It was a Tuesday. I was hired to give a 90 minute keynote for 350 people at a sales kickoff. Sound check was scheduled for 7 a.m., and at 9 a.m. I'd take the stage. However, within moments of turning off the hotel alarm clock, it was clear something was very, very wrong. Despite begging the speaking gods for mercy, I was forced to accept every presenter's worst nightmare.
I had the stomach flu.
Public speaking can be terrifying even when all goes as planned. But what do you do when things go wrong?
Here are the 5.5 steps I used to survive a public speaking disaster, and should you end up sick the morning of an important talk, you can use this as well.
Step 1: Set a Hard Procrastination Deadline
You're a procrastinator. I get it. I am, too. I notoriously wake up extra-early the morning of the presentation to put on the finishing touches. Unfortunately, this strategy leaves speakers extremely vulnerable to the unexpected. Alarm-malfunctions, traffic, random-3 hour-automated-software-updates... procrastinating until the last minute gives Murphy's Law far too many options.
Instead, set a hard deadline to have everything complete the night before. Every handout printed, every 'i' dotted, every graph inserted. This strategy saved me that morning. Though I was a wreck, my presentation was ready and waiting.
Step 2: Think Fast, Think Clear
When your public speaking nightmare comes true, the worst thing to do is sleepwalk through it or let panic paralyze you. Wake up, act quickly and you might be able to save the situation.
After sound check, I raced to an urgent care. With T-minus one hour, I saw a doctor, got anti-nausea meds and was back on site in moderately stable condition with time to spare.
Step 3: Have a Backup Plan
There are some disasters you can't anticipate until you're in the moment; but some you can. Have a jump drive in case your computer fails. If you have to travel to the event and the flight is canceled, have a virtual meeting solution. If you have a high tendency for spilling on yourself, keep an extra shirt or dress in your car.
Once I was back on site, we made a backup plan. The AV crew set up a trash can off stage (gross, I know) and agreed that if I moved toward the curtain at any point, they were to cut the audio from my lapel mic. It wouldn't be pretty, but we were prepared.
Step 4: Maintain a Strict Need-to-Know Policy
Your dog dies right before you speak. You're devastated. So when it's your time to talk, you start by apologizing in advance for your performance. That's acceptable, right?
Resist the instinct to disclaim the situation. Professionals maintain a strict Need-to-Know Policy. Tell only those whose immediate support is critical to your survival (the AV crew in Step #3). Let the rest of the audience know the whole story after you've killed it up there.
I'll admit, as I stepped in front of that room full of people I wanted more than anything to lower their expectations by revealing I was disastrously ill. It would have made me feel better, but at the attendee's expense; the audience would have been worried about me instead of listening to what I had to say.
Step 5: Embrace the Epic Story You'll Tell
At the end of the day, even if everything that could possibly go wrong with your presentation actually does... you will survive. And you'll have an amazing story. Not only one you can tell others, but one you can tell yourself. If you can survive that disaster, you can survive any presentation.
Step 5.5: Pretzels and Powerade are Lifesavers
Thankfully, I was able to deliver the keynote without incident. After all was said and done, I thanked the team who hired me and headed to the airport. As I waited to board my evening flight to Orlando, I received an email from the client--they were already requesting to hire me again. I smiled, cautiously nibbled a Rold Gold pretzel and sipped an orange Powerade hoping it would be enough fuel...
...Because at 8 a.m. the next morning I had a sound check and another 9 a.m. keynote to give.
I survived that one too.