The Worst Public Speaking Disasters

[Update: there’s now a follow up presentation, with summary, on Overcoming the Toughest Speaking Situations , slides and Q&A here]

Back in 2009 while working on Confessions of A Public Speaker, I wrote this post asking for speaking disaster stories. Nearly 60 people replied, and some emailed them to me privately. The best ten, including some from famous people, appeared in the book. Until recently this post was buried on another blog, but I’ve reposted it here.

If you have a good story to share, please leave a comment.

To get things started, I’m a veteran speaker and here are some of my own public speaking disasters:

  1. I suck at math (The Hague, Netherlands, @CHI 2000). At the CHI conference I and some friends ran a live design competition called Interactionary. 4 teams of designers (from IBM, Razorfish, Sapient and U of Malmö)  competed live on stage in front of a crowd of 800 people and were scored by famous judges in real time. At the end we announced the winners and took questions.  Someone yelled out that our scores were wrong, which prompted the audience to start yelling and booing us – things got out of control and I had to end the session early. They were right – we announced the correct scores later that day.
  2. Audience teaches me a lesson in front of 400 people ( San Francisco, 2007, @Etech). I made the mistake of claiming that the word architect is derived from the word arch, as in the people who make arches. Not sure where I read it (I did read it somewhere), but it turns out to be bogus. As soon as I finished my talk, Tom Coates stood up gleefully and called me on it as the first question.  Blam. That sucked. (We joked about it later over drinks – he apologized, even though he was right).
  3. “Lets start 20 minutes late with gear that doesn’t work”  (San Francisco 2008, @Adobe Software). On book tour in SF, I spoke at an Adobe office with the worst tech guy I’ve ever met. I arrived 30 minutes early, but 20 minutes after I was supposed to start they were still sorting out their sound system, with various shrugs at my questions on why their system sucked so much. I spoke with a 2 second echo delay in my headset (required so 5 people could listen in remotely) the entire time, to an audience of maybe 15 people that blamed me for starting so late.
  4. I piss off a hostile and drunk audience (Cambridge 2008, @Ignite). This first Boston Ignite was at a bar worth studying for the worst place to do public speaking (Tommy Doyle’s). The small stage is dwarfed by the much larger bar area, meaning as the speaker I could hear the roar of the bar much better than myself or the audience. And since the crowd had been drinking for 2 hours before I arrived, an inevitable heckler yelled out, with an esoteric complaint about my mention of Crick & Watson without mentioning Rosalind. I made a joke about having discovered the feminist section of the audience, and it all went downhill from there. Mike and Marlowe, the organizers (and my friends!) asked me to speak again to close the night, despite my protests based on how much I’d drunk to get over the opening session, I eventually said yes. I believe I rambled something about Michelangelo and creativity but it’d be best to ask someone who was there. Actually spare me more embarrassment and don’t ask.
  5. The problems of being uni-lingual  (Kiev, Ukraine 2008). Being translated is cool if it’s done simultaneously like at the U.N. But silly me, I didn’t think to ask. And in Ukraine I was surprised to learn they were doing live translation, but with the translator on stage. On the fly I had to divide my material in half, as it takes twice as long to do anything if you have to wait for every word you say to be translated. Most exhausting full day seminar ever.
  6. “Please ignore the 120 decibel fire alarm” (Port of Spain, Trinidad).  Halfway through my talk the fire alarm goes off. I can see the hotel staff and firemen running in a panic in the hallway behind the audience, but they can’t see it. Do I tell them what I see? Or play it cool and ignore the fact and try to speak over the alarm? I did the later. Talk about a distracted audience – at least no one slept through my talk.

If you take a minute to share a story, you can win:

  • Best story wins $100 gift amazon.com gift certificate
  • Two runner ups get gets $50 each
  • Any story can win inclusion in the book (you’ll get an acknowledgment & a free copy)
  • Instant therapy – you’ll feel better after you share, I swear! I do!

