Public Speaking Horror Story: Wait! Those Are My Papers!

Before speaking to a group of physicians a few years ago, I set my notes on a small table that held the PowerPoint projector.

The plan was for the president of the organization to introduce me to the full group, at which point I’d begin my talk. (I always like to set my notes on a table in advance of being introduced, as I prefer not to approach a stage with papers in my hand, which I believe lacks polish.)

Unfortunately, the group’s president placed his introductory notes on top of mine. When he concluded his introduction, he collected his papers—and mine—and headed back to his seat.

By the time I noticed the problem, it was too late. There I was, in front of the audience, several seconds into my talk, flying without a net. (I often speak without any notes; in this case, I was delivering a customized speech and relying on a few bullets as memory triggers).

I could have stopped abruptly and mentioned that he had inadvertently taken my notes, but I was concerned that doing so would make me look amateurish in front of this impressive group. My instinct told me to forge ahead, living up to my own advice to never let an audience see me sweat. 

Man With Papers

In this case, I knew my opening and first point cold, which gave me a few moments to formulate a plan.

A few minutes into the presentation—and earlier than I had planned to—I asked the group a question. As one man answered my query and the audience directed its gaze toward him, I subtly moved toward the president’s table and rescued the notes he had inadvertently taken hostage.

I think I handled that challenging moment well enough. But in hindsight, I should have given the president a heads up that my papers were on the table. Today, I take the additional step of “hiding” my notes, often beneath my laptop case, from which I can recover them easily when I get to the stage. Finally, I occasionally format my notes as 4”x6” note cards, which I can place in my suit jacket and remove when I’m ready.

This post may seem like much ado about nothing. You might be thinking, “Just carry your notes with you!” And admittedly, that’s a more straightforward option. But I’d rather hit the stage unencumbered, with no physical objects or potential distractions standing between me and the audience.

Do you have a public speaking nightmare story? What did you learn from it? Please share your experience in the comments section below.