This week, I’ll focus on public speaking horror stories—mine and yours.
The goal isn’t simply to share fun stories about the public speaking nightmares we’ve all experienced (although I’ll admit that they can make for fun reading). Rather, my hope is to use those experiences to share lessons about what others should do if faced with a similar situation.
I’ll post a few of my own horror stories this week, but I’d also like to post yours!
Please leave your personal public speaking horror stories in the comments section below. In addition to sharing the story, please leave some advice for people who may face the same situation. Now that you’ve had time to think about what went wrong, what would you do differently?
I’ll post a few of your excerpts throughout the week. I look forward to learning from you!
By now, you may have heard about a Cleveland PR pro named Kelly Blazek, whose harsh rejection letter to a young public relations professional made the rounds last week.
Here’s the summary, as reported by Mark Naymik of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
“[Blazek] produced and distributed a popular email that culled job openings from online job sites and from her own contacts. She worked hard for 10 years building her contacts and curating the list of people who receive the email, limiting recipients largely to those with experience in the field.”
The trouble started when a 26-year-old named Diana Mekota sent a LinkedIn request to Ms. Blazek along with a request to join her email list. Mekota was shocked when she received the following reply:
After her vicious broadside went viral, Ms. Blazek offered a chastened—and seemingly genuine—apology, which reads in part:
“My Job Bank listings were supposed to be about hope, and I failed that. In my harsh reply notes, I lost my perspective about how to help, and I also lost sight of kindness, which is why I started the Job Bank listings in the first place.
The note I sent to Diana was rude, unwelcoming, unprofessional and wrong. I am reaching out to her to apologize. Diana and her generation are the future of this city. I wish her all the best in landing a job in this great town.”
I do not and would never support Ms. Blazek’s approach. Not only is what she wrote awful—but as a purely tactical matter, it’s also dumb to risk one’s entire reputation by committing such thoughts to print.
But I do understand her frustration. I’m regularly contacted by people I’ve never met whose approach to networking similarly turns me off.
In some cases, someone I’ve never interacted with before writes, “Hey, I’m going to be in NYC tomorrow. Want to meet for coffee and talk about how we might work together?” (No. If you’re not serious enough about a potential partnership to contact me more than 24 hours in advance of a requested meeting, you aren’t serious enough about working together.)
Or it might be a person asking me for a job via a Twitter direct message. (If, instead of putting a thoughtful cover letter together you choose to send a casual 140-character tweet, you’re too casual about something I take seriously — my company.)
If we’re going to work together, I want a little courtship. I hope you know something about my work and are serious enough about your approach to put together a serious pitch. The young woman who contacted Ms. Blazek didn’t do that. Here’s Ms. Mekota’s original message:
Notice how she doesn’t express any knowledge about the Job Bank or its author? Notice how the entire message is self-focused and impersonal, with many of the sentences beginning with “I?”
Yes, Ms. Blazek’s nuclear response to a mild infraction was wildly inappropriate, but it should also be pointed out that this was not exactly the best pitch. A more humble approach from Ms. Mekota about forging a relationship with the more experienced pro would have been more effective. (I do, however, give Ms. Mekota enormous credit for her high-ground response to Ms. Blazek.)
Ms. Blazek’s approach is never acceptable. I would never treat someone who wrote to me so disrespectfully. But I do understand her frustration.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
You’re in middle of a presentation when someone asks a question about a topic you planned to cover later in your talk. You’re faced with a choice: You can answer the question—which may throw off the sequence of your presentation—or you can tell the questioner you plan on covering that material later.
What’s the right thing to do in those moments? In a recent article for Inc.com, author Jeff Haden wrote this:
“If you happen to stumble on an audience eager to learn and interact, grab that chance and enjoy it. If someone has a question you will address in a later slide just skip to it right away. If someone is brave enough to raise their hand and ask you a question, compliment them and invite the rest of the audience to do the same. Never delay anything.”
Although Mr. Haden’s advice is right some of the time, I disagree with his absolutist stance. Context matters. Below, you’ll find six options to consider when faced with this circumstance.