Comments are still open if you have a good story to share.

63 Responses to “The Worst Public Speaking Disasters”

  1. Shelby

    “Loss of confidence.” — I’d been in the workforce 22 years, and enjoyed the complete support of just one supvervisor for a three-year period during that entire time. But, life happens and I had to move on.

    It was another 16 years before I was fortunate enough to work in that kind of environment again.

    To boot, this supervisor possessed a quality that I had truly never seen in any supervisor to date. He was a leader in every sense fo the word. Inspiring in fact.

    As the newly appointed director, he was working on turning around the generally negative feelings of the division’s employees that were an outgrowth of the former and rather repressive management regime he follwed.

    In me, he had found a kindred spirit, and had absolute confidence in my work skills, including public speaking, and said so. He even said at one point, “Is there anything you can’t do?” Wow! A high bar had been set, but I had set it by my own actions and now had to live up to his expectations.

    For a year-and-a-half I was riding high, with every plum assignment given to me.

    Then, it happened. I was asked to give a presentation at an all-hands meeting with little in the way of guideilnes. It turned out to be in a much more casual setting than I anticipated, with other staff speaking completely extemporaneously. With notes in hand, I tried to convert my formal speech to fit the tone of this meeting as well as the message (news to me) that was apparently the purpose of the meeting.

    BIG MISTAKE.

    In doing this, I tried to open with a humorous slant on a serious issue: one’s attitude in the work place is largely up to the individual. My joke fell flat, and actually made it sound like I was unhappy in my job; a virtual affront to my boss. Many days went by before he even talked to me, and the easy access I had to him vanished. It took much explanation during rare opportunities to restore the relationship.

    Reply
  2. Harvey Reed

    While waiting before giving a presentation at SSTC (DoD oriented) a few years ago, my co-presenter and I decided to go into the ballroom where we were scheduled to speak later that day in order to get the feel of the room and crowd by observing a couple of talks. The first talk was unremarkable, decent content but lackluster presenter, lackluster crowd. Then the next presenter came into the room…

    He comes hurriedly into the room carrying a bunch of hardcopies of his slides, a laptop, and a thumb-drive and proceeds to rush up to the podium where the announcer was standing. I turned to my co-presenter and said “this can’t end well”…

    There was the expected shuffling around, the surprise/agony look on the announcer’s face as he waves an audio/visual/computer guy to the scene to make a last minute slide swap, etc. All very excruciating for an audience already slipping into a post-lunch coma…

    After several minutes, the computer guy, the announcer and the disheveled speaker (did I mention his shirt was a mess and he looked like he just stepped off a red-eye flight?) all beamed with pride as their last minute mission was accomplished. New slides in the podium computer, and it “only” made them about ten minutes late…

    The announcer starts by reading the intro of the talk and the bio of the presenter. My co-presenter and I lost track of how many times the word “expert” was used. I thought, “wow we are in the presence of a genius, I’m glad we are going to learn something”.

    The talk starts, and on the very first content slide he stumbles and has to look at his “notes” (apparently he was startled by his own slide), and in the process starts leafing through his (multiple?) copies of the presentation… in front of the audience… mumbling to himself… and then complaining that his notes section (I guess one of his hardcopies was in “notes” form) didn’t match, and started using phrases like “I think that’s what this means”… My skin was crawling. I felt bad for him, but also felt that he got what he deserved.

    My philosophy in presenting is: Make sure you can do the whole presentation — without the presentation. You are telling a story, not reciting bullet points.

    Sheesh!

