What To Do When You Say The Wrong Thing During A Presentation

by drjim on December 10, 2008

Saying The Wrong Thing During A Presentation Can Ruin A Good Speech

Saying The Wrong Thing During A Presentation Can Ruin A Good Speech

I’m sure that none of you would ever screw-up and make a verbal blunder during a presentation, right? There is an AT&T ad running right now that captures this concept – a guy has just told an office about an upcoming merger when he really was supposed to have not mentioned it (mayhem ensues). When giving a presentation, your best opportunity for a verbal blunder generally comes during the Q&A session. Here are some thoughts on how to cure yourself of foot-in-mouth disease…

During the recently concluded U.S. presidential race, both candidates were accomplished presenters. However, over and over again both sides said things that I’m sure they both really wished that they could take back. However, once said, your comments are what your audience will remember for better or for worse.

Experts at public speaking all agree on one thing: you can control what you say. Paul Sterman has done some research on this topic and has identified three things that you can do to prevent verbal blunders:

  1. Think Before You Speak: It sounds like something your parents would tell you, but it really is that simple. We seem to get into the most trouble when we fire off our mouth without taking a moment to think about what we are going to say.
  2. Practice, Practice, Practice: Even in a Q&A session, there is no reason for you to have not practiced responding to the questions that you knew were going to be asked. Remember: practice makes perfect.
  3. Get Some Sleep: We end up saying the silliest things when we have not gotten enough sleep. Keep your mind sharp by making sure that you are well rested before giving any presentation.

When you are faced with a situation where you will be speaking extemporaneously, such as a Q&A session or when answering questions from employees, preparation is the key to not making a mistake that you might regret later on. Professional comedians are the ones who are best known for the practice that they put into making spur-of-the-moment statements seem to be not practiced. You want to be able to do the same.

Thinking through the questions that you might be asked and then creating a set of “talking points” that you would use to respond to such questions is the key to preventing a verbal stumble. Your goal is to create “sound bites” that people will remember just like politicians do.

Finally, although it may seem like you need to reply immediately when someone asks you a question during a presentation, there is no rule that says that you have to. You are in charge of how and when you respond to each question asked. Take a moment, think about what the person is really asking, and then provide them with an appropriate answer.

Of course the old saying that the more you do something, the better you get at it is also true here. Instead of fearing speaking opportunities where you might stumble over your words, instead view it as a learning opportunity that will make you stronger for the times that you really need to be at your best.

Have you ever been speaking and slipped up and said something that you regretted? How did you deal with the after effects of what you said? Have you done anything differently since then to prevent future slip-ups? Has that worked out for you? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon Larsen December 11, 2008 at 7:10 pm

Great thoughts! I found your blog through a comment you left on Guy Kawasaki’s blog….I blog more about bootstrapping small businesses and such, but I think the principle of preparation is a nice tie. In either communicating or starting a business, you have to practice, practice, practice, and exercise control over what you do and say. Thanks for your insights!


Janet Chahrour August 18, 2009 at 11:41 am

Compelling topic; how I hate to screw up! I agree that tricky moments are likely to come up while answering questions. In a presentation recently, I didn’t like my initial response to someone so added to it, trying to enhance it, and pretty soon my mouth was running like a gerbil in a cage…making it worse and worse with each phrase. Arghhh! I now visualize my hand in the universal “stop” gesture. It is OK to stop and think even after starting up.


Dr. Jim Anderson August 27, 2009 at 9:43 am

Janet: I feel your pain! I have been in that situation before and I know how quickly it can get out of control. I’ve been working on trying to get comfortable with being able to say “I don’t know” and agree to get back to them. I’m still working at remembering to say this…


Tammy Abramowitz August 25, 2009 at 11:00 pm

If I think that I have not given the response I wanted to or say the wrong thing, I use a follow up letter or thank you to address the issue with more clarity.


Dr. Jim Anderson August 27, 2009 at 9:45 am

Tammy: wow – that is really a good job of follow-up! I am always hesitant to go back to address something that I’ve said in the past because most people have forgotten that anything was said. I continue to look for ways to try to fix the problem at the source – when I’m speaking!


Shanda Sulipizio May 12, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Extremely interesting post thank you for sharing I just added your site to my favorites and will be back 🙂 By the way this is a little off subject but I really like your sites layout.


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