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The Things We Carry: Getting Over a Bad Speech

During yesterday’s long shoveling ritual, I moved the heavy, sleet-drenched snow deposited in our driveway by the city plows and got to thinking about the weight of the snow I was carrying (and about the energy required to lift it over the now five-foot high snow walls that line our drive and walkways.) Each shovelful was (I guess) a good ten pounds. It was heavy and wet and nasty. The storms of January have ranged from exhilarating fun, to yesterday’s “you have got to be kidding me” misery. I have carried a lot of snow this month.

As I followed this reflective snow daze, I thought about the things we carry as speakers…the heavy memories of presentations gone awry in our personal and professional lives. In our speaker workshops we often lead discussions about those, “worst-ever” presentation stories. Everyone has one. Many go back to early teen days. They all are vividly recalled and easily refreshed. I usually share my New Orleans 1986 “disaster” which took place in a packed Tulane University auditorium. I wanted to impress both my new colleague at Fidelity and the hard-won administrators from Tulane. Needless to say, there were no blue skies for me that morning. I was disappointed, embarrassed, vulnerable. It’s a bitter taste.

I have never met a person who does not have a variation of this story. It is part of the human communication condition and explains why there is a public speaking coaching industry. And while it’s one thing to have a sense memory about a bad speech, it’s another thing to let it develop into avoidance or a final judgment of your true speaking skill. Here are three things to do to get over a bad speech:

1. Get Real: Don’t brush it off or make it more (or less) than it was. Understand what went wrong from the inside out. Make notes to yourself – ideally in a journal – about how you will revise and improve on these things the next time. In my case, I was so focused on the opinions of the wrong people that I totally forgot about my audience.
2. Say It Out Loud: There is no benefit to letting your disappointment linger, nor hiding in shame. Find someone who you respect to share your story with. They will offer you good feedback and support. At Tulane, I swallowed my shame and let is fester. Now, I use it as a story that connects me to other speakers.
3. Find Another Speaking Opportunity ASAP: The sooner you get back in the saddle the better. In some cases, that may be leading a staff meeting, or presenting a project update to colleagues, but anything is better than nothing. It’s not so much who is in your audience than it is about honing your skills and feeling (yes, feeling in your body) the improvement you are capable of making in a short time.

Wet, heavy snow is one thing. Other than aching arms, the day passes. Bad presentations gone awry are another, you need to proactively put your experience in perspective, learn and move on.

-Charlotte Dietz

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