Confessions of a Public Speaker

In giving hundreds of lectures over the years, and reading books about other speakers who have done many more, it’s become clear to me that everyone has things go wrong. All public speaking is a kind of performance, and no matter how well you’ve prepared your material, you must expect there will be unique challenges every time you speak. The best attitude is to go in prepared for the most common challenges. To help, here’s my list of situations that I know speakers fear, with advice on how to prepare and respond:

You’re being heckled
Hecklers are rare. When it happens, the audience is as frustrated with them as you are. Use this to your advantage. If you take a heckler on directly you’ll look mean, but if you get the audience on your side, things end quickly. Hecklers are people who either: wish they were on stage, are drunk or think they are helping you by contributing. 

How to prevent: 
Set the rules for people to interact with you. If you want questions held until the end, say so. Providing your e-mail address early gives everyone a way to contact you without taking the floor. 

How to respond:
Ask the audience to hold their comments until the end. Done politely and calmly, this often works. It keeps you in control. Even if someone makes a joke at your expense, don’t turn it into an argument; politely ask the person to wait until the end to comment.

If you are confident you can dispatch a heckler with a joke or funny comment, do it – but be careful. It’s safer to defuse them by saying, “That’s interesting” – to acknowledge they were heard – and continuing with your point. This gives them some respect, since you’re acknowledging their voice, but you keep control.

If someone is truly disruptive, ask the host of the event to help. They invited you, and they should take responsibility. 

Everyone in the room hates you
There are days when the vibe in the room is all wrong, and it feels like they either hate you or just want you to shut up. Speaking in foreign countries or at corporations that have just announced major layoffs (but no one has told you this) can feel this way. Or sometimes, you actually did something stupid that they rightfully hate you for. 

How to prevent:
Your host is your guide. They should tell you if there is something you need to know, like recent pay cuts or other bad news. If you’re paranoid, you can ask, “Is there anything that’s happened recently I should know about?”

Arrive early. If you are early you can introduce yourself to people who will be in your audience, giving you a sense for the larger group. 

How to respond:
Sometimes you have to go into robotic mode, and give your presentation as if you are speaking to a crowd you think likes you. If they hate you they hate you, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to change your presentation on the fly out of fear that they don’t like you.

Cut material to get to your Q&A quickly. If you have optional stories, drop them. The sooner you get to Q&A the faster you can diagnose what’s going on. And at worst, the sooner your talk will be over.

There is a rambling question that makes no sense and takes three minutes to ask
A good warning sign is when a question has a 60-second preamble. Whoever is asking a question this long hasn’t thought hard enough yet to even form a question.

How to respond:
Ask a clarifying question: “Do you mean X or Y?” Interrupt the person if necessary. If they seem lost, ask them to focus their question while you answer the next question. Then go back to them later. This is pushy, but if you do it with charm the audience appreciates it.

Realize the audience hates these people. They didn’t come to the session to hear someone’s rambling, poorly formed, pseudo-question. You are the only person who can do anything to stop the rambling.

If you do cut them off, remind them of your e-mail address, and mention longer questions are fine, just not in real time. 

Everyone is staring at their laptops
Sometimes people are just taking notes or sharing what you say with other people online, which is good for you, but they might also be playing solitaire. People in the audience should be free to choose how they want to listen. But you are also free to influence them in that choice. 

How to prevent:
Sometimes I say this: “Here’s a deal. I’d like your undivided attention for five minutes. If after five minutes you’re bored, you are free to do something else. In fact, I won’t mind if you get up and leave after five minutes. But for the first 300 seconds give me your undivided attention.” Most people close their laptops. At that point, I hit them with an irresistible hook in my opening. 

How to respond:
There isn’t much you can do. Focus on the people who are fully engaged and in the room. Ignore the rest. It’s their loss.

Ask the host to monitor Twitter, or the event chat room, and use her as a way to get the best questions and comments from the back channel into your presentation. 

You are asked an impossible question
There is nothing wrong with a tough question you can’t answer. There is no law that says you as the speaker must know everything. 

How to prevent:
The only way to prevent it is to have a talk so boring, or so obscure, that tough questions are impossible, since the audience doesn’t know what your point was. Don’t do this. 

How to respond:
Learn to say three words: “I don’t know.” They are easy to say.

Write down the question, or ask someone to e-mail it to you, and promise you’ll respond.

Offer the question to the audience. Maybe you’re not the only one who can’t answer the question. If no one in the audience knows, they seem at least as clueless as you. And if there is an answer, you’ve at least helped the person who asked the tough question to get an answer, even if it’s not yours. 

The microphone breaks
Often microphones only partially break. They have feedback, or flitter in and out. This is distracting for an audience and they will blame you for it. If after a couple of minutes the problem doesn’t resolve itself, assume the microphone is broken.

How to prevent:
Pray to the gods of AV equipment. 

 Demand a sound check before your talk.

Ask the AV people where there are sound problems in the room. 

How to respond:
Confirm with the audience they are hearing the same problems you are. Sometimes the problems are only heard at the front of the stage.

Get the tech crew involved. This is why they are paid. As embarrassing as it is for you, if you get them involved the audience will know it’s not entirely your fault.

In moderately sized rooms, 100 people or less, the acoustics are often good enough for people to hear you if you project well. Step forward and you might be able to get started while the tech crew fixes things.

Your laptop explodes
At every conference there is always at least one person who has technical problems with their computers. Some events force you to use their podium computers to help minimize problems, but with video codecs and font issues, this sometimes makes it worse. Macs and PCs have problems and every projector and video system has charming idiosyncrasies that the tech people who manage them will absolutely deny.

How to prevent:
Use your own gear.

PC laptops are more popular and I’m convinced have fewer issues with projector compatibility. Problem is, they’re PCs.

Demand a video check before your talk. 

How to respond:
The big question is when to abandon your laptop. Ten minutes is the cutoff point. If after 10 minutes you’re still not sure how to fix it, I’d go with Plan B.

Plan B: Know your main points. Be able to write them down as a short bulleted list. Do a shorter, less formal version of your talk. Do not constantly say “If I had my slides” or “In my real presentation…” The audience doesn’t care about what they might have seen.

Have a printout of your slides with you. Worst case, you can use this as your notes.

Running out of time
This happens much more often than speakers ending their presentations early. Since most people practice to finish exactly on time, with little buffer, it’s not a surprise. 

How to prevent:
If you build your presentation right, there should be a steady rhythm throughout the talk that informs you about pace every step of the way. This prevents discovering you have one minute left to cover half of your talk.

Practice each speech to use less time than you are given.

Always plan to have at least 10 to 20 percent of your time slot for Q&A. If you run over you can eat some of that Q&A time.

How to respond:
If you can’t get through the material, put the material aside and focus on your audience. If there are three sections left and only time for one, let the audience vote on which one it should be.

You left your slide deck at home

How to prevent:
Put your slides in three places: on a flash drive you bring, on your own laptop and on a Web site you can access from any Web browser. Redundancy wins. 

What to do if your situation is not here
Well, my friend, there is only one fail-safe maneuver. You must pay attention to what happens so you can tell your friends about it later. True disasters always make for great tales. 

Scott Berkun is a freelance writer, author of three books and public speaker for Fortune 500 companies and universities on topics related to creativity and management. This article was excerpted from his book Confessions of a Public Speaker. Learn more about Scott at