The secret to successful public speaking is thorough preparation. A genuinely impromptu speech or presentation is fraught with danger, as is deciding to embellish your talk in the heat of the moment. As I’ve said before on this blog, beware of ad-libbing – unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Circumstances in which you may need to improvise include technical failure, external interruption (such as a pneumatic drill starting up outside your window), heckling and those nasty moments when you sabotage your own performance by tripping over a cable or dropping the microphone. However well prepared we are, we can never fully eliminate the unexpected and if it happens, on a big enough scale, we have to react to it. Falling off the stage and carrying on with your presentation without breaking your syntax is impressive at one level but, at a more important and realistic level, your audience will no longer be listening. Taking a moment to address what has happened gives everyone a chance to process it. There’s no point in going on until people are able to give you their attention again.
Sometimes life appears to be illustrating your talk and in these cases failing to make some comment to that effect is at the very least a wasted opportunity. If your fall off the stage occurs as you’re discussing health and safety, this irony cannot be ignored. At the Pint of Science festival, a speaker’s obliviousness to a similar irony made the difference between making a strong, memorable point and, as it turned out, just being a bit amateur about his public speaking.
The purpose of being really well prepared and rehearsed is precisely so you won’t be oblivious to what’s going on around you. Once you know your material so well that you don’t have to think about finding the right words, you’re free to connect with the audience. Contrary to what many speakers seem to think, public speaking is not about just getting your stuff said, whether anyone is listening or not. It’s about communicating a message. If circumstances are hindering communication, it’s your job as speaker to sort that out. If you find yourself in a parallel process, unexpectedly illustrating your message, calmly and briefly articulating that can turn a distraction to your advantage.