My coaching clients often ask me “What should I do if something horrible happens while I’m giving my speech? What if I completely lose my place/trip as I walk to the podium and scatter my notes/go utterly blank?”
My answer is this: Take a lesson from the Fallen Actor.
By the third mind-blowing day of the International Performing Arts for Youth conference, I had seen so much amazing, brilliantly produced theatre and storytelling for children, that I was convinced I couldn’t be further impressed. I was dead wrong.
The magic happened in a small dark theatre, as I watched two Swedish actors and two upright-bass playing musicians play all the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The production took place on a bare-bones stage set with two long wooden benches and a minimum of props. We sat on the stage itself, an arms length from the actors. The proximity to the actors, and the brilliance of their work made for visceral, exciting theatre. I was mesmerized.
Suddenly, in the middle of the second act, disaster struck: One of the actors, leaping onto a wooden bench for the millionth time, slipped on its edge, teetered and fell, twisting his ankle visible and horribly as he crumpled to the floor.
For a long, terrible moment, no one breathed. The Fallen Actor groaned, filling the shocked silence. ” AAUUUUUUUUUGHHHH!” Then, he swore, loudly, in what I could only presume was Swedish. Then, he fell silent, his face contorted in pain, while he rocked back and forth, his injured foot cradled in his hands.
Again, the most agonizing silence, in which, we, the audience members, slid to the end of our seats, our compassion fully ignited, our collective hearts going out to this poor, injured man. We were now even more actively engaged with the action on stage, our senses at full attention, taking each moment alongside the Fallen Actor, not knowing what was going to happen next but more fully than ever along for the ride.
From across the stage, a murmured question from the Fallen Actor’s partner, also in Swedish. We could only assume from its urgency that the question mirrored the ones in our own minds: “Are you ok? Are you going to be able to continue?”
The Fallen Actor shrugged his reply. Then, he exhaled again, audibly and slowly. In and out, he breathed. In and out. With each exhalation, his face and body relaxed and unknotted. He opened his eyes, took in the audience around him. Then, he looked once again at his foot, leaned against the bench and used it to hoist himself into a sitting position. Then, slowly, carefully, he stood on his weakened ankle. Would it bear his weight? Taking tentative steps, he tested his foot, and exhaled once again. Then, with a vigorous nod to his acting partner, he suddenly launched into his set of lines, his voice raw with honest emotion. It was nothing short of breathtaking! We settled back in our seats and relaxed, only dimly aware of the actor favoring his right foot as he finished the play with passion and focus.
When the curtain dropped, we leapt to our feet in a spontaneous, passionate ovation. As we left the theatre, I couldn’t help but think that the ovation was particularly heartfelt because we had so fully identified with the Fallen Actor. He let us in on his pain, on the intense moment-by-moment reality of his situation. He took the time he needed to take to do what he needed to do: to howl in pain, swear, breathe, test out his body, and center himself. And he let us watch him do it, to share the moment with him. We felt privileged to be there, one human being observing and identifying with another. He turned his accident into a gift. He made a horrible moment into something magical and powerful.
And you can too: When your speech or presentation turns into a train wreck, take your cue from the Fallen Actor: Let yourself BE — I mean, really BE–in the given moment. Experience what you are experiencing, in all its anxiety/pain or fear. Take the time to feel what you are feeling. Then, breathe. Inhale and exhale fully and regularly. Like the Fallen Actor, use your breath to relax and to bring yourself out of your head, where you are judging yourself, and back into your body. Once you are centered in your body, bring your attention back to what you are there to DO (your intention)… and get on with it. You will not have abandoned your audience in the process. You will, in fact have done quite the opposite: You will have invited your audience to share in a real, honest, human moment with you, a moment of deep connection, one human being to another– a moment that can only occur when genuine empathy and compassion is stirred. You will, like the Fallen Actor, have made magic.