The 10 scariest public speaking moments

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It’s Halloween, and it’s a big deal. I read that it’s a bigger holiday than Christmas for retailers. Can that be?

I got to thinking about the scariest moments public speakers endure, naturally enough, and compiled this top 10 list, compiled from my own disasters and those of my clients. Let me know what your scariest speaking moment was, and I’ll give a prize to the scariest one, decided by me, based on how many of my hackles rose.

10. You realize that you forgot a key piece of your argument 10 minutes ago. You’re in the middle of your speech. It’s too late to go back, and the audience is going to be confused by your next leap of logic. You have to interject the forgotten bit, but it’s going to make you look disorganized. Scary!

9. Someone asks a question you can’t understand. I was talking to a multi-cultural audience, and a very nice man asked in heavily accented English an esoteric question. I just couldn’t get it. I asked him to repeat the question twice, but after that, I had to make a guess, because it would have been awkward. Painful!

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8. The questioner won’t stop. Some people ask questions just to hear themselves talk. Liking the sound, they keep going. You don’t want to be rude, but they’re hijacking the show. I ran into this recently. The questioner wanted my opinion on a movie storyline—so he told me the entire storyline. I aged five years during his recitation. Creepy!

7. The technology freezes. We’ve all been there. The slideware suddenly freezes, and you’re revealed for the duffer you are in trying to figure it out. The secret is to ask for help from the audience—especially an audience of engineers—because they’ll be nice and help you, and then it’s not your problem alone. Will you remember to do that under pressure? Terrifying!

6. No one shows up. I once took part in a fundraiser for which we speakers were to bring a half-dozen potential donors each. All of us assumed everyone else would do it. The result? Six people in a space holding 150. Mortifying!

5. Your tech is incompatible with their tech. I learned this one the hard way. I showed up with technology that wouldn’t work with my hosts’ super-sophisticated system. Now I carry backups, alternatives, dongles, thumb drives, you name it. I’m ready for anything. Aaaaaargh!

4. A heckler starts in on you in the first moments of your talk. This happened to me years ago, when I was still an academic. Someone from another philosophical camp attacked the premise of my talk. I was new to the game, and instantly derailed, spending the rest of the time on the defensive. I’ve learned how to defuse hecklers, but it is a nightmare. Help me!

3. The lights go out. This happened recently to a friend. The talk was going well, and then suddenly all went dark. It’s frustrating, baffling, and alarming. What do you do? Keep talking? Vamp, hoping the lights will go on in 60 seconds? Give up? The show must go on, but how? Nooooooooo!

2. The conference organizer changes the game on you at the last minute. This happens more often than you’d believe. The organizer says, “We’re 40 minutes late because the CEO ran long. We want you to finish your speech in 20 minutes instead of 60. The lunch can’t wait.” Really?

1. The next speaker doesn’t show. The keynote speaker is delayed by weather and you’re it. This happened to me in Vegas. There was a small team from our company, the host, and I was the only one with the credentials to speak. I was told, “Keep ’em amused for 90 minutes. There’s a chance the scheduled speaker will land by then.” Nightmare!

What’s your scariest speaking moment, besides the first one of every speech?

A version of this article first appeared on Public Words. 

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