    Reply
  3. Jakob Bruhns

    An acquaintance was giving a CMS presentation to a group of potential customers. The same morning she dicovered, that her laptop did not work with the beta-software she was supposed to be showing, so she borrowed a laptop from her manager that worked. So far so good. An important feature of the CMS (we are a few years back in time) was some innovative features regarding graphics, so naturally she wanted to demonstrate how to insert and handle graphics. She took the first picture in the “My Pictures” folder and it turned out to be hard core porn. The customers were pretty cool about it, but the focus was a bit off and she had to end the demo earlier than planned. (Aside: when she confronted the manager, he denied any knowledge of the picture and claimed that it wasn’t him…)

    Reply
  4. Sam Aquillano

    At an Industrial Designers Society of America event a few years back we invited local, Boston winners of a national design competition to present their winning entries in front of our members. The event was held in a room at MIT where we had pizza set up in the hallway. We had the room for a very limited time and we had 3 presentations to get through. The whole night I was worried about timing: I spoke with all the presenters before about our strict time limit.

    The second group of presenters, the designers behind the Roomba, began showing their design process. They even mentioned they had a cute video at the end of their presentation showing the little robot doing its thing. During the presentation I stepped out to pay the pizza guy. I also ran into some other designers and started chatting.

    Then I panicked.

    I didn’t know how much time had passed while I was talking, 1 minute, 20 minutes, no idea! I rushed back into the room, to this day I have no idea what came over me, but I came back into the room, sort of yelled: “on to the next presentation” and pulled the VGA cable right out of their laptop.

    As I went to pull it out a friend in the front row whisper-yelled: “Sam, no!!!!” But it was too late. I pulled the cable right before the big crescendo of a video they had planned from the beginning. The climax of their presentation ruined. Oops.

    Reply
  5. Dan Roam

    Moscow, 1997. I was one of several speakers at a consumer electronics company-sponsored “thank you” dinner in a magnificent restaurant. Several important executives had flown in from Tokyo for the evening.

    Thirty seconds into my talk, the doors burst open and six balaklava-hooded and heavily armed OMON troops moved into the room. They did not speak. Neither did I.

    Four of them occupied the corners of the room while two headed directly for a table on the far side, AK-47s drawn. They grabbed a man at table, stood him up, and marched him out of the dining room. All quiet, the remaining four sidled out.

    I finished my talk. The Tokyo executives never returned to Moscow.

    Reply
  6. Scott

    Here’s a great story from Pitch coach David S. Rose:

    It was 2000, at the height of the dotcom boom. I was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a wireless industry conference, in front of 350 people. It was an important speech, at an important venue, and I spent a great deal of time custom-creating a gorgeous Powerpoint presentation the correct way: all simple graphics, virtually no text, designed to support the speaker, not detract the audiences attention from me. I was raring to go, and flew cross-country to the event ready to take the audience by storm.

    Three hours before my morning keynote, I awake in the hotel to find…I had lost my voice. Completely. Laryngitis!

    It was too late for the organizers to get anyone to fill in, they couldn’t cancel the keynote, and no one else could deliver my presentation because I speak extemporaneously and didn’t have a written text. Other than jumping out the window and watch my public speaking career go down the tubes, there didn’t seem to be a lot of alternatives. But then I had a brainstorm.

    Taking my cue from old time silent movies, I jumped on my computer and quickly made up interstitial title slides for my presentation, using a nostalgic font and design with a bit of humor (“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”). At the appointed time, I walked to the podium, and silently put up the first slide: “Hi Folks! I was all set for a great presentation this morning, but I’ve suddenly lost my voice…” I then proceeded to run through a 45 minute keynote, alternating between my original graphics and the new title slides, with an occasional whispered comment into the microphone held a few inches from my lips.

    The result was fascinating. The audience was both sympathetic and amused, worked with me on getting through the presentation, and even leaned forward to hear my whispered comments. Far from being the disaster I thought it was going to be, it turned out to be the best speech I had yet given…and certainly the most unusual!