1. Set the rules before you begin
There are five times you can take questions from your audience; tell your audience which one you’ve chosen during your opening remarks. Generally, I take questions throughout my presentations—particularly in smaller sessions in which audience participation is beneficial—but there are exceptions, such as when I speak to larger crowds.
2. Make them wait
Like Mr. Haden, my instinct is generally to try to answer the question in the moment. But there are times that’s not the case. As an example, if someone interrupts a powerful story with an irrelevant question, it could undermine the entire impact of the anecdote. It’s okay to defer those questions to later in your presentation.
3. Answer the question now
When it’s not disruptive to do so, answer the audience member’s question in the moment. As Mr. Haden suggested, doing so encourages the type of audience behavior you usually want—engagement and participation. Taking questions in the moment is also of value to you as a speaker, since it offers you immediate feedback about what your audience may or may not understand or be interested in.
4. Short answer now, long answer later
I like this hybrid approach, because it both honors the questioner and allows you to cover the material in the most persuasive sequence possible. In this case, you might answer a question by saying, “The short answer is yes, although there are a few situations in which that’s not the case. I’ll go into detail on those three situations shortly.” When you do cover that material later, check back in with the questioner to make sure you’ve sufficiently addressed their concerns. This type of hybrid response also prevents you from having to utter the rather graceless, “Well, I was going to cover that later, but I guess I’ll just answer that now.”
5. Determine the question’s relevance
Before deciding to make the questioner wait for an answer, quickly assess how relevant their question is. If it’s a question many other people in the audience are likely to have, you might consider answering it before moving on. If it’s of more limited appeal, it’s less of a risk to come back to the topic later.
6. Consider the type of presentation—and your audience
If your presentation is designed to inform or educate, I’d almost always answer the question in the moment. But that might not be the case if you’re making a persuasive argument and it would be counterproductive to reveal your conclusion before you’ve given the audience the context they need to understand your final recommendation. Answer questions that help clarify your content, but resist the urge to jump ahead to your conclusion before you’ve sufficiently laid the groundwork.
Of course, that might be harder to pull off if the questioner is your company’s CEO or a prospective customer. In those cases, it’s probably best to answer their questions on their time frame, not yours.
Last week, I asked whether it is ever a smart media relations strategy to wait to return a reporter’s call until just before the deadline. By doing so in specific circumstances, I wrote, you might be able to minimize your role in the story while preventing the reporter from writing that you refused to comment.
You had a lot to say on this topic—thank you for all of your thoughtful comments!—and as I suspected, you had a wide range of opinions. Below are some highlights; you can also read the complete comments in the comment section of this post.
Many of you said that waiting until just before the deadline was bad form, as expressed in the following tweets:
Reader Adam Myrick agrees that waiting is bad form:
”I’ve always gone with a customer service-flavored model of media relations. I look at the reporters and editors I work with as customers. I strive to provide them with a level of access and information that is befitting of a customer receiving any other service. Providing them with information right before ‘closing time’ strikes me as bad customer service.”
Stu Opperman, APR takes a similar take:
“In my experience, reporters will often claim a deadline time that is often earlier than the actual deadline. This happens for a variety of reasons, one of which is to thwart the ’4:58 crowd’ from working the system. Since you never really know if the deadline stated is the true deadline, it has always been my recommendation to position the appropriate message(s) as you feel is best, regardless of timing. If your goal is to keep your client’s connection to the story to a minimum, keep your comments short and to the point and don’t have further conversation/correspondence about the situation.”
But other readers disagreed, arguing that waiting until just before a reporter’s deadline has its benefits. Bill Zucker writes:
“There is at least one situation in which there is little advantage in answering early. If, because of legal complications or the facts in the story, your company will not be in a position to go beyond a short statement — then there is little reason to answer early. Giving time for follow up doesn’t help you.”
But Bill smartly points out that:
“Deadlines are not what they used to be…waiting until deadline hoping to avoid a follow up question will not generally be effective for stories that are posted and updated online.”
“I would agree with Bill that you only do it when there’s not much you can say, and would add that you only do it with a reporter you know or suspect to be hostile.”
