What to do when you make a mistake during a speech

ImageMany people offer advice about how to succeed in speechwriting and delivery. But how often do you hear advice for what to do when you fail? I’m sure we’ve all told a joke that fell flat, stammered, or done something embarrassing in front of a crowd.

While there is no way to ensure perfection, there are some ways to gracefully recover from mishaps—big or small. The key is to relax and understand that, no matter how prepared you are, you will most likely make a mistake, even if you’re the only person who notices.

Without further adieu, here are some things you can do to shake off mistakes:

Acknowledge that it happened, and keep going.

You can probably ignore small mistakes and keep going. However, if you make an obvious mistake, you should acknowledge that it occurred. Otherwise, the audience will be distracted from your speech because they will be thinking about the mistake instead of your message.

Example: If the microphone starts to make loud feedback noises, you don’t want to ignore it. The audience will probably be covering their ears and hoping the noise does not come back. Apologize for the noise, fix the issue by moving or asking the technology staff to max adjustments, and continue speaking.

Make a joke.

As long as it is appropriate for the situation, you can acknowledge a mistake occurred by making the audience laugh at your error. If you can laugh at yourself, you will seem more relatable. Chances are listeners will also be more forgiving of your errors if you can make them laugh.

Example: If you lose your place, make a joke about the situation as you search to find it. When you find where you were, you can make a smooth transition from the error because you will be smiling with renewed confidence, and the audience be thinking about the joke instead of your mistake.

Take a moment to compose yourself.

When I am nervous, I am more likely to make mistakes. The more mistakes I make, the more nervous I become. There is nothing wrong with taking a moment to compose yourself after making an error. Follow the previous tips by acknowledging the mistake, and then take a deep breath. Smile at the audience before you move on. This will make both of you feel more comfortable.

Don’t make excuses — unless they’re funny.

No one cares that you are feeling tired from an early morning flight or that you are just getting over a cold. If you make excuses, the audience probably won’t show sympathy. However, if you have a humorous excuse, you can use the opportunity to make the audience laugh.

Example: I once heard a speaker at a public relations conference give a disclaimer for any mistakes she was going to make by saying, “I saw many of you out last night. I know we’re all a little tired this morning.” In some situations, this would be seen as an inappropriate remark. In this case, she boosted her credibility by showing she could have fun, just like the rest of the attendees.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Remember, everyone in the audience has made mistakes. They know you are not perfect. Your speech can still have a great impact if you stammer, say “um” or sneeze. Just remember to smile, remain confident and keep going.



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