    -David S. Rose, The Pitch Coach

    Reply
  7. Mark Fletcher

    I was on a panel a few years ago at the Always On conference, held at Stanford. I’ve forgotten the topic. There were 4 of us on the panel, as well as the moderator. The audience was probably about 400 people. In a unique twist, the organizers had set up large TV monitors, some facing the stage, some facing the audience. The monitors were showing a chat room populated by laptop-wielding audience members (ie. most of the audience). I had never been in such a situation, where panelists could see what the audience was thinking, in real-time. I was transfixed. It was, well, completely distracting.

    So distracting, in fact, that at one point I found myself being asked to comment on the current topic by the moderator. But I had no idea what the topic was, because I had been reading the chat room. In hindsight, the smart thing to do would have been to ask the moderator to restate the question. Instead, panicked, I looked up and out at the large audience full of highly intelligent and influential people, and said the first thing that popped into my head.

    “I like cheese.”

    And that’s when I learned that it apparently doesn’t really matter what you say on stage. The moderator moved on and nobody ever mentioned it. Well, as far as I know, for I never looked at the chat room after that.

    Reply
    1. Dc

      I’m a professor and was asked to give a guest lecture in a colleague’s class on a topic in which I have a great deal of expertise. I have been under a tremendous amount if stress lately and have also been seriously sleep deprived. I began my lecture alright but then began having something like an anxiety attack during the lecture – my mouth went dry and palms were sweaty and my heart was thundering in my chest. I couldn’t find basic words or language in my field like society or reciprocity and I felt like everyone was looking at me like I was crazy. I kept throwing out questions to make it more of a discussion and to take the pressure off me as I couldn’t really connect my thoughts to each other, but the students looked confused and uncomfortable and when they responded to the questions I couldn’t address their responses in any way, tie them together or figure out a way to continue the talk – my colleague had to step in several times to help me. I felt like an imposter, like I didn’t know anything, like a fraud. I felt like I was making to students feel confused and uncomfortable. I’m not sure how to recover from this because it speaks to my competence as a scholar. I also felt really judged by my colleague even though he was bring actually quite nice. But I feel like now he must question my competence or right to teach in my discipline at my university. Not sure what to do next beyond apologise to him and the students. I know I will recover from this but right now I just want to crawl in a hole forever.

      Reply
  8. Jonathan Eisen

    I posted this story on my blog at: http://phylogenomics.blogspot.com/2009/08/cant-get-much-worse-than-this-soaking.html and am copying it here – I hope all of it comes through

    Can’t get much worse than this: soaking my shorts before my 1st conference talk. Other bad experiences?

    Well, I was talking with some people recently about someone who had a bad experience giving their first talk at a scientific conference. And so I said – you think that is bad – how about this? And I told them the story below. But before telling the story I am asking here for others to post comments about the worst thing that has happened to you during a talk at a scientific conference/meeting. Please fire away.

    OK – so my talk. It was 1995. The SSE (Society of the Study of Evolution) meeting was in Montreal. And somehow I was going. I am not sure anymore how I ended up registering for the meeting. I do remember other evo-grad students who were or had been at Stanford like David Pollock, Joanna Mountain, maybe David Goldstein, maybe Sally Otto, Sarah Cohen, and a few others were going. And so I registered, got accepted to give a talk on the “Evolution of RecA” and made plane reservations to get to Montreal.

    I arrived the night before my talk, found my dorm room on the McGill campus, and then went wandering around town for the Jazz Festival which was going on that night. After staying out pretty late, I got back to my room and had a bit of a panic attack when I looked at the schedule and found that the session in which I was talking started at 8:30 in the morning the next day and I did not have an alarm clock, nor was there one in my room. (I note, fortunately I was using real slides and could not spend the night modifying my talk in the way I do now with Keynote/PPT). Anyway – I pretty much knew I would sleep late without some work and so I made some notes with my room # and a plea to others to bang on my door if they could by 6:30 or 7 AM and I slipped these under the other doors in the hall. Fortunately in some ways, I barely slept b/c I was so scared of missing my first talk.

