Public Speaking and the Kindness of Strangers

“Wow, there are so many eyes looking at me!” That was the first thing she said, our speaker for the morning. She was obviously nervous. She shifted her weight from foot to foot, fidgeted a bit, and then started talking about her subject. She didn’t get very far before she stopped and said, “Geez, I’m nervous. I had no idea there would be so many of you.” At this point, she seemed to lose her train of thought. She looked down at her notes but it was as if they weren’t there. “Man. Okay, let’s see if I can figure out what I’m saying…”

Just when it seemed that she would unravel before us, her audience rescued her. They jumped in with questions about her subject, even though she hadn’t said much about it yet. Any time she reached a place where she didn’t know how to proceed, someone from the audience would ask another question.

She got through her 20-minute presentation by answering questions. If the audience hadn’t swooped in like they did, who know what would have happened. And because they swooped in, I left that meeting thinking, we really can rely on the kindness of strangers.

We forget all too easily that people are basically kind. Audiences are generous and pretty easy going. They want you, the speaker, to do well and feel comfortable. So much so that they are willing to help you out in any way they can. But only if you let them.

What saved this nervous speaker was her willingness to let us know just how crazy nervous she was. She didn’t try to hide it. She came right out and told us with her words and her body movement. And because of that, her audience rallied to her support and did their best to make her comfortable and easy.

Now, I would never recommend falling apart and admitting to it as a speaking strategy. It’s much less stressful to actually be prepared and have the intention of offering your audience a chance to sit back and receive what you’ve got to give. But hey, sometimes things spin out of control. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a moment where nothing is going as planned.

And when that happens, remember that even in the worst of circumstances, when you feel like you’re melting into a gelatinous blob, where you can’t find your mind anywhere, and your confidence is in a nosedive, your audience is really there for you. Stay with them. Don’t cut them off by either trying to frantically find your bearings or getting so upset that you become unreachable. When things go array, surrender and speak to it, joke about it, and let your audience in on the fantastic mess of it.

Audiences will love you even if you totally screw up, but only if you are honest with them and don’t try to cover up the meltdown you’re having. Why? Because in your honesty, you are still including them. You are maintaining your connection with them.

The truth is that your audience doesn’t really care all that much that you present everything perfectly. They don’t care if you make only one of the three points you wanted to make. They won’t come after you with torches and pitchforks if you fall apart and don’t say a word. But they will swoop in with empathy and support if you stay with them, be honest and laugh at yourself a little.

Hey, even the most prepared speaker can have a really bad day! Stuff happens. When it does, don’t try to hide it. Keep that connection with your audience by being real and sharing what’s true for you.


1 reply
  1. Rob Wantling
    Rob Wantling says:

    I totally agree with this. I deliver presentation workshops and always ask the students ‘What do you feel when you see a presenter nervously -literally dying in front of you. And the answer is always an emphatic caring one; because we all feel for that person; and through out my PowerPoint support slides every fourth slide states.. “No-one ever Died from giving a Presentation.”…….

    ps thsi is a most excellent Website.


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