The Worst Public Speaking Disasters
June 22, 2009
[Update: there’s now a follow up presentation, with summary, on Overcoming the Toughest Speaking Situations , slides and Q&A here]
Back in 2009 while working on Confessions of A Public Speaker, I wrote this post asking for speaking disaster stories. Nearly 60 people replied, and some emailed them to me privately. The best ten, including some from famous people, appeared in the book. Until recently this post was buried on another blog, but I’ve reposted it here.
If you have a good story to share, please leave a comment.
To get things started, I’m a veteran speaker and here are some of my own public speaking disasters:
- I suck at math (The Hague, Netherlands, @CHI 2000). At the CHI conference I and some friends ran a live design competition called Interactionary. 4 teams of designers (from IBM, Razorfish, Sapient and U of Malmö) competed live on stage in front of a crowd of 800 people and were scored by famous judges in real time. At the end we announced the winners and took questions. Someone yelled out that our scores were wrong, which prompted the audience to start yelling and booing us – things got out of control and I had to end the session early. They were right – we announced the correct scores later that day.
- Audience teaches me a lesson in front of 400 people ( San Francisco, 2007, @Etech). I made the mistake of claiming that the word architect is derived from the word arch, as in the people who make arches. Not sure where I read it (I did read it somewhere), but it turns out to be bogus. As soon as I finished my talk, Tom Coates stood up gleefully and called me on it as the first question. Blam. That sucked. (We joked about it later over drinks – he apologized, even though he was right).
- “Lets start 20 minutes late with gear that doesn’t work” (San Francisco 2008, @Adobe Software). On book tour in SF, I spoke at an Adobe office with the worst tech guy I’ve ever met. I arrived 30 minutes early, but 20 minutes after I was supposed to start they were still sorting out their sound system, with various shrugs at my questions on why their system sucked so much. I spoke with a 2 second echo delay in my headset (required so 5 people could listen in remotely) the entire time, to an audience of maybe 15 people that blamed me for starting so late.
- I piss off a hostile and drunk audience (Cambridge 2008, @Ignite). This first Boston Ignite was at a bar worth studying for the worst place to do public speaking (Tommy Doyle’s). The small stage is dwarfed by the much larger bar area, meaning as the speaker I could hear the roar of the bar much better than myself or the audience. And since the crowd had been drinking for 2 hours before I arrived, an inevitable heckler yelled out, with an esoteric complaint about my mention of Crick & Watson without mentioning Rosalind. I made a joke about having discovered the feminist section of the audience, and it all went downhill from there. Mike and Marlowe, the organizers (and my friends!) asked me to speak again to close the night, despite my protests based on how much I’d drunk to get over the opening session, I eventually said yes. I believe I rambled something about Michelangelo and creativity but it’d be best to ask someone who was there. Actually spare me more embarrassment and don’t ask.
- The problems of being uni-lingual (Kiev, Ukraine 2008). Being translated is cool if it’s done simultaneously like at the U.N. But silly me, I didn’t think to ask. And in Ukraine I was surprised to learn they were doing live translation, but with the translator on stage. On the fly I had to divide my material in half, as it takes twice as long to do anything if you have to wait for every word you say to be translated. Most exhausting full day seminar ever.
- “Please ignore the 120 decibel fire alarm” (Port of Spain, Trinidad). Halfway through my talk the fire alarm goes off. I can see the hotel staff and firemen running in a panic in the hallway behind the audience, but they can’t see it. Do I tell them what I see? Or play it cool and ignore the fact and try to speak over the alarm? I did the later. Talk about a distracted audience – at least no one slept through my talk.
If you take a minute to share a story, you can win: Best story wins $100 gift amazon.com gift certificate Two runner ups get gets $50 each Any story can win inclusion in the book (you’ll get an acknowledgment & a free copy) Instant therapy – you’ll feel better after you share, I swear! I do!
Comments are still open if you have a good story to share.