Thursday, May 5, 2011

It's not the mistake. It's how you deal with it.

It's entirely possible that I was watching that ballroom dancing show when, after a big fall-on-the-floor moment, someone told the chagrined dancers, "It's not the mistake. It's how you deal with it."

This sounds familiar to me.I tell it to my public speaking and presenting trainees all the time. And I hear it when I pause in my guitar lesson, where my instructor has told me, "You can't stop when you make a mistake...You're pausing to think what you did wrong and how to fix it. But you've got to keep going. The pros make mistakes all the time, but they keep going."

In music or dance, when one performer lets a mistake stop her, it throws the rest of the people off who are performing with her--and that can throw the performance. And even if you're the only one speaking, a mistake that stops you stops the audience and becomes the focal point.

But the speaker who can figure out, fast, how to keep going will have the audience on her side--either because they don't know what happened (often) or because they admire how you kept going. (That's happened to me before when I had to make lemonade out of lemons at a talk.)

How should you deal with mistakes? That depends on the mistake. If you've forgotten something, you can pause to think, leave it out or come back to it later. If you can use humor carefully to acknowledge the mistake and move on, that's a popular tactic--just be cautious about using humor, and don't direct it at yourself or the audience. Even a seemingly catastrophic mistake, one out of your control, can be handled deftly; I think of the emcee who watched a priceless crystal sculpture fall and break right before it was to be presented to the honoree, whom he told, "You're about to receive more pieces of Irish crystal than anyone in history."

Now that's good on your feet! He didn't apologize, fuss, or panic--that the audience could see--and made it alright to laugh and react to an improbable situation, just what a good emcee should do. In a similar way, you should deal with speaking mistakes externally, not internally. Too many of us stop ourselves with internal recriminations because we're afraid a mistake equals failure, a comment against us, a wall we can't surmount. In reality, it just means you're human and not a speech-making robot. When that voice in your head says "Oh, crap, I did that again, I always do that, I hate when I do that,"  or "OMG, what was that? Why did I do that stupid thing?" you're derailing your own train, sister--and doing it when no one put up a "stop" sign but yourself. And that ties up your tongue.

Psychologists say the only thing you get to control in most situations is your own reaction. So focus on staying calm. Smile. Breathe. Learn some quick recovery maneuvers to keep in your back pocket--some time-buying phrases (see below), or the ability to stop and correct yourself ("No, that's not right--I meant to say..."). And then keep going. No need to apologize or get self-deprecating. Chances are high that we won't notice the mistake (after all, we didn't practice with you, did we?) and you'll forge ahead and finish. And then you won't want to stop.

Related posts: What to say when you don't know what to say: Intelligent time-buyers

Confidence: Fake it until you make it

Are you comfortable with silence as a speaker?

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