use the opportunity to explain how amazing some detail is in your field. The audience is more attracted by your enthusiasm and own interest than by your ability to remember numbers.

The audience does not listen

You prepared your talk, you got on stage, you feel like you are on fire. You do a quick view over the room and half the audience is either semi-sleeping or checking their smartphones. This is not only stressful, it is also frustrating that the strategy you made for keeping the attention of the audience does not work.

Here you have basically two options. Either you step outside the box and try to regain their attention by telling or showing something completely unexpected. Raising your voice or interacting with people in the audience can also work. Anything that gives the audience something else than what they expect (because right now they just expect to be bored).

The other option is to accept that sometimes you can not win an audience over. There is not much to do here. Finish the talk and move on. Afterwards it can help you to analyze what went wrong: was it technical issues? Maybe your talk was badly prepared? Maybe the audience just was not ready for your message? No matter what you can never let one bad experience ruin your enthusiasm. If it happens several times, it could be your talk that is the issue – and then it is back to the drawing board.

When unforeseen events stresses you, it is not so much the event itself, but more the absence of knowing how to handle it, that stresses you.