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The hazards of public speaking

When you speak professionally for a living, you get used to shit going wrong.

The AV never works perfectly. You’re told you have an hour, but the previous speaker runs long and you only get 45 minutes.

The mic screeches feedback that makes your ears bleed when you walk to a certain spot in the room. The projector sucks and some of your carefully crafted slides look like a Jackson Pollack painting. One of the bad ones.

The room is too hot. The room is too cold. The audience is dead. You rip a hole in the crotch of your suit when you step directly onto the two-foot-high stage instead of taking the steps like a normal human being (that last one might be specific to me, but still).

Lots of little things always go wrong when you give a speech. And you learn to deal with them. If you’re good, the audience doesn’t even notice. BUT . .  . there are three things that can happen that, if you’re not careful, and can derail the entire speech or presentation.

Here they are . . . along with some advice on how to avoid them.


The “Edith Bunker” syndrome.

 In a perfect world, everything in a meeting or conference runs on time, you have the luxury of setting up your AV and testing it, and can collect yourself before you go on. That happens about 10 percent of the time.

Whether things are running late, the AV doesn’t work, you couldn’t find the room where you are speaking (again, that might just be me, but still), or you are running late because you went to the wrong hotel first (again, maybe just me).

No matter the reason, everything right before you go on is RUSHED. It’s frantic. You’re racing to get ready to go. And then BAM, you’re on. But you’re breathless. You didn’t get a chance to breathe a little and collect yourself.

And now you can’t! Everyone is looking at you! So you launch into your speech or presentation … but your voice ain’t right. It’s higher than normal. You’re trying to take deep breaths while you talk. It sounds a little strained and crackly. It’s not good.

This happened to my wife Cindy last year in Vancouver. She was supposed to get 15 minutes in between sessions to set up her computer and AV.  But somehow the break got collapsed. So she was setting up her computer as the emcee was introducing her. I was in the back of the room, and I could see the “Breathless Beginning” problem about to kick in.

Sure enough, Cindy had to launch into her presentation feeling rushed and frantic and out of breath . . . and for the first ten minutes, she sounded like Edith Bunker. She actually sounded exactly this this:


Tip: Even when you’re rushed, take a moment. Twenty seconds isn’t going to make a difference. Stop. Breathe. Take a long sip of water. Take a couple of deep breaths. Then begin. That way, you won’t sound like Edith after sucking on a helium balloon.


The “Schvitzing like a Hazer,” syndrome.

 My friend Peter gave me this phrase. It’s Yiddish for, I believe, “Sweating Like a Pig.”

Again, this usually happens when you’re rushed at the beginning. But it can also happen if the room is a furnace, which it often is. Or there could be glaring stage lights burning into your skull. Or it could be because you’re a fat pig and out of shape (again, that might just be me, but still).

No matter the reason, just before you go on, or as soon as you go on, you just start streaming sweat. I mean, you’re sweating like a pig at a Hawaiian Luau.

Most people can get away with this, because they have hair. The hair stops the sweat. But when you’re bald, the sweat just streams down your face. Right into your eyes.

This is particularly dangerous for me, as I move around like a spaz when I speak. Once, I was schvitzing so bad, I got blinded by my own sweat and almost knocked over the projector table.

Another time, it got so bad, I had to lean behind the lectern, where I thought people couldn’t see me, and wipe my head with the inside of my suit coat. Only later did I realize that I had left a smear of lint on my sweaty ass bald head.  My head looked it had a bunch of tiny bugs nesting on it.

Tip: Carry a handkerchief or a bandana or at least a wad of paper towels from the bathroom in your pocket. Not toilet paper. Remnants of that can remain on your head (learned that one the hard way). Paper towels. Always paper towels.


The “No Bathroom For You!” syndrome.

 I drink a lot of water when I give speeches and workshops and presentations. I drink a lot before I go on, and also while I speak. So I always make sure to visit the bathroom before I start speaking. And even then, by the end of the speech, I usually have to go to the bathroom real bad.

