Public speaking is a dynamic art form. By this I mean that, at its best, a good presentation rests on a relationship between the speaker and their audience. Each feeds off the other. One of the challenges inherent in that process of exchange, however, is that it leaves you open to the unexpected: the forgotten word, the question from the floor, the malfunctioning laptop. But you can make all these work for you rather than let them derail your moment. How? It’s funny you should ask!
Benjamin Franklin once reputedly – and famously – said that there are two certainties in life: death and taxes. I might be bold enough to add a third certainty: that you will make a mistake when speaking in public! We all do. Maybe we stumble over a word, or miss one out entirely; maybe we misremember a name or skip a slide. These are all mistakes of course, but it’s important to remember one crucial truth:
It is not the end of the world to make a mistake!
In other words: go easy on yourself. This doesn’t mean you should skimp on your preparation. You should practice your presentation thoroughly, and learn the sorts of public speaking techniques that enable you to communicate effectively by limiting anything that distracts from your message. But trust me: the common foibles I can train you out of, such as rocking side-to-side whilst speaking, are much more distracting than mispronouncing a word and then moving on.
The key phrase there is, “moving on”. Never, ever stop: even when you’re practicing, don’t come to a halt when you make an error. Get used to moving on. Refuse to allow a mistake to break your stride. That shows confidence, and will keep your audience on-side.
Speakers often worry that a mistake will undermine the audience’s faith in them. Confidently going forward goes a long way to convincing the audience that you know what you’re doing. We all sometimes struggle saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”; if you slip up, but then smile and move on, no one is going to hold it against you!
And there’s the second key piece of advice: smile. Audiences actually enjoy being ushered “behind the curtain” by a speaker. Sometimes the best way to cover a mistake is by pointing at it. Laughing at yourself – rather than apologising profusely and unnecessarily – is a great way to acknowledge a mistake because the audience will like you more for it. We’re all human!
We’ve all sat through robotic presentations that have done nothing for us. Mistakes are a sure sign that your presentation is a living, breathing thing. Getting over the idea that mistakes mean the end of the world and that you should stop mid-speech is the first step to embracing them – and a great way to engage a willing audience. If you make a mistake, smile ruefully and make the audience laugh with you … then you’ll have turned that little error into a big advantage.