Have you ever had one of these experiences while speaking in public?
- You forgot what you wanted to say and froze on stage.
- Your computer crashed and you fumbled your way through the presentation.
- An audience member made a comment that threw you off.
- You were asked a question that you couldn’t answer and became flustered.
I’ve seen these things happen time and again to speakers. And I’ve experienced these things because each of them—and more—has happened to me.
For example, I was once speaking to approximately 80 communication professionals on the topic of how to communicate effectively. As you might imagine, I felt the pressure of speaking on a topic to a room full of experts.
At one point during my talk, I showed a slide of me with some children in Kenya when I was doing some work there. It’s a picture that I love and that brings back strong emotions from my experience. I used it to demonstrate the difference in effect when one use a small picture in the corner of a slide versus having the picture fill the entire slide.
One woman in the audience took exception to the image and let out an audible groan and rolled her eyes. At that moment, it felt like the room had gone dark except for where she was sitting. For a good 10 seconds or so, she was the only person I could see. And it took me several minutes to regain my composure and get back into the groove.
Yes, public speaking can be scary.
I felt bad about that presentation for a few days, but then I had another event at which I had to speak and things went well. It was a good lesson on the importance of putting bad experiences behind you so that you can move forward.
I recently came across a much more profound example of this lesson in the story of Ryan Speedo Green. A star baritone in the world of opera, Green sings around the world in four languages. But how he achieved his goal is even more impressive than his voice.
Born into poverty in Virginia, Green lived in a trailer park and low income housing as a child. He had an abusive mother who frequently beat him. One day, he pulled a knife on her and she called the police. Green was sent to a juvenile detention facility where he spent two terrible months, often in solitary confinement. No one could foresee that that troubled young boy would become the thoughtful man in the video below.
No one, that is, except a few people who helped him turn his life around: his teacher, Elizabeth Hughes; Priscilla Piñeiro-Jenkins, a caseworker in the detention centre; and a Virginian psychiatrist.
In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes, Green was asked what he would say to his 12-year-old self sitting in solitary confinement in that detention centre. He answered,
I would tell him there are trees and sun beyond these walls. … Don’t let this moment define you. I would, in the words of Elizabeth Hughes [say], don’t let this moment define you. This is not the end. This is only a moment in time. And someday it’ll get better. Someday things will get brighter.
Remember Green’s story the next time things go wrong on stage and you feel like you will never give a good speech or presentation again. Things will get better.
Don’t let this moment define you.