Public Speaking Success: Making The Most Of A Wrong Note

Eleni Kelakos Peak Performance, presentation skills training, public speaking training, speech coaching

What You Do Next Matters

I was leafing through a catalogue of novelty items, when a quote by jazz great Miles Davis printed on a tee shirt caught my eye.  “When you hit a wrong note,” it said, “it’s the next note that makes it good or bad!”  I ripped out the quote and pinned it to my bulletin board, thinking Mr. Davis nailed it! When it comes to performing in public, It’s what you do next with a moment that goes awry that matters.

The fact is, whether you give a speech or a concert, public performances are in-the-moment occurrences vulnerable to all sorts of potential disasters.  Anything and everything can go wrong:  A gust of wind can suddenly carry your notes away; the words you knew by heart can suddenly fly out of your head; a cockroach the size of a Buick can march across the stage and steal your audiences’ attention while you’re uttering your pivotal monologue. All three of those things have happened to me, and I not only survived them, I managed to make the most of them. 

Here’s a little passage from the Take a Risk chapter of my new book Claim the Stage! A Woman’s Guide to Speaking Up, Standing Up and Taking Leadership that talks about another unexpected incident that literally threw me for a loop:

You’re speaking at a prestigious event, a target you’ve spent three months preparing for.

As you stride confidently across the low stage, the audience of 300 business professionals gobbles up your words like a gourmet meal.  I’m on fire, you think, I’m a speaking goddess! In a haze of glory, you take two steps forward toward your adoring audience, and neglect to notice that you have run out of stage. In one slow, horrifying moment, you pitch headlong onto the dirty hotel carpet floor, a tumble of arms, legs and high heels. To make matters worse, a videographer is three feet away, videotaping your graceless fall for posterity.

Awful, huh?

Well, yet it was. I was the speaker who fell off the stage. And while I was unhurt (at least physically), it was jarring, and not a little embarrassing.

I bring up this awkward moment as proof that when the curtain literally or metaphorically goes up and you step into your spotlight moment, anything can happen. Though you may not fall dramatically off the stage as I did, you might be asked a question you can’t answer, get harsh pushback from a colleague on data you’ve shared, or spill your coffee all over your laptop and kill your lecture notes.

There’s no denying that the take a risk phase of the Claim the Stage™ Cycle involves stepping into high-risk situations where unexpected challenges abound. It’s like taking a ballroom dancing class, where you’re expected to dance with an ever-changing assortment of partners. Some of them are nimble and graceful, and a joy to twirl with. Others are foot-stomping klutzes, struggling to lead or be led. Either way, you have a choice: play small and retreat, or go with the flow and dance with the partner you’re given.

As Miles Davis said, “when you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” When things take an unexpected turn in a spotlight moment, It’s all about the choice you make next.

So, what did I do to recover from my tumble off the stage?  Here’s more from my Claim the Stage book: 

I laughed.  And when I laughed, my audience laughed. With me. Not at me.

“I’m okay,” I said, lifting myself up carefully from the floor. “Nothing’s broken!”

The audience let out a collective sigh of relief. Because, after all, how you react to what happens in front of an audience helps them know how to react.

“Alrighty,” I said. “Let’s try this again, shall we?”

Then I stepped back onto the stage, found the floor with my feet, brought my breath into my belly, remembered, what I was there to do on behalf of my audience, and got on with it.

And if my audience had been engaged with me before, they were twice as engaged with me now.  Why? Because I had been willing to be very present, very human, and very imperfect in front of them. I’d also been willing to find the funny in the situation. Which helped them related to me even more deeply.

That’s the beauty and the gift of take a risk. It builds a bridge between you and your audience of one or many that makes for the kind of real moments that create indelible memories and lasting relationships.

And that’s also beauty of realizing that if a note goes awry, literally or metaphorically, you have the power to make a choice that can make the next note—or moment—magical and memorable. Which will help you connect more deeply and genuinely with your audience, and have even greater impact.