Public humiliation is never fun, but it almost always provides learning opportunities.
One embarrassing incident—involving an extemporaneous wedding speech gone horribly wrong—completely altered my approach to public speaking and taught me several valuable lessons.
On a work trip to a sprawling slum outside Vijayawada, India, my colleagues and I stumbled upon a wedding in progress. We walked in during the ceremony and were ushered to seats in the front.
I felt awful for barging into the ceremony, drenched in sweat and miserably fatigued. I was sporting a very formal all-white kurta-pajama ensemble that my mischievous colleagues had encouraged me to wear for their amusement. Everyone else was wearing Western clothes or local casual gear.
It was deep into the afternoon and well above 100 degrees. I was badly dehydrated. The ceremony was in Telugu (that’s a language, not a locale), so I had little hope of following along. What seemed like hours passed.
I was startled out of my haze when I heard the pastor say in English, “Now I’d like to ask our brother Robby to come and say a few words.”
Utterly unprepared, I unleashed what surely was the worst wedding speech ever given.
Just add flop sweat
“Ah, well, hellooo. Hello to you,” I sputtered. “Hello, hello [taps mic]. Well, thank you for having us today. It’s very nice to be here. All the way from America, how about that? What can I say about marriage? Let’s see, marriage,” I looked at my friend, who was translating everything I said, and he clearly found this hilarious.
“I’ve been told marriage is very difficult,” my colleague looked at me, wondering where I was going. “Very difficult indeed. Marriage requires lots of sacrifice, and there’s lots of pain and whatnot. Life is very painful and sad as well…”
I don’t remember what else I said. I do remember the stares and lack of smiles. Several times I tried to stop and give the microphone to someone else, but no one would oblige. It was a disaster.
Here are three takeaways I’ve gleaned from my live-mic torment:
1. Don’t take yourself too seriously. In public speaking, as in life, you have to be able to laugh at yourself. Taking ourselves too seriously makes even small flubs unbearable and causes us to lose perspective.
Handling flubs with humor and grace allows you to recover quickly and let go of regret. Own your mistake, and move on.
2. Always be prepared with something to say. Even if you’re not anticipating speaking at the office or at an event, it’s always wise to prepare as though you could be. You never know when someone’s going to call on you.
As an introvert who used to sit silently through hours-long meetings, I’ve had to work on that. Some people speak beautifully off the cuff; I’m not one of them. I’ve been in many meetings where I wanted to speak up but kept mum for fear of not being able to articulate my thoughts. Now, I prepare my insights about key issues so I don’t have to scramble in the moment.
3. Learn from mistakes. Mistakes are great teachers. After giving a speech or presentation, make notes of where you struggled or stumbled so you can do better next time. Ask a friend or colleague to offer constructive feedback about where you could improve, and turn a weakness into a strength.
I might not be giving another impromptu speech at a wedding in India anytime soon, but you better believe that if I do, I’ll be ready with something to say.