But he shares this anecdote about a time when that strategy backfired:
“When I first started doing PR at a college, I didn’t have the information to provide a news director who called about a controversy. I pledged to get back to her when I had somebody for her to talk to, but rather than wait she sent a reporter out to talk to anybody she could find…it could…have spun out of control at that point.”
John Barnett sees both sides:
”There is a risk of being left out anyway after waiting so long, or the reporter decides you are hiding something, feels played and then adjusts his or her story toward that angle…So I call it a risk — but argue that risks are strategies.”
And he also points out that reporters use a similar tactic in reverse:
“I would also suggest it works both ways, since reporters working a juicy gotcha story can wait until the last minute to call you for a quote or information in order to put you off-message and limit your options for a reply that meets their deadline.”
Finally, one reader who requested anonymity shared an interesting story about his company’s crisis communications regarding the new healthcare marketplace:
“I handle PR [for] a large health insurer, and with the marketplace enrollment issues everyone is having, local TV stations have been finding members who need coverage and using their stories as a way to attack insurance companies…
A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by a member of the local TV media — a reporter who has a history of going aggressively against us whenever possible…
First off, we solved the member’s issue, but as we all know, that was just to crack to door open for the reporter, she was filing the story regardless of the members’ outcome.
I had no intention of putting our executive on air…I had previously witnessed how other local TV stations cut and sliced a seemingly innocent interview with this executive and turned it negative…So I put together a statement from the company, but made it appear as if it was crafted specifically and only for this one reporter, and sent it to her an hour before her deadline.
I did not take her follow up calls, as she also had a tendency to use phone conversations with the PR staff as official comments from the company, and I did not want our off-hand comments to defuse the message of the statement…
The story ran, and not only did she show the statement on air (on our letterhead with logo), she actually read part of the statement in her story…To me, this was a win.”
Thank you for your great comments! If you would like to add any additional thoughts, please use the comments section below.
This is an excerpt from my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
If you’ve ever been deposed in a legal case, your attorney probably instructed you to answer questions using the fewest number of words possible. In a legal setting, saying too much can come back to haunt you. So when you’re asked if you know what time it is during a deposition, the correct answer isn’t “half past one,” but “yes.”
No wonder attorneys often make the worst media guests. They end their answers abruptly, leaving the audience to wonder why their answers sound so artificially clipped and carefully parsed.
The attorneys who bring their best legal advice to media interviews—“Say only what you have to say, then stop”—are missing one critical ingredient. Unlike legal depositions, media interviews represent an opportunity to advocate more fully for your product or idea.
The proper advice is this: “Say what you have to say, briefly advocate for your product or idea, and then stop.” You can advocate using a combination of your messages, message supports, and/or a call to action.
As you read earlier, the average quote from media spokespersons on evening newscasts is just 7.3 seconds, an average of 18 words. But that doesn’t mean you need to answer every question in 7.3 seconds. Sure, it’s helpful if your answers are short and tight. But it’s even more important to ensure that each of your sentences expresses a complete thought and can stand on its own. That way, it doesn’t matter which sentence a reporter chooses—if everything you say reflects one of your main messages, a message support, or a call to action, then anything the reporter prints will be “on message.”
For example, you may remember this answer from a few lessons ago:
“I would remind people that more than 18,000 women of childbearing age in Pennsylvania live at least 100 miles from the closest obstetrician, which places them at great risk. Having your doctor an hour away is like keeping your Band- Aids at a friend’s house—they’re useless when you need them most. It’s a life-threatening situation, and something has to change.”
That answer contains three sentences, but it doesn’t matter which of them the reporter chooses to quote. Any of the three would serve as an on-message response.
That doesn’t mean you have license to drone on. Aim to keep your answers to no more than about 30 seconds in length. But you’re allowed to give a more complete answer than you would be advised to deliver at trial.
Case Study: Bill Clinton Goes on Johnny Carson
Before he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton was best known for his 1988 nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention, which droned on for an hour.
