Last month, something happened to me at an event that hasn’t happened in well over a decade. I wish it were something cool like audience members throwing money and candy at me as they cheered “Bravo!” and “Encore!” But that’s never happened, and probably never will. No, this thing was far more mundane, and far less exciting.
For the first time in well over a decade, I completely forgot what I wanted to say.
I was in the middle of a presentation, moving along at a normal and natural clip, and I told a joke that I’ve told before and that basically always gets a laugh. Except this time, for some reason, it didn’t.
And that, somehow, completely derailed me. Usually when things don’t go the way I expect them to, I shrug it off and move on to whatever’s next. But this time, I couldn’t remember what was next. I couldn’t remember anything. My mind was a complete and absolute blank.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There was the fear, of course, the same fear that I’m sure people who dislike public speaking have whenever they’re forced to speak in public. Oh crap! People are looking at me, and I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY!!!!
But you can’t say that, because then people know that you don’t know what to say, and you lose a lot of credibility. So instead I did the only thing left to me – I kept talking. I said some words. They weren’t good words. They weren’t even coherent words. In fact, as I was saying them I was thinking to myself, “What the hell are you saying? That doesn’t even make sense! You sound like an idiot. PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER AND GET BACK ON TRACK!” Which is an internal monologue that, in case you were curious, in no way helps you figure out what you really want to be talking about.
The whole episode lasted for maybe 20 seconds, during which time I honestly wondered if I was ever going to figure out how to say anything worth hearing ever again.
But then two things happened. First of all, I did figure out what I wanted to say, and I started saying it. My transition from “babbling idiot” to “person maybe worth listening to” was abrupt and jerky, hardly the work of a trained professional who’s given well over 1,000 presentations in his 16-year-old public speaking career. But I got there, and that’s what I needed to do.
The second thing that happened was this – absolutely nobody noticed that I’d just spent the last 20 seconds floundering. Nobody said anything. Nobody even had a weird look on their face while I was spouting off 20 seconds of nonsense. They didn’t notice at all. I mean, how could they? They had no idea what I wanted to say – so to them, what I was saying during that 20 seconds of imbecility was exactly what I had meant to say all along.
Anytime we speak in public, we have a general idea of what we want to say. Whether it’s a sales presentation, a perfectly scripted stand-up comedy show, a free-for-all improv session, a courtroom summation, an impromptu political speech – it doesn’t matter what kind of public speaking it is, whoever’s doing it has a rough idea of where they want it to go.
But the audience doesn’t.
That, for me, is the key to successful public speaking. They don’t know what you’re going to say. So they can’t know when you messed up, or left something out, or when your joke falls flat, or when you circle back to a point you meant to make 5 minutes but just remembered right now. The script in your head isn’t in your audience’s head, and the only way they’ll know that you’re screwing up is if you flat-out tell them so. “Sorry, everyone, I sort of lost my train of thought for a minute.”
So just don’t say anything like that. Trust that your audience has no idea where you’re trying to go, and that they’ll forgive you for any mistakes you make because they don’t even know that you’ve made them.
That’s what I did, and it worked out just fine. People said afterwards that I did a good job – and nobody included the caveat of, “Well, I mean except for that random 20 seconds when you were spewing nonsense like my 4-year-old after too much Halloween candy.”
I hope my 20-second (painful to me, invisible to everyone else) failure helps you out the next time you’re speaking in public.