But like I said, sometimes shit goes wrong at the last minute, and you don’t get that chance to go to the bathroom. And that can be a disaster. Because nothing sucks like trying to be funny and entertaining and motivational and informative when you have to piss like a racehorse.

Once, I drank about six glasses of water while I was waiting to go on stage. I was just about to go to the bathroom when the previous speaker ended 10 minutes early, the son of a bitch. I had to go on NOW.

About ten minutes into the speech, the water showed up in my system. I have a small bladder to begin with, so I suddenly had to go to the bathroom REAL BAD. Twenty minutes in, it was a crisis. And I had 40 more minutes to go.

I had to pee so bad, I was sure my eyes were yellow. At one point, I went and stood behind the lectern, something I rarely do, and stood on one leg to distract myself.

It got to the point where I seriously considered pissing myself, then “accidentally” spilling a glass of water on my pants to cover it up.

Instead, I stood behind the lectern, and for the last ten minutes, I put my left hand in my pocket and just squeezed my junk.

I made it through the speech and, miraculously, the Q&A . . . but then “the swarm” happened.

Any speaker knows you don’t just walk off the stage and go to the bathroom. People swarm to the stage to talk to you. Some just want to say thanks. Some want to talk about working together. This is the most crucial point of the whole exercise, because this is how you get business!!

Not this time. I could barely stand up straight. So when I saw a group of about ten people heading towards me, I barreled through them, said, “I’ll be right back,” and ran out of the room bent over like Quasimodo. I think I might have actually knocked a little woman on her ass.

I did make it . . . but it was close. And who knows how much business I lost that day:

Tip: Time your water intake, just in case. Start drinking water when you start speaking. Don’t chug a bunch of it just before you go on, thinking you’ll be able to go to the bathroom before you start.

Oh . . . and if you do have to race to the bathroom right after the speech, make sure you take your lavalier mic off. I also learned that the hard way. I still haven’t recovered fully from that incident.

6 Responses to “The hazards of public speaking”

  1. Ike

    Steve, let me add one, since you promised Four.


    You have just completed your presentation, and you have left several minutes for questions and discussion. And you are met with dead silence. How can you get a crowd to peep up and speak up and engage?

    I use two questions that I learned from my Kung Fu instuctor. I ask for the first with a show of hands:

    1) Did you have fun?

    2) Name something you learned today that you did not expect to get out of this session. YOU!

    I then pick someone at random out of the audience.

    After they give an answer, I immediately jump to another victim. Then another. By this point, everyone in the audience has begun racking their brains, trying to latch on to something that will make them sound smart. And by getting them to re-hash and call back my best points from the presentation, I get to expound and expand on them.

    As a speaker, this is great feedback, because often your audience takes value from things that you otherwise would not have considered to be that important to them.

    Then, to wrap up, I simply say: “Well, if you had fun, and you learned something, then at the very least I have not wasted your time. Thank you!”

    • Steve Crescenzo

      Excellent tip, Ike!! Yes, you often get the Stone Cold Dead audience at the end of a long conference, where even if they have a question, they just want to leave. So drawing the questions out is important. Once you crack open the audience, the questions usually start flowing. Just don’t do that if you have to go to the bathroom.

  2. Donna Papacosta

    Whew. Never have I been so grateful to possess eyebrows, sparse as they are. All good tips, Steve — especially breathing!

    Now I have to go re-apply my mascara.

  3. Steve Crescenzo

    Thanks, Donna!! Yes, the lack of eyebrows definitely adds to the problem!!!! Thanks for reading. See you in New Orleans at IABC, right!!

  4. Tim Hicks

    I’ve done some of those, not saying which. Also, first solo seminar
    I ever did with paying customers, I brought a projector and also arranged a backup from my hosts. Tested mine, it was fine, so when host, a certain communicator who knows his way around a barbecue, said he needed his projector back, I said “Sure, mine’s working.” You know what happened next.
    Fixed it somehow, only 2 minutes late starting, did whole afternoon with my shirt stuck to my back from flop sweat.

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