Viewers who saw the speech all those years ago probably don’t remember a word he said, but they likely remember the television cutaways showing delegates of his own party nodding off. And they probably remember the restless crowd cheering when he finally uttered the words, “And in conclusion.”
A few nights later, Mr. Clinton appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson’s first question? “So, Governor, how are you?” Without pausing, Carson reached under his desk, pulled out an hourglass, and turned it upside down.
The audience roared.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, please check out my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.
You may recognize the title of this post as a famous quote from Mark Twain. But I had never heard that quote when, in 1998, I was tasked with running the intern program for ABC News’ Nightline.
We received hundreds of applications for that year’s coveted summer internship, for which we only had four open slots. I culled the hundreds of applications down to about 20, and then conducted phone interviews with each of the finalists.
Sixteen years later, I still remember one of the phone interviews. The applicant had been performing well enough—but then I asked him a question he clearly hadn’t anticipated. He asked if he could take a few moments before answering the question. The phone then went dead. Not for three, or five, or ten seconds, but for close to fifteen.
He then answered the question. It was a good answer, but that wasn’t what impressed me. Rather, it was his confidence in pausing and thinking before rushing into an answer. Anyone with that much confidence and poise deserved a shot, I thought.
He got the job.
His approach to answering that question stood out precisely because it was unusual. But it shouldn’t be. All of us should be able to stop and think for a moment before rushing into an answer—and as my experience with this intern demonstrated, that pause can enhance an audience’s view of you.
That sounds deceptively simple. In my experience, even when I coach a presentation training client immediately before their practice Q&A session to pause before answering a question, they forget the moment it begins.
That’s understandable, because answering questions without a pause in everyday communication is reflexive, even normal. So for presentations, you have to work actively to subdue that reflex (you can also pause when answering questions in some non-live media interview settings).
The pause has many benefits for you as a speaker: It buys you time to form a better answer, it allows you to deliver that answer with greater confidence, and it often eliminates your verbal filler. It also gives your audience a moment to think, to engage with your content in their own terms.
A pause can also make you appear more thoughtful to an audience, but only if you do it the right way. Pauses can look either purposeful—and therefore be perceived as effective—or as a sign that you’re slow of thought, which is obviously a problem. The key is to be deliberate. Either say something similar to my former intern (“I’d like a moment to think about that”) or communicate the same message through your body language.
The best part of this advice? You can begin practicing this immediately, the next time someone asks you a question.
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A crisis strikes your company. News helicopters are flying overhead, reporters with camera crews are showing up at your headquarters, and journalists from all over the world begin calling your communications department.
That scenario might seem dramatic—and admittedly, most corporate crises aren’t quite that sensational—but it happens. When a plane crashes, a factory has a major explosion, or a university has a school shooting, all of those things happen, and more.
It’s common for executives to deliver a press conference in those situations—and how well they come across during their early press conferences and media interviews is critical to establishing a strong public perception.
The 5C’s of crisis communications detail the five critical traits all executives and spokespersons must convey during their press conferences and interviews.
Early in a crisis—before the facts are known and when company officials are as blindsided as everyone else by the news—it’s easy for an executive to appear flustered, unsure, and tentative. As an example, watch this example of the flustered chairman of a rail company responding to a derailment that killed more than 40 people in Quebec.
The public can’t see how well you perform handling the details of the crisis itself. They can’t watch you delegate roles, see your private meetings, or hear your phone calls. So fairly or not, they will judge your competence based on how well you perform during your time in the media spotlight. Handle a tough press conference with dexterity? You’re deemed competent. Look uneasy before cameras? You’re not.
There’s one question that drives the public’s perception of an executive or spokesperson more than any other: “Does he or she get it?” Anything that undercuts an executive’s credibility threatens their public image for the rest of the crisis, and possibly forever. In some cases, the best way to gain credibility is to concede, rather than defend, an obvious point.
When BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward declared during the worst oil spill in U.S. history that “the amount of volume of oil…we are putting into [the Gulf of Mexico] is tiny in relation to the total water volume,” the public concluded that he didn’t get it. He should have conceded that it was an environmental disaster and stopped there.
