A Public Speaking War Story
If you’re ever looking for an entertaining conversation starter, ask people to share their public speaking war stories – their fumbles, blunders, flubs, and otherwise embarrassing moments.
Most people have to warm up to this request. They aren’t immediately willing to share their own “cringe worthy” moments, but they are quick to point out the foibles of “other speakers.”
I was teaching a program recently and heard the following war story about someone we’ll call, The Bad Speaker. The Bad Speaker was invited to be a guest speaker at a monthly professional meeting. He walked into a room of about 60 people and made this announcement: “I’m over 50 so don’t expect me to stand up. I get to sit down for my talk.” And he did just that.
For the next two hours The Bad Speaker sat and read from his notes in a garbled, quiet voice, only occasionally peaking out at the audience over his glasses. He was somber and still, as if he had a hangover. From about the fifth row back no one could see him, and those in the very back of the room could not see or hear him. No one asked him to speak louder. No one gave him an ounce of feedback. No one walked out of the room.
Now there are many very fine presentations that are delivered sitting down. I work with technical people who give powerful software demonstrations while sitting, leaders who give board presentations while sitting at conference tables, everyday business speakers who present at staff meetings, and I also have a client who is a disabled motivational speaker who speaks from a wheelchair. So sitting down is not the deal breaker.
The Bad Speaker faced a host of public speaking challenges, most notable a very bad attitude which, coupled with marginal preparation and poor presentation skills, turned what could have been a stimulating meeting into pure drudgery for the audience – whether he was standing or sitting. He was not the least bit audience-focused. In fact, he showed a marked disinterest in being there at all.
Had I been in the audience I would have slowly worked my way to the front of the room and gently started coaching him. Whenever he peaked over his glasses I would be there, smiling, raising my eyebrows, and using all sorts of dramatic and persuasive gestures. Perhaps he would pick up my cues and mimic my behavior. But, more than likely, he would not. Observational learning only works if the person observing is interested in improving. And I doubt The Bad Speaker had any idea of the negative impact he was having on his audience.
So, what can you do when you’re stuck in a room with The Bad Speaker? When you see the most obvious breech of good public speaking etiquette, when you see the tools of the trade mangled in the hands of the untrained and oblivious, and when you are simply an innocent bystander who just wants to learn and grow, what options do you have? Do you just sit there thinking quiet thoughts like: “I’m wasting two hours of my very precious life when I could be discovering a cure for Swine Flu or spending time with my kids”? Or do you make a statement about your precious life and walk out of the room?
It’s a trick question. If you walk out on another speaker are you inviting others to walk out on you? On those days when you’re not quite at your best, when you read your PowerPoint slides a bit too much, speak a little too fast, eye dart around the room like your head’s in a beehive…what then? Will people decide to make a statement about their precious life and walk out on you? Is this what’s at the root of our extraordinary politeness and restraint in the face of someone as boring as The Bad Speaker? Are we afraid that “turn around is fair play”?
It’s inevitable that at some point you too will run across The Bad Speaker. And when you do I suggest that you weigh your options carefully. If it’s your boss or the CEO of your company or even a guest at your professional meeting, I guess you’re stuck. But if it’s just another unprepared bloke who’s wasting your time, then go ahead make a statement about your precious life and walk out of the room. Chances are The Bad Speaker won’t even notice…or care.
This is your last chance to enter the “Best of The Worst Contest!” at the DeFinis Communications LinkedIn Group, Facebook Fan Page, or Twitter. Top three posts/tweets about public speaking horror stories will win a signed copy of my book. Good luck!