He had survived a tragic accident and now shares his story with audiences around the world. Even years later, telling the story still moves him to tears on stage. "That's okay, right?" he asked.
I could tell by the way he smiled slightly that he thought I would praise him for being so present and open on stage. Unfortunately, I was forced to burst his vulnerability bubble.
While emotional stories can have a big impact on both the speaker and the audience, losing control of those emotions is a serious violation of the speaker-audience relationship.
Here's why getting emotional on stage should be avoided, how to avoid it and what to do should your emotions suddenly get the best of you.
Why You Shouldn't Cry During a Presentation
Mascara running and ugly-cry-face are unfortunate bi-products of too much emotion. Emotion that looks forced or fake can also harm your presentation. However, the true problem with losing emotional control during a presentation is what happens for the audience.
Speaking is an honor, a position of power and with it comes responsibility. Your number one priority with every presentation is the audience experience. They trust that you will be their captain through the content, their fearless guide to the other side of learning.
When you lose your composure on stage, that trust is broken. Suddenly, the listeners are no longer safe to enjoy their own experience, they are worried about you. Are you okay? Can you carry on?
A single tear has the ability to shift the presentation from their learning experience to your therapy session. If if you're going to stand in front of an audience and tell an emotional story, it's your responsibility as the speaker to have control of that story.
How to Prepare an Emotional Story
When it comes to telling an emotional story, control is key and the only way to gain control of a difficult story is is by telling it, a lot. If there is an emotional story you are itching to tell, practice it at home first.
Tell it out loud in front of the mirror or in the shower. Think through it during your workouts. Say it while you're sitting in traffic.
Once you can tell the story to yourself without crying, test it in front of other people. Start with your closest inner circle; share it casually over coffee or happy hour. Tell it to your spouse before going to bed or at a family gathering. Then expand the audience to a few close colleagues.
Though over practicing can ruin a presentation, when it comes to gaining control of a difficult story, repetition is key for smoothing over emotional bumps that could catch you off guard.
What to Do if You Get Caught Up in the Moment
Even the most skilled presenters get caught off-guard by an unexpected catch in the back of the throat or an unmistakable burn behind the eyes.
If, despite your best efforts, your composure starts to fail, follow the same protocol you learned in preschool if you ever were on fire: stop, drop, and roll.
- Stop. Stop talking. Take a breath. Remind yourself why you're there.
- Drop. Drop your gaze from the audience. Not only can it help you recenter, this simple gesture indicates to the audience that you are committed to keeping control and not looking to them for help.
- Roll. Once you're able to catch your breath, work to roll forward with the rest of the message. If you need to end the story abruptly, do. Remember, your ultimate allegiance is to the audience--do whatever you can to shift the focus back to their learning.
In the end, I was surprised by the gentleman's reaction to my "don't cry" rule. "That explains it," he said. He'd noticed the mood always changed after he broke down, but couldn't quite figure how or why.
The next time he tells his story, I'm sure there won't be a dry eye in the house--except his.