Fixing speaking disasters on the fly: Lessons from Britain’s PM

Theresa May’s address about a brighter future brought unforeseen storm clouds. The UK press had a field day, but her quick thinking offers takeaways for when presentations go awry.


A presentation meant to boost the UK prime minister’s image instead brought ridicule.

It also showed how rolling with the proverbial punches can mitigate a potential disaster.

“Theresa May offers the ‘British dream’ but speech turns into a nightmare,” The Guardian’s headline declared of the prime minister’s closing keynote for the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday. Other publications printed similar stories, and many people poked fun of May’s address on Twitter.

The BBC reported:

The PM’s speech closed the Tory conference where she had faced repeated questions about her leadership and Brexit divisions within her party.

It was billed in advance as her opportunity to assert her authority after her decision to call a snap election backfired and she apologised to activists for her shortcomings during this summer’s campaign.

She put forward a range of new policies, including an extra £2bn to build 25,000 new council houses and social homes for rent by 2021 and draft legislation for a cap on standard tariff energy bills, which she said were part of her mission to improve people’s lives and promote a “British dream”.

However, the aftermath of the speech was dominated by the prime minister’s struggle in delivering it and questions about what it meant for her future.

Any communicator can face unforeseen public speaking problems; here’s what you can learn from the prime minister’s speech disaster:

1. Roll with the punches.

Comedian Simon Brodkin interrupted May’s talk to hand her a fake P45—a tax form an organization gives to a former employee upon resignation or termination.

The Sun reported:

Speculation has been rife in recent weeks that Mr Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, is on manoeuvres and weighing up a leadership challenge to the Prime Minister – who has also faced calls to resign after her disastrous speech.

Mr Johnson used an interview with The Sun on the eve of the Tory party conference to lay out four red lines on Brexit – which went beyond the agreed Cabinet positions.

When asked on the BBC whether she had considered sacking Boris, the PM dismissed the idea her authority was being undermined and said: “What I have is a Cabinet that are united in the mission of this government.”

At first, May attempted to take the interruption in stride, grabbing the piece of paper from Brodkin and setting it on the floor without stopping her speech. She even repeated a sentence, adding, “You may not have heard me say that” when the cameras and crowd turned to Brodkin.

After the commotion of removing the comedian became too much, May momentarily stopped her speech. After applause, she tied the interruption to one of her messages:

I was about to talk about somebody I’d like to give a P45 to, and that’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Whether it involves dealing with a prankster looking to upend your presentation or a microphone malfunction, communicators who keep their cool can often recover from a public speaking catastrophe—and win the audience’s approval, to boot.

2. Prepare for hiccups—figurative and literal ones.

Throughout her speech, May was plagued with coughing fits and a hoarse voice that threatened to sideline her messages. At one point, Chancellor Philip Hammond handed her a throat lozenge.

To make light of her situation, May lifted the lozenge in the air and said:

I hope you noticed that, ladies and gentlemen: the chancellor giving something away for free.

Prepare for potential presentation pitfalls with breathing and muscle flexing exercises, which can make you aware of your body as well as calm your nerves. Before you take the stage, make sure your clothing is properly hemmed, water is on hand and you have anything you might need (including tissues or a lozenge) if you’re also under the weather.

3. Ensure your slides and technology are properly working.

A prankster and a persistent cough weren’t the only stumbling blocks for the prime minister’s speech: One of her visual aids crumbled during her presentation.

The Guardian reported:

Later, the set behind the prime minister, which read, “Building a country that works for everyone”, began to fall apart, with an F and E dropping to the ground while she was still speaking.

Savvy public speakers make sure the layout and arrangement of their slides are meaningful and interesting to their audiences, but they don’t neglect to do a dry run of the presentation.

Doing so can help you make sure your slides load properly and your timing is on track. Also make sure that the microphone and any other devices (such as a pointer or slide remote) are working before you open your presentation.

4. Disarm your audience with honesty.

After the speech, May tweeted:

Mistakes happen. Don’t be afraid to admit when a particular speech was not a career high point—and remember, you can use that honesty to garner trust from your audience.

Keynote speaker Mark Schaefer wrote that he learned not to panic when his slides wouldn’t work in front of a waiting crowd. Instead, he improvised—being honest with listeners, but not whining about his misfortune:

One participant told me that he thought the talk was so effective because I didn’t dwell on the fact that I was screwed. I announced that I had a problem and moved on.

That’s something to remember the next time a disaster happens to your speech.

People can better relate to you when they know you experience the same ups and downs that they do, so don’t be afraid to joke about a misstep (when appropriate). Plowing ahead with your presentation despite an unfortunate circumstance can also earn you kudos.

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