Public Speaking Horror Story: The Time I Tripped On Stage

Many years ago, I was hired to speak to a group of about 80 people.

The client requested a format I was uncomfortable leading. She wanted to do a message development workshop with all 80 people in the room, something my gut told me was doomed to fail. Message development sessions can be challenging to begin with—but if they’re not contained to a small, core group of people, they can be difficult to control and unwieldy.

I accepted the job—my first mistake—but was determined to make it work. From the moment I kicked off the session, it became clear that there was nothing even close to consensus in the group. There were different factions with contrasting opinions, each lacking any willingness to compromise.

Using every bit of skill and knowledge that I’d acquired up to that point, I was able to move the group forward, if only a little. But I felt “off” the entire time.

And then it happened. When walking up the stairs from the floor to the platform, I tripped.

Man Falling Sign

I’m not talking about one of those subtle trips where your foot catches the top of a stair and you’re able to catch yourself with one hand. No, I’m talking about one of those face-plant trips, where your papers fly out of your hand, and your body hitting the stage makes a tremendous thud.

I felt my face reddening. I was mortified. Because I was already feeling “off,’’ that slip felt like the culmination of a bad day—and made me feel like a giant failure. I stood up and continued, barely acknowledging that anything had happened. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

In hindsight (and now, with many more years of experience), I would have handled that much differently.

First, I would have remembered that such moments make the audience uncomfortable. My job as a speaker was to stand up, smile, and let the audience know I was alright and remained in control. Although a natural tendency in those moments is to speed up, I would have been better served to slow down for a moment, calmly collect my papers, and pause before continuing.

Second, I would have handled the moment with humor. For example, I could have:

Approached someone in the audience and jokingly whispered, “You don’t think anyone saw that, do you?”

Said, “Perhaps that’s a sign that the third message isn’t quite there yet?”

Or, if it was a friendly crowd said, “From now on, if you don’t like one of these messages, please raise your hand instead of greasing the stairs.”

These incidents—as awful as they feel in the moment—are also wonderful opportunities to exhibit your competence. When it happens to you, slow down, convey a sense of control, and don’t be afraid to laugh at your human imperfection.

Have a public speaking horror story? Please leave it in the comments section below, along with the lesson you learned from that moment.