How to use public speaking mistakes to your advantage

Snatching Victory From The Jaws of Defeat

Mistakes happen. When they do, don’t cringe – capitalise on them. It’ll make your public speaking more honest and relatable.

In an ideal world, every public address would go off without a hitch. In the real world, mistakes are bound to creep in, and in the worst cases they don’t creep so much as crash land with all the grace of an elephant sky-diving with a faulty parachute. One moment you’re in complete control and all eyes are on you. The next, you’ve crashed and burned and all eyes are on you. The difference is, now they’re cringing and you’re turning beetroot red.

In truth, most mistakes – a forgotten soundbite here; a missing slide there – aren’t terminal. Unless you’ve clicked on the wrong folder and mass-opened your collection of Pepe the frog images on the projector, most mistakes are recoverable. The following tips will help you regain your momentum when you stumble, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.


Practice makes almost perfect

It’s natural to have nerves before a presentation, especially if you’re addressing a large or influential audience. A little nervousness is actually a good thing – it’ll keep you focused and it shows that you’re not a robot but are in fact human – but no one wants to be a big ball of nerves when stepping onto a stage. To dissipate some of that anxiety, the first thing you’ll want to do is practice hard in the run-up to your presentation. Deliver your presentation to the mirror, to a trusted friend or to your pet. Solicit feedback (from your friend, not your dog) and then do it all over again. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it certainly makes for prepared, and that’s all you’re looking for.


Connect with your audience


Use Public Speaking Mistakes To Your Advantage


If you lay the groundwork at the start of the presentation, your audience will already be onside. As we noted in a previous article on public speaking, “the importance of getting off on the right foot can’t be overstated. From the outset, be confident and upbeat, setting the tone for the presentation that’s to follow.” Instead of rocking up and immediately launching into your speech, take a moment to make some smalltalk. Once you’ve connected with your audience, they’ll readily will you on should you stumble because they can relate to you as a person and they understand what it’s like to be in your shoes.

“I was so focused on my speech that I didn’t hear the sat-nav and completely missed my turn-off on the way here this morning.”

A little self-deprecation goes a long way.


To err is human. To joke about it is divine

Instead of rehearsing so that you don’t make a mistake in your speech, rehearse so that when you do you’re able to recover. Making a joke of it is one way to shrug off the screw-up and move on. You don’t have to be an amateur comedian either; a dash of self-deprecating humour should do the trick.

“If you’re wondering why these slides are in the wrong order, it’s because I wanted to make sure you were paying attention”.

“I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say, but it doesn’t matter – the really important stuff is on this next slide.”

They might not be rolling around in the aisles, but neither will they be face-palming.


Passion beats talent

Think about the best public speakers you’ve seen (either live or online). What makes them great – is it their ability to talk freely and at length without ever making a mistake? Or is it their passion and knowledge of the subject? If it’s evident that you know your stuff and care deeply about your topic, no one’s gonna remember the odd stumble or care that you momentarily drew a blank. As your own worst critic, you’re far more likely to dwell on a mistake than your audience. If you exit the stage cursing your clumsiness, perhaps you should give yourself a break. Sure, you screwed up, but you also delivered a passionate and lively speech that struck a chord. That beats a lifeless but technically perfect delivery hands down.


Embrace the imperfect

We live in an imperfect world. Instead of trying to change it, embrace its fallibility, even when those imperfections creep into your carefully rehearsed public speaking. Proving the power of the imperfect, one internet commenter recalled: “Several years ago, Disneyland had an act that played in the Golden Horseshoe. About the third time watching it, I realised they made the same “mistake” in every show. It was skilfully executed and endeared the audience to the performers. Your flaws are what make your message relatable to your audience.”

We’re not suggesting you deliberately screw up your presentation. We’re simply saying that should the worst happen, don’t beat yourself up over it. Instead, seize upon it and use it to your advantage. Every mistake is an opportunity to connect with your audience and to humanise your delivery. Laugh about it at the time. Learn from it later.

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