Most people never see the other side of professional speaking.
You might even imagine that professional speaking is easy.
And it can be – after you have spent enough time preparing and if you’re lucky enough to work with good clients.
For example, here’s an old photo in a nice venue where everything worked. I’m about to start a full-day workshop on How to Conduct Effective Meetings for people who appreciate learning how to be more successful.
Then, there’s the other side, as shown in the following twelve stories.
Your job as a speaker can be difficult when a challenge appears.
Specifically, you may have to fix something while standing before an audience. And (here’s the catch) you must do this gracefully, without showing that you’re upset.
For example, here are some of the challenges happened during my career as a professional speaker.
A week before the event, I made a special trip to the client’s office to check the room that I’d be using. Then on the day of my workshop, I arrived an hour early to set up my projection screen and overhead projector. (This was before LCD projectors.)
Five minutes before my workshop was scheduled to start, the group walked in and announced, “We have to use a different room.” They quickly picked up everything and carried it down the hall to an unfinished area in the building.
This area was a mess. There were wires hanging from missing ceiling panels, heaps of building materials along the walls, and furniture scattered about.
And there was no electricity, no air conditioning, and no light (expect what came in through the windows).
So we arranged chairs in a semicircle. And I conducted the workshop without using slides. Instead I referred the participants to pages in my workbooks. And during one project where they needed to see the slides, I walked about the room holding the overhead transparencies at arm’s length so they could read them.
Lesson: You must find a way to use whatever resources are available.
Once I was hired to speak at a conference with an attendance of about 200 people. When I arrived, I discovered that someone had placed all the chairs facing toward the back of the room (instead of toward the stage).
So I turned all the chairs around so that they faced toward the stage where I was going to stand.
And if you’re wondering, I never mentioned this to anyone. I explain why below.
Lesson: Arrive at least an hour early so that you have time to fix problems.
I was hired to speak at a conference being held on a Saturday.
When I arrived at the hotel, I found an empty ballroom. So I asked the hotel staff where the conference was being held, and they responded by saying, “What conference?”
Since this was before cell phones, I spent a frantic half hour making calls from a pay phone. Eventually I found someone who knew where the conference was being held. Apparently, they changed the venue without telling me since scheduling my talk.
Lesson: Always obtain an emergency phone number from the client and always call a few days before the event to confirm details.
After this experience, I would call sales managers at the venue to confirm that the client had reserved a room. I also made it a practice to call clients a month, a week, and a day before an event to check on news plus confirm logistics.
So I often ask many questions that I’ve asked before.
I was hired to speak after lunch at a conference before an audience of 700 people. As a courtesy, I was seated at the head table on a stage.
Once introduced, I discovered that I was supposed to stand behind a lectern between two people who were seated so close to where I stood that they were pressing against me. And as an extra challenge, the microphone was attached to the lectern so that I had to lean forward to speak into it.
After my talk, the client told me that they were afraid that I’d be too animated, so they put me in a tight space to prevent me from moving around.
Note: I use a conversational approach in my presentations. And I respect the invisible barrier between the audience and the stage. So in this case somebody misunderstood my style.
Lesson for planners: Never do this. It’s unfair to the speaker.
Lesson for speakers: Sometimes you have to do the best you can, even under terrible conditions.
I begin every workshop by asking the participants what they want to learn. On this occasion, the participants told me they wanted to learn a different set of skills than their boss had hired me to teach.
So I turned off the projector and created a workshop on those skills.
Of course, the skills they needed were related to my topic for the workshop.
Lesson: If you’re going to be a professional speaker, you must know every aspect of your topic thoroughly.
While my introduction was being read, my client approached me to say, “Could you cut your talk to half an hour. We’re behind schedule and need to make up some time.”
So, I rebuilt the one-hour presentation that I had rehearsed while delivering it.
Lesson: You must know your topic so well that you can deliver useful content within any time interval.
I was hired to conduct a three-hour workshop for a 100 people. While I was setting up my projector, the client asked me if I could expand my workshop to fill four hours. I agreed.
So for the first two hours, I added material to provide extra content.
Then during the second break, the client asked me if I could finish at the original time.
So now I had less than an hour to compress the remaining material into a coherent presentation.
Lesson: You must be flexible and willing to do anything a clients asks.
When I arrived to speak I learned that this club had a group of hecklers who were seated at a “Rowdy Table.”
Actually, this was good news. Usually hecklers just pop up randomly.
Now that I knew this was a fun-loving group, I played with them. I turned their gags into better gags of my own. Or I preempted what they might have said by heckling my own presentation.
Eventually, they gave up and paid attention.
Lesson: You must be creative and able to have fun while speaking.
Note to event planners: Allowing people to heckle a speaker reflects poorly on the leadership and culture in your organization. This detracts from the experience your members expected from the event. And it makes the speaker work extra hard to deliver an effective presentation.
Sometimes heckling can ruin a presentation. For example, after speaking at another event, the club president told me, “You’re really good. Those two guys never stopped you. They had our last speaker in tears.”
Note to hecklers: You may think that you’re adding to the program. Or maybe having fun.
Actually, you’re exhibiting immature, cruel behavior.
