I had three minutes, which was perhaps part of the problem. A professor barely clears his throat in three minutes. This was to be the first in a chain reaction of miscues that doomed me from the start.
It’s happened to all of us. You prepare. You plan. You strategize and try to imagine clearly how the speaking event will work. And then the moment comes, and sometimes the best-laid plans disintegrate like a sandcastle at high tide.
Bombing is rarely more painful than when it involves a presentation in front of a few hundred people. Believe me, its even worse if you introduce yourself as a professor of communication just before making a complete hash of communicating. As for a recent foul-up, after leaving the podium I thought I could almost hear someone whisper, “You know what they say, ‘If you can’t do it, maybe you can teach it.’”
In actual fact, making a presentation is a significant stressor. It’s one of the moments where our fluency is linked to the full presentation of our physical selves. It’s one thing to misspeak in a note or an e-mail. It’s another to be drag your entire person to the scene of the accident so that there can be no doubt who the fool was.
I collect these moments and we study them. It seemed ok to laugh when Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle screwed up the slogan of the United Negro College Fund. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is what the Fund said in its messages. Quayle morphed this memorable idea into a head-scratching “It’s a terrible thing to lose one’s mind.” But it’s clearly not ok when the botch is your own.
The occasion for my verbal meltdown was in brief testimony at a hearing in front of an important regional commission. My job was simply to add my voice and a few well-chosen words urging the panel to use its good offices to prevent an energy company from inflicting an environmental scar on a much-loved creek. I had three minutes, which was perhaps part of the problem. A professor barely clears his throat in three minutes. This was to be the first in a chain reaction of miscues that doomed me from the start.
I stammered. I couldn’t easily read my notes. The microphone drooped. I had a poster-sized photo of the creek and no place to put it. And, to trigger this collapsing house of cards, I didn’t hear the Chair call me for my remarks. If the NTSB were reconstructing this train wreck, this is what they’d note:
- The speaker placed himself in the back, and way too far from the podium, requiring him to run down the aisle and cross in front of the group while apologizing for not first hearing his name. In my defense, applause from the audience had just drowned the Chair’s call for the next speaker. The group was still expressing its appreciation for the 14 year-old who just delivered a pitch-perfect little sermon on environmental stewardship. Never be the next act after a kid.
- Out of breath, I suddenly realized that while I had my notes, I could not read them. Both hands were occupied: one holding the large photo, and the other, my written remarks. So my reading glasses remained unhelpful in my pocket, and the time-clock was ticking down.
- I decided to wing it. This is never a good idea, somewhat akin to a commercial pilot deciding instruments are not needed because he’s sure he will know the right airport when he sees it. While you don’t simply want to read notes to an audience, they are prepared for a reason. They help you remember. They represent a considered effort to introduce ideas in the right sequence.
- I tried to recall the names of some important figures that helped explain the significance of my argument. But in the rush of early disorganization I couldn’t find them on the page, finally mutating the two people by mis-matching their first and last names.
- And then I suddenly experienced the rush of anguish that happens when you know you’ve messed up. My voice faltered; I knew I had already missed my chance. There was little to do before rummaging for a final thought before slinking away.
It was all over in perhaps four minutes, and probably the worst presentation I’d given in my adult life (though my students might offer some other contenders for the prize). It ruined the rest of my day.
The ballasts of age and time help remind us of better outcomes. I lecture to full and mostly appreciative classes at least 100 days a year. I write all the time. I know I can be fluent. And I’ll cherish whatever successes I can reclaim in the future. It’s harder when there are fewer opportunities to try again. Then, the wound of a bad outing heals more slowly. But take heart in the knowledge that we all bomb, and the next time will surely be better.