January 7, 2014
by Andy Saks
Film director Michael Bay is known for making us experience our worst fears on the big screen. Recently, Bay experienced our real worst fear himself at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: an epic public speaking fail.
Bay succumbed to stage fright during a keynote presentation for Samsung’s new 105-inch curved UHD television. A few seconds into his speech, his teleprompter (or “autocue” as the Brits call it) failed, leaving him without a script, panicked and helpless in front of a giant audience of attendees and press at the world’s biggest electronics show.
Bay experienced a common sequence of reactions in the moment that you’ll find familiar:
1. SURPRISE: This is the initial few seconds after the glitch occurs, when your brain first comprehends that a critical tool has failed you and considers the implications. Usually involves a frozen body, bulging eyes and mouth hanging agape as your words trail into stuttering, then silence. Bay demonstrates by saying “What I try to do, as a director, I try to…”
2. PANIC: Following your first instinct, you announce the problem, hoping someone nearby will hear you, understand your plight, and be able to fix it (this almost never happens). In Bay’s case, after several seconds of silence, a few deep breaths, and one 360-degree twirl, he tries to say “Excuse me, my teleprompter has failed” but instead says, “The type is all off.”`
3. ACCEPTANCE: In this stage, you recognize that help isn’t coming and the problem isn’t leaving, so you try to work around it. For Bay, that means soldiering on sans script, informing his audience, “Sorry, but I’ll just wing this…” and continuing with his previous point, “I try to take people on an emotional ride…”
4. RETREAT: Here, you realize you can’t wing it, the words just aren’t coming. Seeing no viable options on stage, you walk (or sprint) offstage. In Bay’s case, he responds to a question from the Samsung executive also on stage with “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” then swivels on his heels, and exits stage right (where I hope he found a paper bag and fainting couch).
My heart goes out to Bay. He experienced everyone’s worst speaking nightmare on a giant stage. The pressure is enormous, with no time to think. Bay tried to fix it, tried to work without it, then gave up on it. We might just do the same.
In his blog post afterward, Bay explained the cause of the mishap: in his eagerness to speak, he skipped a Samsung executive’s line, and the teleprompter got lost. (Teleprompter operators adjust the direction and speed of the feed on the monitor in real time based on the speaker’s delivery. If a script is finalized at the last minute without time for review or rehearsal, as I suspect this one was, then delivered out of order, it’s hard for the operator to find the right spot in the script, or guess which line the speaker(s) might want next.)
Bay concluded his blog post with resignation: “I guess live shows aren’t my thing.” Filmmaker Zak Bagans came to his defense, tweeting, “Some of the most talented and creative people in the world suffer from anxiety and stage-fright.”
Right you are, Zak. In fact, nearly every human on the planet suffers from some level of stage fright. There’s a reason public speaking is commonly ranked in surveys as America’s number one fear, beating out flying, water, and all kinds of threats that could actually kill you.
In a nutshell, standing before an audience creates three conditions humans have evolved since caveman days to fear. When you speak, you are 1) separated from the group, 2) the object of focus in the situation (everyone involved is paying attention to you), and 3) facing massive potential harm should things go wrong.
When those three conditions exist–or when you even think about them existing–your brain assumes you’re in a life-threatening situation like a bear attack, and automatically triggers your fight-or-flight response. All of your physical symptoms, from pounding heart to sweaty palms, are your body trying to prime itself to fight hard and/or run fast and survive.
Unfortunately, the parts of your brain responsible for higher functioning–analysis, reasoning, planning, memory–all shut down, so you won’t waste precious seconds thinking instead of acting. Just when you need it most, your mind abandons you.
While understandable, Bay’s reaction is obviously not optimal. Whenever you speak in front of an audience, you are, for the duration, the leader of the group. Your audience takes its cues on how to react to the unexpected from you. When you panic, they panic.
Audiences also tend to judge speakers based not on the initial problem (like a teleprompter malfunction) but on the speaker’s reaction to the problem. By this standard, Bay could hardly have done worse by exiting the stage, abandoning his audience and his fellow speaker completely.
So what should Bay have done? What could you do should something go horribly awry at your next sales presentation, wedding toast, or CES keynote?
Here are a few useful tips to try:
1. BREATHE: Take a few deliberate, slow, deep breaths. It’s the quickest, most direct way to counteract the physical symptoms of fight-or-flight, clear your head, and buy yourself time to think. Don’t worry; your audience will wait. (In fact, you’ll finally have their undivided attention!)
2. SMILE: Yes, really. Smiling is the fastest, easiest way to change your mood in any situation. It reassures both you and your audience that you’re OK and that the world will keep spinning no matter what happens.
3. ASK FOR ASSISTANCE: If you need help with a speaking tool, calmly gesture toward the crew table and give simple, explicit instructions. “Excuse me, could you restore the teleprompter feed and back up one paragraph?” might cause a momentary wince from the crowd, but at least the video won’t make it to CNN.com.
4. HAVE A BACKUP HANDY: When I give a corporate presentation for a client, I keep a paper copy of the script in my pocket, just in case. Reading a script verbatim off paper or referring to notes isn’t optimal, but it beats complete capitulation.
5. USE AN EARPROMPTER: Bay’s situation perfectly illustrates one of the benefits of this tool, a souped-up tape recorder system that lets you record your own script and cues in advance, then feed the audio into a hidden earpiece while you speak, so you say the words as you hear them. No memorization, no notes, no teleprompter, and no panic when you get off track: just rewind and start again.
6. REMEMBER WHO IT’S ABOUT: In my presentation skills training programs, I tell my trainees that the speaker is the least important person in the room. Speakers already know the content. Who’s the most important? Every member of the audience, who showed up to be educated, entertained and inspired. Focus on serving them amidst your chaos and you’ll find your way.
7. EMBRACE THE OPPORTUNITY: You didn’t like your script anyway, did you? Here’s your chance! Ditch it and speak from your heart. Just take a deep breath and share. Fumble a bit. Stutter. It’s OK. Your audience knows it’s the authentic, unvarnished you. They’ll be patient, and they’ll love you forever for having the courage to stop performing and start connecting.
And a quick note to Michael: I hope you’ll try public speaking again. I bet it IS your thing. Like anything else worth doing, it just takes a little courage, a little practice, and a little preparation in case things go wrong. And when it goes well, you’ll make magic–the kind you usually find in movies.
ABOUT SPARK PRESENTATIONS
Spark Presentations is a private company founded in 1998 that provides presentation skills training and speech coaching for executives, salespeople, marketers and other businesspeople, plus booth staff training for trade show exhibitors.
Spark also books professional presenters and public speakers to represent its clients at high-profile events, in roles like keynote speaker, trade show booth presenter, master of ceremonies (emcee) and auctioneer, as well as on camera talent and voice talent.
Spark’s client list includes large corporations like AT&T, Best Buy, FedEx, Hyundai, Intel, Kimberly-Clark, Olympus, Owens-Corning, Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, and Volvo; high-tech industry players like AMD, Atrion, Citrix, Gigamon, and Symantec; service organizations like Vistage, 1nService and NERCOMP; and New England institutions like the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Spark’s owner, Andy Saks, is also the author of The Presentation Playbook Series: Be a Most Valuable Presenter (MVP), a three-volume series of books that help businesspeople master common presentation situations by building and running speaking “plays” like a coach or player calls a key play in a game.