When There’s An Elephant In The Room

Ever been in front of a group, making a presentation, giving a speech when your body just isn’t cooperating?  Sure, you can hide something like a headache.  People can’t see it.  However, what happens when those looking at you spy a very visible problem?

You have to deal with that problem so the audience can listen to what you have to say.  Otherwise, it’s an elephant in the room!

Take, for instance, Larry Page, one of the founders and CEO of Google.  He recently countered already circulating comparisons to Steve Jobs’s battle with cancer and concerns about Google’s future by announcing he has a difficult but manageable paralysis of the vocal cords.  By addressing the obvious change in his voice, he put his many audiences at ease and returned the attention to where it should be.

Your best approach is directness and, where possible, humor to defuse an uncomfortable situation. 

  • Say you have a cold sore dangling unattractively from your lip.  Instead of a long explanation and equally apparent attempts to hide it, simply explain the cold sore will be your assistant for the day.
  • What about an extreme hand tremor—not just a small tremor you could attribute to anxiety?  I’m talking about a huge tremor—broad enough for food to fly through the room.  Try pausing, glancing at your hand, and saying “Look who’s getting into the act.”  This could dispel your audiences’ (and your) concerns.
  • Anyone perspire profusely?  Even minor agitation requires bringing out the handkerchief to wipe the perspiration from the face.  An “At least my sense of humor is dry” statement can refocus the audience on your words, rather than on those droplets.

              Note: Dab at your face gently rather than wiping profusely as you might in privacy. 
              This avoids the “yuck” factor for sensitive audience members. 

  • Now to those constant digestive functions.  Ever experienced a severe need to go to the bathroom at an inopportune moment – like right in the middle of your speech?  If you can wait, fine.  However, if you can’t, call for a five-minute bathroom break.  The audience will understand the body and mind are not always in sync.  What else can you do?
  • Is there any reader who has not experienced going blank about a perfectly easy, everyday word or name?  Push the panic button and more words will disappear.  Instead, try something like “That name (word) is downloading in my brain, and I’ll get back to you.”  Then continue on with whatever you wanted to say.

Bottom line, we’re all human.  These incidents, which happen to everyone, do not have to spell disaster.  This also applies to those potential catastrophes such as skipping a section of your presentation, or your technology crashes (it will happen at some time).  Be able to continue without the technology, and decide whether you want to go back to that section you missed.  If you do go back, try something like “You might have liked these points I missed” to counter the situation. 

A final few words of caution:

  • Make the humor brief.  No more than two lines, and preferably just one.  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a medical consultation with your audience.
  • If you have something about which you’re aware, like the cold sore, prepare your line in advance.  Make sure it’s in your own style, not a line someone else might have suggested.

Meanwhile stay calm, keep your sense of humor and don’t panic.  Just let those elephants roam free or stay at the zoo.

Experienced a potentially embarrassing situation? Email me at stevec@execspeakwrite.com so we can arm other readers for future challenges (anonymously, of course).

 

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