My Speech Didn't Go Well. Now What?

A reader emailed me about a very challenging situation she recently faced:

“I gave a presentation to an industry group a few weeks ago. At the time, I thought it went well. I recently got the survey/feedback and there were some very nasty comments.

Here’s the thing. The night before the presentation, I found out that my uncle had gone into cardiac arrest and that he was dying. Needless to say, I was incredibly shaken and upset. I did not sleep much (maybe two hours), so when I got to the event, I was exhausted, stressed and sad, and really not close to being at my best. I did not disclose any of this to the audience or the organizers.

I am doubly upset now because I feel that with those types of reviews I will never get a chance to present at this industry event again. It’s like a huge black mark…and perhaps if I had explained myself, I would have gotten more of a pass. Plus, it’s really shaken my confidence.”

Panel of Judges Zero Score

She posed the following questions:

“If you have had a bad situation like mine, should you a) cancel the presentation because you know you are not going to be able to do a good job or b) disclose the situation (if so, how much detail?) or c) none of the above? What do you recommend?”

1. Assess Whether To Proceed

It’s easy to suggest that you shouldn’t speak if you’re in a heightened state of emotional turmoil—but it’s not always so easy to cancel if it means leaving an audience or conference planner in the lurch. As I mentioned in a post last week, there are times when it’s easy for conference planners to reverse a slot or fill your slot with another speaker. If that’s the case, canceling or delaying might have been the best way to proceed. But my personal belief is that outside the most extreme situations, when an audience is depending on you, the show must go on. Each speaker has to decide for him or herself what constitutes an “extreme” situation.

2. Don’t Disclose To The Audience

In a post last week, I wrote: “There’s no reason to let your audience know that they’re not seeing you at your best, and they’ll feel cheated if you do.” Even in a situation like this, once you hit the stage, your sole focus should be on fulfilling their needs, not making excuses (reasonable as they would be, in your case) for your performance.

3. Contact The Conference Planners

Let’s look forward for the rest of this post. I suggest you contact the conference planners. Explain the situation to them, that you agree with the negative reviews, and that you’d like an opportunity to redeem yourself at a future event. You might request a less prestigious speaking slot or a slot with fewer attendees as a way to “prove yourself” while helping them feel more comfortable with the risk. 

4. Take an Honest Look at the Reviews

Strip out the negative, accusatory, or hostile language in the comments you received, and take a hard look at the messages behind them. Do the criticisms have merit? If so, how much of them are about your general speaking style vs. your style on just that day? If the comments only seem to apply to your one “off” day, you can dismiss them. If you think they could apply to your general speaking style, look for ways to improve in those areas.

5. Continue to Improve

Join a Toastmasters chapter. Take a Dale Carnegie speaking course (or, look for mine sometime in the next few months!). Read public speaking books (here are a few good ones). Practice using a video camera and watch back your practice speeches (more on how to practice here). And please don’t take this suggestion as an accusation that you’re not a good speaker; think of it this way: even star athletes take extra practice swings or shoot practice free throws.

6. Record Your Next Presentation

The next time you speak to a group in public, set up a small video camera in the back and record yourself. Watch the tape back afterward to see what worked and what didn’t. This step is slightly different than the advice offered in the previous point, since this is suggesting you tape and review your actual speech, not just the practice speech.

7. Most Importantly, Don’t Bring The Past Into The Present!

The next audience you speak to has no clue that your last speech didn’t go well. So even though you might be feeling insecure or particularly anxious going into your next presentation, approach the new audience as a brand new one. It is. They don’t know the back story here—and they won’t know it unless your insecurity gets the best of you. Change your interior monologue from “I hope I don’t screw this one up like last time” to “I know I’m a good speaker and I’m going to give these people a great presentation they can use to improve their lives.” 

I’m sorry you faced such a tough situation, and my condolences on your loss. Treat this situation as a one-time event. And as you reflect on that experience, do everything you can to avoid making it a larger referendum on you or your speaking style. Good luck!

Do you have any additional advice or feedback for this reader? If so, please leave it in the comments section below.