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Public Speaking Tips from the Trenches

By Susan Dunn
Posted Monday, October 25, 2004

Many years of experience public speaking, most recently for the Royal Caribbean and Costa cruise lines, and listening to a host of other accomplished speakers, have taught me how to handle a lot of curve balls.

Here are some public speaking tips from the trenches:

1. You get there and all the conditions have changed.

You were promised a projector and it isn't there. There's a mike, but it doesn't work. A presentation for 20 turns out to be 100. Your talk is for 1 ½ hours instead of 45 minutes.

SOLUTION: The only solution is to expect these things and be prepared to speak under any conditions, and supported solely by what you brought with you.

2. Someone from the audience says, "Who are you?"

SOLUTION: Answer what they want to know, not what they're asking—can you do the job. Give your credentials and experience, who invited you to speak, how they found you and what your connection to the group is. Stay with it long enough to dissipate the tension this has caused for the audience.

3. Someone from the audience blurts out, "I know that's true because I was a victim of incest/rape. So what should I do?"

SOLUTION: This is not a question to answer before an audience. On the other hand you, and your audience, are now concerned about this person. Address both issues. Express your concern for the trauma in their past and ask them to speak with you afterwards, or to call your office. Ask them if it’s okay for you to continue.

4. You’re losing your audience. There's no sign of life. Their eyes are glazing over.

SOLUTION: This is your problem. Stop and address it. Pump up the volume, or ask the audience why you aren't reaching them and what you can do about it. You'll be off and rolling again soon.

5. So far you've mispronounced a name, given the wrong prize to someone, spoken into a screeching mike, and a piece of ceiling tile just fell on your head.

SOLUTION: Get with the feelings. Stop, laugh, and say, "Don't worry. I promise not to hurt myself up here." Then continue on.

6. You show up and it turns out they've publicized a different speech topic than you were told.

SOLUTION: Acknowledge the situation, without blaming anyone. The last thing you want to do is accuse the host of having made a mistake. Say what’s happened, i.e., "I was prepared to speak on ‘Strengths’ and I see here I'm so supposed to talk on ‘Personality Assessments’,” which will get the audience on your side. Smile and look assured while you think furiously] Buy some time by asking them what they’d like to know about “Personality Assessments.” Then proceed, using lots of examples from the Strengths assessment!

8. The transparency on the screen is bouncing up and down (or something like that).

SOLUTION: Ask the audience why. Someone will know. (Projectors bounce on a cruise because of the ship, a seafaring attendee told me.)
CORROLARY: When someone asks a question you can't answer, ask if anyone in the audience can. Often they can. Thank them for their contribution; no apologies.

9. Someone in the audience is trying to upstage you.

SOLUTION: Immediately address their need to be acknowledged and get attention. Ignoring them will only make it worse. Say, "Did you say you taught Learning Theory in a college? [yes] Well then I hope you'll stay right with me here so you can help us all learn a little more. Did you have a comment on the last point I made?" Often people like this are insensitive, so if you have to simply cut them off at some point, do so, and know that everyone else in the audience knows that’s going on and is grateful.

10. Someone in the audience tells you you can't tell them what you just said, or "That won't work with me/on me." This tends to come up in self-help lectures.

SOLUTION: You don't have an enemy; you have your best ally! Agree with him, because he's right (and has just made your point for you).

You can't make someone's life better until they realize they're in pain and are motivated enough to be willing to change some behaviors, and thinking is a behavior, i.e., you can't change someone else's way of thinking, because that's totally under their own control. This is the point, and they’ve just made it for you. If you use your emotional intelligence, most 'hostile' comments from the audience are entry points for you to drive home your point. Be gentle and know what's going on is transparent to most in the audience.

11. Never take things personally. Anything can happen.

TIP: Attend as many presentations as you can, and I particularly recommend Board meetings, as they can be unbelievably obstreperous.

If I’m a good speaker at all, it’s because of my years as a fundraiser on the non-profit circuit, where I listened to speeches and attended board meetings and church services continually.

I’ve seen it all happen -- when the co-presenter didn’t show up, when the co-speakers collided with each other on stage and fell down, when the minister had an epileptic seizure (freezing) in the middle of a sermon, when a mental patient climbed up on stage with the speaker, and when the chairman of Southwestern Bell was reading a speech and abruptly said, with no change in his tone of voice, “Oh, I guess that was the end. That’s the end of this speech.”

Watching how the many pros I witnessed handled the many unpredictable things that can happen was invaluable. They’ll give you all the phrases you need, model professional aplomb, and occasionally give you a very bad example of what never to say and do that you can also learn from.

Most of all, you’ll realize that when you’re MCing a fashion show, and the entire runway collapses in front of you … it isn’t you!

About the Author
Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach, offers coaching, Internet courses and ebooks for your personal and professional development. Visit her on the web at ( and for FREE ezine, FREE Strengths course, please specify in subject line.


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