To set the right tone, executives and spokespersons generally need to express (in words or actions) a deep commitment to communicating with any affected stakeholders, the media, and the general public. Doing so ensures that reporters use you as the primary source and helps communicate your commitment to solving the problem (or at least mitigating its effects).
When Carnival Cruises had a PR challenge in February 2013 after an on board fire knocked out water and power, the company’s CEO got credit for showing up when the ship docked and going on board to apologize to passengers personally. But the company’s commitment to communicating to the passengers themselves was less effective; many complained that the crew didn’t keep them fully informed about the situation.
Little makes the public turn on an executive or public figure in crisis more than someone who’s cavalier toward any victims. As an example, when Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, he took the opportunity to “jokingly” label a former teammate’s wife—who Armstrong had falsely called a liar for years—a “crazy bitch.”
Few executives label victims that way, but they might communicate their indifference through self-focus. If an executive talks about the way he or she has suffered more than the way the actual victims suffered (see Tony Hayward’s “I’d like my life back,”) they will be held in low regard or become outright pariahs.
Finally, the public must perceive that the executive is capable of solving the problem. BP’s Tony Hayward failed that test. So did Susan G. Komen Foundation CEO Nancy Brinker. So did Paula Deen. So did Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.
But Jet Blue’s David Neeleman got it exactly right. When Jet Blue faced a media crisis after canceling hundreds of flights and leaving passengers stuck on grounded planes without food or water for many hours in 2007, CEO David Neeleman responded by releasing a “Passenger Bill of Rights.” That Bill of Rights offered passengers increasing levels of compensation based on the length of their flight delays.
This interview from The Today Show demonstrated his competence, credibility, commitment, caring, and capability.
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In 2003, I traveled to Guatemala with a group of professional communicators from all over the world. We spent one particularly memorable day exploring the Mayan ruins in Tikal, climbing its tall structures and trekking through the forest. It was a magical experience.
But for some reason, the moment I remember best about that trip has nothing to do with the historical site. It has to do with a DJ.
On the last night of our trip, the conference organizers hired a disc jockey. I watched as the DJ struggled to find music that could fill the dance floor. The DJ was aware that we were an international crowd—but everything he played ended up segregating the audience.
If he played a Brazilian tune, the Brazilians would dance. If he played an American pop hit, the Americans and Europeans would dance. If he played something with an African rhythm, the Africans would dance. (Yes, a few people tried dancing to unfamiliar music, but they were the exceptions.)
Then something remarkable happened. The DJ played the first few notes of “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley—and the dance floor filled up almost immediately. The Americans joined the Chileans, the Ghanaians joined the Filipinos.
The DJ, quite accidentally, had stumbled upon the universal language of music. Bob Marley was the one artist that, for whatever reason, united a diverse group of people from more than 15 countries. (The DJ was no dummy; he played several more Marley hits in a row.)
That made me think: What is the Bob Marley of public speaking? What is the universal language that unites audiences?
In their great book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath offer this answer:
“Find a ‘universal language,’ one that everyone speaks fluently. Inevitably, that universal language will be concrete.”
The Heaths point out that while experts will understand abstractions, non-experts will not. Concrete language, full of vivid detail, reaches both audiences. It unites experts and non-experts alike. In his book Lend Me Your Ears, author Max Atkinson offers similar advice:
“More difficult is to know how to approach it if the audience is made up of a mixture of specialists and non-specialists. The safest solution is to pitch it towards the non-specialists, as the specialists in the audience will…be aware of the different levels of expertise among those present.”
Practically speaking, what does that mean? It means anecdotes. Case studies. Stories. It means culling more abstract points out of your presentation—or supplementing them with broadly understandable examples.
Here’s an example.
Instead of saying this: “This bill got bottled up in committee.”
Say this: “The committee has 14 members. Only five of them support us. But there’s good news: that’s one more person than last year. I asked the member who changed his mind why he changed his mind, and he told me that he was deeply affected by the testimony he heard from a local resident named Trudy Hall. Last year, Trudy was diagnosed with… [insert anecdote].”
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