What to do when things go wrong with your keynote speech

By September 28, 2016 communication No Comments

This week I was giving a keynote speech at an international conference called Sustainable Brands in Copenhagen. The founder of the conference, KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz is a remarkable women gifted with a mission to bring sustainability practitioners around the world together to explore and celebrate ways in which global brands are addressing the issues the world faces. I felt completely privileged to be a part of this wonderful family of people, and very committed to trying to do my best there. Not just for myself, but for her and the people that would give me 1.5 hours of their time.

But all was not going to go according to plan……

As I landed in Copenhagen I had a few things to tidy up on my presentation. Which I foolishly hadn’t uploaded to the cloud. It was on my laptop. And as I went to tidy it up the screen froze. At first I thought it was a case of ‘Mac behaving badly’. I pressed the off switch. Once. Twice. Three times. Hard. For short periods. For longer, increasingly desperate periods. Nothing happened. By this time I was sweating and cursing myself for not following my own rules – save and upload, save and upload – as you go.

The laptop did not unfreeze so I had to gallop across town to Apple and borrow another laptop and pull an all-nighter rewriting it – something I haven’t done since I was at college! It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t particularly as cohesive as the original version, but somehow it was enough and I got through the presentation without smashing into little pieces like a Ming vase that’s accidentally been dropped to the parquet. Was it as good as I had wanted it to be? No. Was it interesting and effective – I may never know as of course I had a webinar to run at 2pm and had to dash off and rewrite those slides too, so didn’t get a lot of time to gather feedback.

Speaking at Sustainable Brands Copenhagen

Sustainable Brands

It’s important to reflect when  you’ve messed up

As I sat back that night in my AirBNB temporary home, I reflected. Both professionally and personally. It’s so important that when we are given a chance to speak in front of an audience that we respect the privilege given to us. I felt I had disrespected that privilege by not being focused enough to prepare my work properly – even if that was just saving it to the cloud. That’s the professional reflection.

So that’s just a little professional reminder – never forget to save the visuals supporting your talk to the cloud as you go, to Dropbox or pop a copy onto an external drive. Simple .

The personal one is tougher to answer. What has made me behave so irresponsibly to not upload my work? Was I self-sabotaging and why? Today I don’t yet have the answer to that. It’s something I hope to explore this week.

How to cope when things go wrong on stage

A second reminder of how to cope when things don’t go according to plan, popped up in front of me on day two of the conference. Sandra Brugmann,  head of The Passion Institute and The Refresh Agency was giving a plenary talk on very similar subjects to me. Purpose, meaning, values, vulnerability. I was excited to see Brene Brown and Richard Barrett’s work being woven into her talk. And then she began to falter in her presentation.

Whilst speaking about vulnerability, she had a vulnerable moment of her own. She visibly started to shake and had to return to the podium, take some deep breaths into the microphone, take a few sips of water and breathe again. Out of the blue she had been overcome by fear in the moment. I don’t know why, but what I do know is that she handled it brilliantly.

She gave herself time and then she smiled at the audience and said “This is a vulnerable moment. I’m here talking about vulnerability and I’m experiencing it on stage in front of you.” She’s a PR expert so you could cynically suggest it was a masterly illustration of her point – not a bit of it. I was sitting in the front row and I watched her crumble. It was quite real.

So here’s the learning. Sometimes even the most experienced speakers are overwhelmed in the moment. This is especially true when you are communicating from the heart – as change-makers do – about something that is deeply meaningful to you, to an audience you deeply care about. If it happens:-

  • Give yourself time to gather yourself
  • Retreat to a spot on the stage where you feel more secure – often that’s the podium
  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Always have some water handy so that you can take a break to drink at any time. A
  • Be open and honest with your audience about what has happened

Your audience will be rooting for you.  Just as the audience at Sustainable Brands Copenhagen was rooting for Sandja.

If you ever feel as if you need help developing a short keynote talk that changes minds, don’t hesitate to get in touch.  I run 6 week support courses for people who want to deliver a TED-style talk which changes heart and minds about important issues. 

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