What are the toughest public speaking situations?

On Tuesday 1/28 I’ll be doing a free, live webcast (register here) about public speaking, hosted by O’Reilly Media.

NOTE: The webcast happened and you missed it. The slides and Q&A can be found here.

In Confessions of A Public Speaker I explained how to deal with 17 difficult speaking situations. In the webcast I’ll coach you through some of them, or the ones you ask for in comments:

  • You’re being heckled
  • Everyone is staring at their laptops / phones
  • Your time slot gets cut from 45 to 10 minutes
  • Everyone in the room hates you
  • One guy won’t stop asking questions
  • There is a rambling question that makes no sense
  • You are asked an impossible question
  • The microphone breaks
  • Your laptop explodes
  • There is a typo on your slide (nooooooo!)
  • You’re late for you’re own talk
  • You feel sick
  • You’re running out of time
  • You left your slides at home
  • Your hosts are control freaks
  • You have a wardrobe malfunction
  • There are only 5 people in the audience

Would you like me to cover any of these in the webcast? Or are there other situations you want to learn to handle better?

Leave a comment and I’ll consider covering it in the webcast. Thanks.

22 Responses to “What are the toughest public speaking situations?”

  1. Donnell

    The teleprompter dies

    …too soon?

    1. Scott

      Ha. Poor Michael Bay. It’s rare for people to use teleprompters, but the general scenario of “I feel lost” is very common.

  2. Harold

    Everyone is staring at their device (no double entendre intended)

  3. Harold

    Is there a link to sign up for the webcast. I searched O’reilly website and found links to your older webcasts.


    1. Alice

      Yeah, it looks like the webcast hasn’t been announced on O’Reilly yet. Scott is preparing in advance. Kudos!

  4. Brian Moon

    My toughest moment is when I realize my talk is not tailored for the audience. Sometimes, you can give a talk at one venue and it goes well. At the next, similar venue, you realize half way through that the audience is lost. I don’t know how to recover in that and just start to go fast and get to q&a to find out why they attended my talk.

    1. Scott

      Most public speaking challenges are about prep and this is one. It’s always worth asking the organizer who is coming and why, or failing that, looking at the other event descriptions for other sessions.

      That said, it still happens to me despite preparing. Sometimes the organizer is wrong, or the event description was bad, or who knows. In that case I stop my talk and poll the audience quickly: “How many of you are novices as FOO?” or “If you’ve worked on X or more than a year, raise your hand? 5 years? 10?” That at least helps me calibrate and shift how I talk about whatever is in the slides.

      Worst case your approach is good – the sooner you go to Q&A the sooner you can answer their specific questions, which is why they came.

  5. Marc Drummond

    My fatal flaw is trying to do so much research that I wait too long to put together the actual presentation, missing out on time to rehearse. There are far too many times when I’m staying up late at the conference, or working on the presentation during other sessions. Things come together, but I’ve had numerous times where I know I could have done a better presentation if I’d trusted myself more, rather than reading every possible article on a subject.

  6. Jason Shen

    You’ve lost your slides! I’ve gotten better at it, but speaking off the cuff / without good notes is my biggest challenge.

  7. Al Pastor

    There are two factions in the audience with mutually exclusive points of view.

    You’re hungover or jetlagged or have, how to say politely, ah traveler’s sickness.

    Your boss in standing in the back and has definite ideas on what you should say and how you should say it. You don’t agree for the particular audience.

    You’re speaking to an audience from a different culture. Especially when you don’t get the cues you’re used to that the audience is understanding/agreeing/disagreeing. As an American, presenting in Japan is a challenge that way.

    Your luggage was lost and you have to give your presentation in the clothes you traveled in (yeah, don’t check luggage!). Or, you accidentally packed one brown shoe and one black shoe, because you left in the dark.

  8. Adam S.

    My toughest speaking situation is that I tend to focus on not making a mistake, which then magnifies in my head until I turn into a rambling, panicky pile of goo. All about confidence, right?

  9. Susan

    I vote for the ones that involve difficult human beings:

    You’re being heckled
    Everyone in the room hates you
    One guy won’t stop asking questions
    There is a rambling question that makes no sense
    You are asked an impossible question

  10. Paolo Malabuyo

    i’ve had 2 really bad ones:
    – being immature, ill-prepared, sick, and tired (from traveling) so i couldn’t really follow a coherent thread
    – speaking during a lunch session with people sitting around round tables, clinking and clanking, with slides barely visible due to the bright room, coming after a famous, well-respected speaker who just gave a good keynote, and he’s sitting *right there*

    i gave up speaking for a while after each one of those experiences.

  11. Robert Gray

    Sadly I’ve experienced a number of your examples:
    Everyone is staring at their laptops / phones
    Your time slot gets cut from 45 to 10 minutes
    One guy won’t stop asking questions
    The microphone breaks
    Your laptop explodes
    You’re running out of time
    You have a wardrobe malfunction
    There are only 5 people in the audience

    None of them are fun. I’ll go get your book to see what you have to say about these.

    My two worst presentation experiences involved going behind other presenters who ran long, then the organizer AV guy not being able to get their projector to work with my laptop. This ugly sausage making happened very visibly to the audience since the presentation was starting late. Once I was standing onstage in front of a 30′ blank screen in the hotel Grand Ballroom holding up my laptop to 150 people saying ‘I wish you could see these great slides’. In the calm after the disaster I think the answer is don’t officially start until they have the equipment working. Or if the time has gone too far bail on the tech and shoot from the hip.


  12. Veronica

    Speaking to a room full of certified technical trainers was tough.

    1. Scott

      What were you speaking to them about? Something they were experts in, or something you were an expert in?

  13. Mark

    You are an exceptional speaker – I knew that when I asked you to speak in Boston last year. I didn’t realise quite how great you were until after we agreed to have you involved. Anyone who speaks in public should listen to your advice.

    I end up having to talk in public now even though I used to be so afraid of it I once left a job because I had to speak to 30 people for 10 minutes. I got over it eventually though it was tough for a few years. (The thing that did make a difference for me was wearing a bright shirt. It meant I felt I could ‘hide in plain sight’. That costume meant I could get away with being a different person.

    Only time it let me down was when I had to /wanted to, talk at a funeral about a friend who was tragically killed in an accident last year. I did it but I didn’t do him, or what I wanted to say about him, any justice. It still haunts me that I let him down somehow. The most important talk I have had to make wasn’t what I wanted it to be.

    Any thoughts on speaking under extreme emotional pressure? (Realise that this is probably an edge case but if there is anything that could be abstracted to a more general level…)

    Peace. M

  14. Stacy Gahlman-Schroeder

    A question which is along the line of a heckler but a bit more intense;
    How to handle someone who vehemently disagrees with your topic or points of the presentation. And this person potentially goes further by standing up and demanding to know your credentials as an ‘expert’ on the topic. etc. etc.

    1. Scott

      That’s bizzare. Did this happen to you?

      The playbook is the same. They can’t overpower you since you have the microphone and the audience came to hear you. Ask them to hold their questions and comments until the end.

      You are free to tell them “If you don’t find me credible, you are free to leave”. Nothing is forcing them to stay. Put the burden on them to stay and behave or to leave.

      If they really get out of hand you host or the organizer should take care of this for you by removing them if you ask.


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