Murphy's Law – which dictates that anything that can go wrong will go wrong – is always in effect when one prepares to step up to the podium. And when it comes to public speaking, Murphy was an optimist. Obviously, one cannot prevent mistakes after they occur. They have to be anticipated, which is why effective preparation is so important. Every little detail must be attended to before you stand up to speak. Preparation will go a long way towards eliminating potential problems, but there are occasions when foul-ups are almost impossible to avoid. These tips can help you prevent problems and respond to them gracefully when they do occur.

The Key to a Glitch-free Presentation: Arrive Early
I'll never forget a major address I gave at a convention many years ago. The program was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. The committee, good hosts that they were, insisted on taking me out for dinner. Naively, I went along. They promised to get me to the auditorium in plenty of time. Needless to say, we arrived just at the stroke of 8 and I was on. Never again!
Here are some simple rules I now follow:
Get to the room an hour before the event or program begins (not an hour before your speech)
Stand behind the podium; get the feel of it
Determine that your notes can be handled effectively
Know where the fire exits and the bathrooms are
Check the microphone, seating, heat, lighting and other features of the room with the meeting planner
Discuss the number of attendees. If there will be fewer people than seats, tape off the back rows to encourage attendees to sit up front and create a more supportive atmosphere.
Make sure all elements are conducive to a good presentation before your audience arrives

How to Manage the Situation When Things Go Wrong
We have concentrated so far on how to prevent goofs, but a little preparation can also help you cope if they do occur.

Plan an "out" and use it.
While we hope never to use them, many of us have installed safety devices to allow our families an exit in the event of a fire. I have installed smoke detectors and placed a cable ladder under my daughter's bed, and one evening we practiced climbing down the ladder from the second floor. As I said, I hope we never use it, but we have an out.

As a speaker, it never hurts to have an out. What happens if the light or the mike on the podium goes out, the bulb in the slide projector pops midway through the presentation or the lights in the room go out? It can happen. It has happened to me, but I always have an out. Perhaps you'd want to use some of your "ad-libs" or open a dialogue with the audience until the problem is resolved. Whatever you plan, prepare your out and use it.

Don't let your audience know something went wrong.
If something goes wrong and there's no available out, the best thing to do, if you can, is to continue as though nothing has happened. When a juggler drops a ball, he casually picks it up and continues his routine. Did he intend to do this? It doesn't matter; he continued without calling attention to his error.

In speaking, if your sequence gets a little out of whack, don't say, "Oh, by the way, I meant to tell you this earlier." Who has to know? Just go on about your business and tie the information in later. After all, you're the only one who knows the sequence.

The psychology of an audience is such that they want you to succeed. Why let them down when you don't have to? Don't let a small slip make you lose your stride. Just keep going.

Make a gag out of it.
If you have no out and there's no way to hide the problem, make a gag out of it. Let me offer an example. When speaking, I like to leave whatever brief notes I might be using on the shelf under the podium rather than dig them out of my pockets. At one large event the speaker who preceded me did the same thing, and – you guessed it – he walked away with his notes as well as mine.

Under normal circumstances this would not have mattered, but I was supposed to recognize a total of 20 people in the room along with their accomplishments. I could not remember all the names, which I had carefully written in block letters on my notes. I should have foreseen that this might happen, but now there was no way out nor any way I could logically cover.

I simply made a gag out of it. "Hey, John," I called out, "I know you can't wait to hear my speech, but do you have to read it too? How about giving me back my notes?" Not real funny, but better than going to pieces.

We may not be able to prevent every problem that might come up during a presentation. But a little up-front planning can save you a lot of grief later during your speech.

About David W. Richardson
David W. Richardson, CSP, is a professional speaker specializing in speech coaching, sales training and keynote addresses. His powerful Presentations Skills Workshops and Individual Speech Coaching have helped numerous professionals with companies such as General Electric and KPMG create presentations that grab their listeners' attention and compel them to take the desired action at the conclusion.

Dave can be reached at 480.585.5292 or 1.800.338.5831.
E-mail him at, and be sure to check out his Web site for some terrific, helpful speaking tips,

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