During an on-camera interview, a bug flew into the mouth of Costa Rica President Luis Guillermo Solis.
He swallowed it and laughed as he matter-of-factly declared, “I ate it; I ate the wasp.”
Solis took a drink of water and continued the interview as if nothing happened.
You might never have a bug fly in your mouth during a presentation, but you are likely to encounter a mishap every now and then. After all, no matter how much prep work you do, there might be a technology failure, you could trip and fall on stage, a fire alarm might go off, or as Solis experienced, you could end up ingesting a wayward critter.
The measure of a great speaker is not being perfect nor miraculously avoiding unexpected situations. Things can (and often will) go wrong. The goal is to respond with grace and humility when they do, as Solis did.
His response provides useful guidance to all public speakers:
1. Don’t panic.
Solis didn’t scream, gag, grab his mouth or frantically swat at the wasp. He calmly gulped it down. Similarly, when something goes wrong during your talk, don’t get frantic. Panic just makes the situation worse. Continue to breathe, and keep a level head.
Note: In the event of an emergency, such as a fire alarm, your composure is vital. You must calmly instruct listeners what to do (leave all materials in place, walk to the nearest exit, use stairs rather than elevators); where to exit (familiarize yourself with emergency exits, and check evacuation procedures with event planners before your speech); and direct them out in a swift but orderly fashion.
2. Make light of the situation.
For non-emergencies, humor can cut the tension. I once saw a keynote speaker trip on the stairs to the stage. When she reached the lectern, she said, “You probably didn’t think I’d take speaking at your fall conference so literally!” Although Solis didn’t respond with a joke, he did smile and laugh when he said, “I ate the wasp.” Poking fun at yourself when things go wrong can help your audience connect with and even empathize with you.
3. Calmly try to improve the situation.
After Solis swallowed the wasp, he took a drink of water from an aide so he could clear his throat and continue. Likewise, at a recent event at a local school, a mouse ran past the feet of the district representative who was presenting. She said: “Oh, hi, little friend. I’m going to walk over to this side of the room, and any parents who want to join me, please do.”
In the case of failed technology, you might try troubleshooting for one minute before asking an event organizer or tech-support professional to take over. You might not be able to fix the situation (catch the mouse or get the PowerPoint slides back up on the screen), and that’s OK. Improve the situation as much as you can, and leave the rest to others who aren’t on stage.
4. Move on quickly.
You have only a minute to try to improve the situation before you start to lose your audience. Just as Solis did, get back to your prepared presentation as quickly as possible. Don’t belabor the issue with long apologies or diatribes about the need for pest control or better technology.
Drawing attention to the problem or showing frustration will do nothing to make it better. That simply highlights the problem, prolongs the negative and robs you of time to deliver your message. Return to your planned presentation as quickly as you can.
5. Continue with confidence.
Though you can’t do much about swallowing a bug, tripping on stage, burning out the bulb in the projector, having a fire alarm, or seeing a mouse run across your toes during a speech, you can determine how you will respond.
Don’t let a mishap ruin the rest of your presentation. Instead, as Solis did, remain focused on why your listeners came to hear you, and provide as much value you can.
Christine Clapp is the author of “Presenting at Work: A Guide to Public Speaking in Professional Contexts“ and the president of Spoken with Authority.