The more times you get up to speak, the better you will be at identifying what’s going on. You’ll get a feel for the audience, for the pacing, for the craft and for how well it’s going – but this develops over time. The first few times you’re speaking, you won’t be able to concentrate on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it at the same time. This is why it’s so important to record your efforts or (at least), have someone on hand to give you some notes.
When you start out, your experience of how well you’re doing and the audience’s experience of how well you’re doing are often out of alignment. You’ll be too inclined to be hard on yourself when you’re doing well, and blind to mistakes which are obvious to the audience.
The ability to gauge the audience’s perception of your performance, AS you’re doing it, is key to long term success. But there is no shortcut to mastery of this skill.
Watching others speak is also helpful in that you’ll no-doubt be able to identify mistakes they make and wrong turns they take. The challenge will be identifying the same issues when you’re under the lights. It’s easier to see what someone else is doing wrong than it is to see it in yourself.
The second step required to turn an engagement around, is correcting the problem you’ve identified – to change direction.
One key to developing this kind of flexibility is having more material than you need for your engagement. If you have any discretion over the content of what you’re saying, it means physically having something else to resort to.
If you were taking a road trip in a car, you wouldn’t only put enough petrol in the tank to get you exactly to your destination. More likely, you’d fill the tank and carry as much fuel as possible. This affords you more flexibility when dealing with unexpected circumstances. You can sightsee, you can take detours, you can deal with emergencies.
Similarly, when you’re climbing up on stage, you want to have more in your arsenal than you’re planning to use, so you have some redundancy.
Consider the example of fledgling comedians who cut their teeth in the world of open mic stand-up nights. At these events, comedians typically have five minutes of stage time to perform their routine. Many first-time comedians will turn up at an open mic night having written five minutes of material and then consider themselves ready for the stage.
The problem with having only five minutes of jokes for a five minute spot is that they have no flex if things go awry. They are travelling in a car with only enough petrol for a direct, incident-free journey to the destination.
If their first two jokes die because they are too surreal and the third joke is also surreal, then there is no opportunity to change direction. If the comedian before them gets up and tells a joke which is almost identical to their opening joke then they are similarly stuck.
A good rule of thumb for comedians is to have double the amount of material that any given spot requires. For a five minute slot it means having ten minutes of viable jokes. For an hour solo show, it’s another hour of material as a back up. New comedians hate this guideline until it saves their skin in a situation which would have otherwise been an on-stage death.
Switching material is only one way of changing direction – there are actually quite a few tools at your disposal.
New material allows you to change the what of your performance, but it can be just as effective to be aware of the how of your delivery.
Tone, language, volume, speed, posture, gesture and movement can all be adjusted to put a different spin on the content you’re delivering.
Perhaps you’re speaking too quickly or softly, and the audience is getting restless because they can’t understand what you’re saying. In this case, it’s not necessary to throw out your speech, it just means that you have to slow down and speak up. Maybe you’ve only looked at one side of the room and 50% of the audience are still waiting for some eye contact from you.
These mistakes are slightly easier to correct – they don’t involve re-writing reams of material – but they are impossible to address if you haven’t developed the requisite awareness in the first place.
Recovering from a rocky start or building from a low base isn’t easy – but it is possible. Through practice, self-awareness and preparation, you can build a robustness into your speaking. You can develop a set of skills which allows you to stare tricky situations in the face and bring them back from the brink.
You can tame the most challenging aspects of public speaking and at least make it look as effortless as we wish it always was.