Recovering after Making a Mistake during a Speech

Christopher Witt —  June 20, 2012

how to recover after making a mistake during apresentation

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley was giving a speech on the Senate floor two weeks ago when the phone in his pocket went off.

The father of the bride was giving a toast at his daughter’s wedding three months ago when his pants fell down.

During a discussion with physicians, nurses and health care providers two years ago, President Obama said, “The reforms we seek would bring greater competition, choice, savings and inefficiencies to our health care system.”

When You Make a Mistake During a Speech

Mistakes happen. At any time. In any situation. But when mistakes happen during a speech — especially if you’re the one giving the speech — they can be embarrassing. And they can sabotage your presentation…if you let them.

If you speak often enough, you will someday make a mistake. And, because of the nature of the event (you’re giving a public speech, after all), your mistake will be public. It will be out there for everyone to see. If it hasn’t already happened to you, be thankful. But know that sooner or later it will happen.

For the record, I have made more than my fair share of mistakes while speaking. I won’t enumerate them here, but trust me when I say that I’ve made a lot and many of them have been doozies. (My only excuse is that I’ve been speaking for more than three decades.)

So what do you do?

How do you recover after you’ve made a mistake during a speech?

How do you go on after you’ve made a blooper, suffered a “wardrobe malfunction,” or simply done something embarrassing in front of an audience?

Even if you’re well prepared, confident, and experienced, you can still make a mistake. Here’s what to do when you do:

  1. Acknowledge it.
    You may want to act as if it didn’t happen, but your audience won’t go along with your charade. They’ll have noticed it, and they’ll still be thinking about it if you go on speaking as if nothing out of the ordinary happened. So acknowledge it. But here’s the trick: don’t make a big deal of it. Most mistakes don’t call for more than an “Oops,” and maybe an apology or an explanation.
  2. Be human.
    Laugh, if you can. (Using self-deprecating humor is one of the best ways of endearing yourself to the audience.) Call for a time out, if necessary. Catch your breath. Take a drink of water. Stay connected with the audience. A speech — and everything that happens during it — is not about you. It’s about the audience, your connection with them, and how they and you together make something happen.
  3. Deal with it.
    Turn the phone off. Pull your pants up. Correct what you said.
  4. Go on.
    You may feel like running out of the room, but that’s usually not an option. And it wouldn’t be a wise thing to do anyway. So stop obsessing about it. (Remember, it’s not about you.) Say, “Now where was I?” And pick up where you left off.
  5. Do it again.
    I don’t mean, “Make another mistake.” You don’t need my encouragement to do that. But you may need my encouragement to get up and give another speech. Do it sooner, rather than later. Don’t let making a mistake become an excuse for not getting up and giving another speech.

I’ve learned two things from having made many, many mistakes in front of an audience . First, if you handle it well, making a mistake makes the audience like you all the more. It helps them identify with you.

And second, it can make you more confident. I was always terrified of speaking, because I thought I’d die if I ever make a mistake in front of an audience. Then I made a mistake. And, you know what? I didn’t die. So now I think, what’s so terrifying about making a mistake? I’ve lived through worse.

How about you? Have you ever make a mistake while giving a speech? What happened? And what did you do?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

3 responses to Recovering after Making a Mistake during a Speech

  1. Well, it depends. If you are good when it comes to pbuilc speaking and think you can keep the audience engaged then you can speak for 10 to 15 minutes. If your speech is funny and the audience find it entertaining then you shouldn’t have any problem even if the speech is longer than a typical best man speech.However, if you not very accustomed to pbuilc speaking (you’re not alone if you do so, don’t worry), then you might want to keep your speech short anything between 3 4 minutes should be enough to express your thoughts.To make the process easier get your speech written and see if it sounds good to you. If required read it to a friend and find if you need to add or omit something. Finally, rehearse your speech so hat you can be familiar to it. Familiarity creates confidence. The more familiar you get, the more confident you’ll become. And when you are confident words will flow out of you effortlessly.Here’s an outline of a best man speech — Briefly introduce yourself- In what way you’re relationship with the groom is special- Share a funny (and related to the occasion) anecdote- Praise the bride- Talk about the bride and the groom as one’ (a couple)- Thank the guests, the organizers, the bridal party etc.- Finish it off by toasting the newlywedsSo, that could be the skeleton of your speech. You can, depending on your ability to speak in front of an audience, take anything between 3 minutes to 15 minutes to make it sound great.By the way, it’s good that you got started with the preparation so early it’s one of the key factors to be successful with best man speeches.My best wishes.

  2. Chris – I couldn’t agree more with your recommendations of what to do when you make a mistake while speaking. When I was at the beginning of my career, I tried ignoring it and you’re right, THAT sure doesn’t work: the audience gets distracted with many people wondering “doesn’t he know he made a mistake?!” So, I’ve found, as you suggested that if I say “ooops” and then say something a little self-deprecating like, “my brain just took a coffee break, I’m sorry folks” and then I take a deep breath, followed by “what I meant to say was…” that usually does the trick. Really good, helpful post you did, thanks!!!