It all started out so well. She was firing on all cylinders; strong voice, good eye contact, inspired writing with a personal touch, a couple of good self-deprecating jokes. However, Theresa May, giving a conference speech aimed at revitalizing her standing after a disastrous few months, found herself seriously derailed when a heckler handed her a “P45” form which is the British equivalent of a “pink slip”. What went wrong?
My feeling is she didn’t handle this guy quickly and firmly enough. Let’s see some fire, Theresa! This heckler is making a mockery of you in public, and stealing a crucial moment from you (not to mention creating a major security risk). Maybe say something like, “you may think the problems of income inequality, affordable housing, and the sinking pound are laughable, but I assure you I do not. Get off my stage, young man.” Instead, Prime Minister May takes the P45 when it is handed to her, as if she is obligated to do so, and tries to continue as if nothing has happened. After a moment or two, she makes a nice joke, and hits back a bit, but not before her momentum is lost.
What do you think is the best way to handle a heckler?
Check out Geoffrey Canada’s wonderful speech about our failing school systems. It would be easy for this speech to get negative, but Mr. Canada cuts the material with jokes, analogies, wit, and startling statistics, and keeps things moving. But what is most important about his speech is his passionate connection to the material. Do you feel connected to your presentation material? If not, try out these tips:
1) Re-write – Don’t sit on a bad speech and do nothing. There are many speaking maladies that can be cured, but a deep emotional disconnect with your material is not one of them. Change the topic and tinker with the premise until you feel connected again.
2) Have a brainstorming session – take out a notepad, not your computer, not your Power Point, just a notepad, and write stream of consciousness. Draw slides if you like. Get your ideas out, any ideas, and start to play again. Engage your creativity; add color to your slides, quotes into the speech, a jarring attention getter, etc.
3) Call in a coach– if all of the above doesn’t help, consider asking for professional help. A coach can help you re-connect with your material, or adjust your topic, so that your speech conveys passion and conviction. A coach can also help you command attention with your non-verbal communication, and project your voice with authority.
Clients often say to me “I understand how to relax my nerves before a speech, but what do I do when I feel nervous while I’m speaking?” This is a tricky problem, but solvable. Check out Chimamanda Adichie’s TED speech above. Ms. Adichie has a wonderfully crafted speech, there is a clear intention to it, and she states that intention early: “I am here to talk about the danger of a single story.” The speech is filled with wonderful stories that all work effectively to prove Ms. Adichie’s central premise.
But she’s tense at the top. Her breathing is a little labored, and her voice quivers a bit. Does it matter? Not terribly. Why? Because she handles it well. She stops when she needs to, takes a break when she needs to, slows herself down, and breathes. Great speakers own their speeches not by powering through tension, but by yielding to relaxation. Speaking is a letting go, a releasing of thoughts, of feelings, of ideas. Tension is simply the opposite of that; it happens when a speaker is trying to make a moment into something other than what it really is. Made a mistake? Don’t worry. Laugh, sip some water, breath. Start again. Feel your hands shaking? STOP. Breathe. Start again. Lost your place? Ditto.
Statistically speaking, our number one fear, NUMBER ONE, is speaking in public. What does that mean? As Jerry Seinfeld once observed, most of the people attending a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. It’s natural to feel nervous while speaking in public, the question is, what do you do about it? Stop speaking, embrace the silence, breathe, begin again.