How to Handle Public Speaking Mistakes

“I blew it.  It was the worst performance in recent memory.
I’d like a do-over.”

Have you ever said these words or anything similar, about one of your performances? In my case it was a business presentation. Perhaps it was an internal presentation before your boss and peers. Maybe a critical sales presentation before a prospective customer or existing client. What do you do when you know you blew it? Do you beat yourself up constantly? As if this would help.

Recently, I blew it.  I failed to give my best presentation. From my standpoint it was awful. From the audience’s point of view, it was good. You see, I possess enough professional skills that even my worst is better than most. A good friend of mine, Lisa Jo Landsberg said, “Your 50% is better than everyone else’s 200%.  You’ve got a lot of junk in your trunk.” (How many of you know that real life is better than fiction. And you can’t make up what some people say?) Now for those of you who are not familiar with this colloquialism or catch phrase, a lot of ‘junk in my trunk’ is a good thing. What she meant was I have a lot of talent. My ‘off’ day is better than most people’s ‘on’ day in front of an audience.

“People do not learn from experience.  They learn from
reflecting on their experience. The failure to debrief is the main reason
why people fail to reach their full potential in performance.”

– Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan

STEP #1: Debrief Your Performance.

Let’s debrief the situation. The first debriefing framework comes from Blaire Singer – Author of Sales Dogs. This is step #1, when you blow it on the stage (or any other life experience.)

1)  What happened (Facts only, no opinions)?

I gave a lousy performance on stage.

2)  Why? There were these mitigating factors:

• I was tired.  I was traveling internationally. I was suffering from jet lag and had very little sleep. By the time I got on stage, it was 2:00 am according to my body clock.

• The audience was tired.  Again, by the time I got on stage, the audience had been at the venue for almost an entire day, with very few breaks.

• I was speaking to another culture – Non-North American. The audience did not relate to some of the idioms and humor.

• I was over confident.  The day before in Montreal, I got a standing ovation. I assumed that this standing ovation would follow me on the airplane.

• I did not rehearse and practice as much as I normally do.  I have given this presentation over 100 times before.

• It was a free speech.  My preparation showed that I thought it was a free speech. I am the world champion of public speaking.  Many people are seeing me for the first time.  I don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

3)  What worked?

Analyzing my speech on stage.
I did get a do-over. I made two additional presentations to the same crowd that were superior.

4)  What did not work?

Being on automatic pilot mode. My speech was more of a performance than a conversation. It was not genuine.

5)  What did you learn?

Not to taking any audience for granted.
Prepare for every presentation as if I were being paid a million dollars because poor performances are worthless.

6)  What can you do to correct or improve?

• Prepare!
• Provide original content.
• Practice and rehearse as if it were the world championship of public speaking.
• Stop beating yourself up.

“If you are not failing… you are not trying.”
– Alan Weiss, PhD.

STEP #2: How to Handle Your Mistakes in the Future.

So how do you handle mistakes?  Authors Matthew McKay, Ph. D. and Patrick Fanning, in their best-selling book Self-Esteem (third edition) make the following suggestions:

1)  Realize that everyone makes mistakes.

Mistakes are the inescapable by-product of learning or trying anything new.

2)  Realize that even you make mistakes.

Make a list of your 10 biggest mistakes.

• For each mistake, before you acted, ask, “What were you thinking?”

• Were you hoping for happier consequences?

• Did you have any idea that this would turn out painful?

• What were your needs that pushed you into this decision?

• Knowing what you know now and given the same thought process and needs, would you act differently?

3)  Forgive yourself. You need to forgive yourself for three reasons:

You did the best you could at that time.

You’ve already paid for your mistake. You’ve endured the consequences and felt the pain. There is no need to pay this price over again. Pay for your mistakes only once. I’m going to repeat this again. Pay for your mistakes only once.  Guilt is paying for your mistakes more than once.

Mistakes are unavoidable. They are part of the learning process, in fact, everything you have learned in your life was the result of countless mistakes. How many falls did it take you to learn how to walk? Did you give up? Get the point?

Bonus Reason: Associate mistakes with learning.  Make mistakes faster so you learn quicker.

“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could;
some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them
as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin in…
serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered [cluttered]
with your old nonsense.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Using the principles he teaches today, Ed Tate became the 2000 World Champion of Public Speaking. Out of 175,000 members of Toastmasters International, Ed won the coveted 2000 World Championship of Public Speaking — Toastmasters’ highest award. This internationally known keynote speaker has earned a reputation as the “speaker who energizes, educates, and entertains.” He has spoken professionally in 46 states and 12 countries, and on 5 continents. Visit Ed’s website at

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