    So at 6:30 AM or so I headed out to the conference area. I think I got some coffee and then headed to the room where my talk was to be. Nobody was even there so I wandered around for a bit and came back and the projectionist was there getting the room set up. When I said I was one of the speakers – he said “Are you planning on doing any side by side slides where you need two projectors?” Well, I had not thought of doing this, but now that he mentioned it, it sounded perfect b/c the main point of my talk was that the phylogenetic trees of RecA and rRNA were very similar to each other (see my 1995 J. Mol. Evol. paper on the topic here), supporting earlier suggestions by Lloyd and Sharp that RecA was a potentially useful phylogenetic marker. So I said “sure” and proceeded to load up two slide carousels for my talk. We checked them out and all looked good.

    As the room started to fill up (I recall there were a lot of people interested in the “Molecular Evolution” session I was in) I decided to go grab a seat (in the far back on an aisle – I was a lurker even before blogging from meetings) and try to relax. I think I was the fourth talk and while speaker #3 (Michael Purugganan) was getting started I got nervous about the side by side slides so I went over to ask the projectionist if all was OK and he said it was. Alas, someone had grabbed my seat when I was up. I saw a table in the back back of the room with some misc. fliers on it so I went there to sit down for a few minutes and try to relax. And here was the trouble.

    The table was also being used to hold some pitchers of water for people. And alas, someone had just spilled an entire pitcher of water on the table and I did not notice. I sat in the puddle. And there I was, in my tan shorts, now dripping wet. Minutes before my first talk. Looking like I had gotten a bit too nervous. Underwear showing through. As I desperately looked around to borrow a sweatshirt from someone to tie around my waist, the chair said “And our next speaker is Jonathan Eisen …”. Holy Crap. I was on.

    So I went up there and I had thought to myself to crack a joke about just getting in from a swim. Or something. But as I still do, I entered another zone for my talk and forget everything but the talk. And so – there I was – dripping wet in my see through shorts – turning around and pointing to the screen talking about RecA as though all was fine.

    Only when I was done with the talk did I re-remember that I was basically doing a “wet-shorts” contest for all in the audience. Yay. I can say truthfully that when I start to worry about things going wrong in talks, I remember this one and say “well, it could be worse …”

    Reply
  9. Mike Arcuri

    Interesting topic, Scott – just sent me on a walk down memory lane.

    I had a few embarrassing public speaking moments during my Microsoft tenure, and a few during college, too, but one that stands out in my memory a lot happened all the way back in my senior year of high school.

    I was the class president, and it was the first day back from summer vacation; our first day as seniors. There was a welcome assembly, and the Vice Principal said I could make a short speech to the class after he said his parts. “OK” I thought, “no preparation, but I’m sure I can come up with something.” So I sat there for a little while thinking about my audience and I assumed it was my job to say something inspirational about how great this year was going to be.

    Anyway, when I got up on stage I tried to set a serious tone. I said something like “This is it. Our last year in this school. Our last chance together to have a winning football season, or work for the grades we’ve been striving for. Our last chance to learn together as a class, and help each other out. Our last homecoming. Our last prom. Our last chance to party. Next year we’ll go off to college or to new jobs and leave high school behind. So let’s make the the most of it. Let’s make this year the best one yet.”

    The reaction from my classmates was good and I remember feeling good about doing a decent job without preparation.

    Then about 30 minutes later after the assembly was over I found myself in the Vice Principal’s office for a chat. “I want to talk to you about your speech,” he said. “Yeah, they seemed to like it,” I replied, still pretty chipper. Then I noticed he was frowning. After the pause, he continued, “why did you say “it’s our last chance to party?” “What were you trying to do?”

    That’s when I realized I had more than one audience in the crowd that day. I hadn’t given one whit of thought to the fact that I should have been speaking with BOTH in mind.

    Reply
  10. Scott

    There is a winner which I will announce when the book comes out. So stay tuned.

    Reply

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