At a recent lunch with an old friend and colleague, we began to tell tales about some of our worst disasters in front of an audience. We had so much fun; I thought I'd share some of the stories with you.
As I'm sure you are aware, public speaking is one of the top five biggest fears, according to numerous studies. Some studies rank it number one. Some people wonder what kind of crazy person would voluntarily do that to themselves! Many people worry about tripping as they walk up on stage... or forgetting what they were going to say... or freezing.
Perhaps your fears will be put into proper perspective when you hear about these disasters - and not only did I (and others) live to tell about it; we found that our audiences were empathetic and helpful - not judgmental about our situations. So, the moral of these tales is to trust your audience - not fear them.
Many years ago, I was standing in front of an audience from the construction industry, when my skirt fell off. You can't make this stuff up. I had a silk skirt on and the button had fallen off that morning when I was in a rush out the door. So I snapped the zipper down and figured I'd be good to go. Not so much.
As I walked back and forth across the stage, I started to feel something silky hit the back of my ankles. The audience was entranced - and not by anything I had to say. I caught it as it was sliding down my slip to the floor. In my horror, I zipped, snapped and said, "Now that I have your attention!" The audience - construction workers, mind you - laughed good naturedly, and shouted out a few quips like - "I thought that was part of your presentation!"
I felt like I had just been in a horrible accident, with everything moving in slow motion, my mother's voice in my ear, "You always have to wear nice underwear, in case you are ever in an accident." Well, this was an accident all right! If I hadn't been so shocked, I might have been able to make this into a hilarious event. (Well, okay, this was a hilarious event - I just couldn't laugh just yet.) All I could manage to do is finish my presentation, stagger out to the car and start to shake. That audience will never remember a thing I said, but they sure won't forget me.
Years before that, when I worked for Clark Oil and Refining Corporation, I was training some regional service station managers from the South. I was in the office early, multitasking as usual... putting on my makeup, answering calls and getting ready for the day-long training with the ten managers.
I walked in to the training room and greeted each one personally, asking about their regions and getting to know them. But something was off. I usually had no trouble building rapport but they all seemed guarded - even wary.
At break time, my assistant came in with the refreshments and gasped in horror when she saw my face. "Joan! What happened to your face? You look like Cochise!" I looked in her pocket mirror and saw two large red stripes running up each cheek! I had forgotten to blend in my blush! I whirled on the group and demanded, "You guys let me look like this all morning and didn't tell me!" One of them replied in a low, southern drawl, "Well, gosh Joan, we just figured that's how yawl did things here in Milwaukee!" We were all laughing so hard, I forgot how ridiculous I looked and we went on to have a great session. Of course they teased me mercilessly throughout.
Another colleague told this story to a crowd of 800 fellow speakers. She was walking the stage in front of a large audience, when she began to feel something sliding down the inside of her pants leg. With every step it slipped down a little farther. Her mouth kept moving but she was starting to panic about what was happening. She just made it over to the podium in time to kick a pair of underwear underneath! She realized, in her horror, that she must have thrown the pants in the wash along with her underwear and that's where they stayed. Needless to say, as she dramatically acted out every detail, we were wailing in laughter. She turned that disaster into one of the funniest stories in a keynote address I have ever heard.
On a smaller scale, I've had the microphone go out, and I had to stand on a chair in the middle of the room to be heard. I've had the projector die, and I had to do the presentation without any supporting slides. I've spoken in a gymnasium, and heard my voice echoing in a two-second delay, trying to slow my delivery, so the audience wouldn't lose their minds.
And yes, now they are all funny stories in retrospect. You might think they convinced me to never step foot on a stage again. On the contrary - if those things could happen, and the audience was sympathetic, I figured I'd survived the worst.
So forgetting what I was going to say? Tripping as I walked up on stage? Heck, that wouldn't even be a blip on the radar.