Even knowing that we learn from them, and that mistakes are a necessary part of developing new skills, I’m not a fan of the experience.
Nevertheless, I’ve gotten really good at making public speaking mistakes. I have to be good at that — because I make so many of them.
A Presentation Without Mistakes Is So Not Going to Happen!
I often tell my clients about the pep talk that Tuba Joe Exley gave to the horn section of the Bushwacker’s Drum and Bugle Corps in 2006.
My daughter Laurika was in that section, which is why I was hanging out as they prepared to “take the field for competition” in that year’s Drum Corps Associates national finals.
The last thing Joe said to them — and here I paraphrase — was,
If you think you’re going to be on that field for 10 minutes and not make a mistake, you’re nuts.
So get over it!
Get over trying to not make a mistake, and put your focus on recovering as fast as possible when you do.
The Corps went on to kick butt, and won that year’s award for High Brass performance — in a hurricane!
To Up Your Public Speaking Game, Practice for Recovery
Like many public speakers, you may be terrified at the thought of making a mistake. Losing your train of thought. Dropping a phrase. Choosing the wrong word. (Even though there is no such thing as a wrong word!)
If you find yourself being inhibited by the fear of making a mistake, here are some strategies that will help:
1. When You Practice, Whatever Happens, Don’t Stop.
If you stop at every mistake, you are practicing stopping for every “imperfection” — the last habit in the world you want to cultivate.
Instead, keep going, and practice recovering as quickly as possible. Preferably with a smile on your face.
2. Stay Focused on your Audience.
Your audience — not your mother, your spouse, or your high school English teacher — is the true judge of whether or not you’re communicating well.
Yet, sadly, many perfectionistic speakers don’t realize how thoroughly they’re wowing the audience because they’re focused on internal judgments instead of the rapt faces in front of them.
If this describes you, silently repeat Jezra’s First Law:
If I’m talking and they’re listening… I must be doing it right.
(And if someone tells you that your speech was great, believe them!)
3. Tear Down the Fourth Wall
Audiences love it when speakers take them inside the process. (In the theater world, this is called “tearing down the fourth wall,” the imaginary barrier that separates actors from audience.)
How do you do this?
Let your audience see that you’ve made a mistake, and that you are mildly rueful about it. You can do this by making a small, good-natured comment or gesture — a sort of “oops” that acknowledges you’ve made an error — before you keep going.
The trick here is that you really have to mean “oops,” as opposed to “Ohmigod, I made a mistake, I suck, this is a disaster, you’re all going to hate me!”
If that’s how you really feel about it, stick with points 1 and 2, above, until you’ve worked your way up to rueful self-acceptance.
And while you’re on that journey, enjoy this video of the 2006 Bushwackers playing in hurricane winds and rain (it starts to rock at 1:20 minutes):
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In 25 years of speaker coaching, I’ve helped my individual speaker coaching clients develop their strengths and skills to become authentic and effective communicators.
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