You’re making the speaker work extra hard. And you’re (often) destroying the experience that the speaker is trying to create.
I doubt anyone in the audience would thank you for heckling.
So save the fun for parties where everyone will appreciate it.
This audience was widely dispersed in very large hall, with most of the people sitting in groups near the back wall. Few people were sitting in front.
Then they were having side conversations while the speaker before me was speaking.
In fact, I’d guess that fewer than a fourth of the people were paying attention.
I decided this was unacceptable.
So I began my presentation by saying, “I’m going to show you a powerful technique that you can use to increase participation in your clubs.”
(By the way, I was speaking about leadership for non-profit clubs. And my audience consisted of the club officers.)
Next I said, “Please collect your belongings.”
I waited while everyone picked up up their books, bags, and purses.
Then I said, “Please stand.”
Everyone stood up.
And finally I said, “Now that you’re standing, please move to fill the seats in front.”
Everyone moved, filling the seats in the front of the room.
Now I smiled, “You have just participated in progressive involvement. You can use this technique to convert guests into members and members into officers.”
Lesson: Sometimes you can use your solution to teach a skill.
While I was speaking two men where having a side conversation.
So while speaking, I walked slowly (sort of drifted) over to where they were sitting.
And of course, they stopped talking.
But when I returned to the front of the room, they resumed their conversation.
So I drifted over to where they were sitting.
And again, they stopped talking.
Surprisingly, they resumed their conversation when I returned to the front of the room.
So while walking toward the two men, I said, “You can use proximity to stop side conversations that occur during your meetings. Just walk over to the people who are holding such a conversation and stand near them. They will always stop.”
“Okay,” shouted one of the men, “We’ll stop.”
Lesson: Always talk about the situation that you want to fix, instead of about the people involved.
For the first thirty minutes the participants made odd comments. I managed to deflect and defuse all of them. Then I announced, “You’ve been testing me for the past 30 minutes. Now let’s get to work.”
After that everyone paid attention and participated fully.
Lesson: Telling the truth can be powerful. Tell it as soon as you know it.
My client cautioned me, “Your audience consists of our dual diagnosis ‘consumers.’ That is, they are struggling with a mental illness and recovering from an addiction. For example, you will have a schizophrenic recovering drug addict in the room. Or a bipolar recovering alcoholic.
So don’t wear a suit. Don’t bring workbooks. Don’t bring slides. Because these people are afraid of anyone who acts like an authority.
And they need to hear your message about how they can get along with each other.”
(Note: This client was a non-profit mental health organization that helped these people become functional in society.)
First, I arrived early so that I could mix and mingle with the group. I had many brief conversations where I offered praise and thanks for attending.
This provided a warm start, thus making an introduction unnecessary. (Actually what you do to help people now matters more than what you have done in the past.)
I began standing next to a chart pad on an easel.
And I said, “Please tell me what would help you. And I’ll write your answers on this pad.”
One by one, answers came forward. And I wrote each of them as stated.
When the answers stopped, I stepped back to study the list.
Then I told the group, “I work with executives in major corporations. And they ask for the same things. So you have a lot in common. Now let’s talk about how you can have what you want.”
I could feel everyone relax.
And we were on our way.
Note: After this 2-hour session, they asked me to come back for another session.
Lesson: You must find a way to win the confidence of your audience before they will listen to you.
By the way, these people were actively working in mental health/substance abuse recovery programs. And most important, they wanted to improve.
I’ve been helping people achieve success and significance since 1992. And I’ve worked with thousands of wonderful people who valued learning.
These personal guidelines have helped me manage the other side of speaking and even prevent challenges.
1) Never complain. This includes complaining about your noisy hotel room, your crummy breakfast, your crazy cab ride, or . . . the incredible challenge that you must suddenly manage.
2) Be someone others admire. Thus, act with courage, dignity, and respect. Always stay calm. And stay in control.
3) Be part of the solution. Thus, work to solve or minimize challenges (instead of amplify them). And if possible, help the client with tasks that make the event a success. So I have moved furniture, run errands, and distributed papers before giving a presentation.
4) Cause no damage. Never do or say anything that might embarrass anyone – even if they are attacking you. For example, once I complimented someone who had just insulted me.
5) Stay in control. Find creative, funny, even goofy ways to deflect hecklers. Advise the event planner on logistics that will help you do your best and create the best experience for the audience.
6) Assume responsibility. Your job is to make the event a successful experience for everyone, including the audience, event planner, and support staff. This drives the above five guidelines.
7) Know where you belong. Insist on having a good fit between what you do and what the client wants. If there is no fit, decline. And yes, I have declined business because there was no fit or no interest in what I offer.
Because I know other professional speakers who have had to deal with worse situations. For example, I never had to escape from a room full of angry drunks.
I’ve also learned that life is imperfect.
Despite our best efforts, all of us encounter upsets, breakdowns, and disappointments.
It’s important to recognize that bad events never define us. More important, we are not responsible for these surprises that fell on us.
But we are responsible for how we respond.
In fact, our vocabulary reveals our character. And our responses to challenges show our values.
So take each challenge as an opportunity to be someone you would admire.
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