How to Recover When You Stumble
I’ve had my share of communication mess-ups. As a speaker, I get plenty of opportunities to embarrass myself in front of people. I sometimes misspeak, stumble over my words (or my feet), forget to advance slides, or find some other way to say or do the wrong thing.
Once, when speaking to an audience of credit managers, I made the comment, “In our culture, ‘money’ is a dirty word.” Usually, that gets some laughs. But what had been an incredibly engaged audience suddenly got silent. No nods. No smiles. No chuckles. Just blank stares and a few furrowed brows. Oops, I thought. I can’t say that to this audience!
Another time, I asked an audience to stand up for an activity. When I advanced the slide, I realized I’d forgotten a whole section of my presentation. Doh! “Never mind,” I said. “Sit down. I messed up.” One lady was incredulous. “Are you kidding me? You made us stand for nothing?” She was teasing, but earlier in my career it would have killed me.
It doesn’t just happen in presentations. As you probably know from personal experience, any interaction can provide ample opportunities for “messing up.” In coaching sessions, staff meetings, and at networking events, I’ve forgotten people’s names, showed up over or underdressed, offered up ideas that were ridiculed… The list could go on and on. You can probably create your own list.
It’s easy to let mistakes derail you. Especially when there’s a lot riding on the interaction, you’re deeply invested in what you have to say, or your identity is on the line, even small slip-ups can feel devastating. And then comes the avalanche of thoughts and feelings that hijack your brain and make subsequent problems more likely. So how can you protect yourself?
Aim for recovery, not perfection.
Perfection cannot be your goal. You set yourself up for failure, since nothing and no one are perfect. Not to mention, no one even wants you to be perfect! “Perfect” people are creepy. Instead, make it your goal to course correct as quickly as possible and as frequently as necessary. Here are two recovery skills that will help:
1) Stay present.
You can’t dwell on what happened. The conversation or presentation is moving forward in real time. You have to move forward, too, instead of getting stuck on what happened two seconds ago. This is especially important over the phone when your “audience” can’t see you.
Imagine you’re driving a car and hit a bump. If you stare at your rearview mirror to see what you hit, or worse, turn around in your seat to look out the back window, you just guaranteed a much bigger bump ahead! You would never do that while driving. Don’t do it in a presentation or meeting or conversation either.
If it’s a small mishap, you can just ignore it. If it’s bigger, you may need to acknowledge it before moving on. And if it’s something you can learn from, make a mental note to process it later, privately, so that you can do better in future. But during the interaction, stay in the moment and keep going.
2) Create a nonverbal separation.
You can help your audience—whether that’s one person or a thousand—and your own brain get past the mess-up by creating a break that signals, “That’s over and done with. On to the next thing.”
To do this:
- Pause. Stop talking for a second.
- Break eye contact. The easiest way to do this, whether in person or on a video call, is to simply glance downward. You could also look at your notes, a whiteboard, your phone, anything.
- Breathe and move. Take a nice deep breath and change your physical position. You could take a step to the side, walk across the room, shift in your chair, set down your notes, anything. Just move.
- When (and only when) you’re done moving, stand still, look up, and start fresh. Use open, confident body language. Go on as if nothing happened.
This whole process takes about two seconds. But the break in eye contact and change in position signal to the brain that it’s time to shift gears. (That’s why this skill is also useful when you need to end a conversation.) You and your audience mentally leave what just happened behind and prepare for the next thing. It takes a little practice, but it works like magic.
Your communication will never be perfect. You won’t always say the right thing. You won’t always make sense. You won’t always get what others are saying. Sometimes you’ll hurt people. Sometimes you’ll piss people off. Sometimes you’ll embarrass yourself. Believe me, I wish there was a foolproof way to ensure perfection. I’d be all over that! That’s not real life, though.
You can’t be perfect, but you can learn to gauge your audience and make adjustments. That’s what I did in the two presentations I mentioned earlier. I recovered and so did my audience. Each one ended up being a grand success—some of my favorite audiences ever!
Instead of perfection, go for recovery. It will reduce your stress, keep your emotions manageable, and give you greater power and presence in every interaction, every role, and every relationship.