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Turn Stage Mishaps into Masterful Moments

Handling unexpected situations on stage doesn’t have to be scary.

9
minute read
Published on
May 13, 2024
Photo Credit: EAA, Photo Submitted by Kim Campbell.

You’re on stage, giving your performance as usual, when suddenly your worst nightmare starts to play out before your eyes…

A large man stands up from the back of the room and shouts something out to you. 

You have an embarrassing flub of your lines.

Your slides stop working and the tech guy looks at you with panic in his eyes.

The power goes out and the entire room goes pitch black.

These unexpected moments can happen during any performance, and for us speakers, just the thought of this happening to us makes us break out into a sweat. 

And this is completely normal—it’s only natural to experience some degree of anxiety around the fact that you simply can’t control everything that happens during your performance. 

Dealing with unscripted moments on stage is one of the most important yet most overlooked topics in the public speaking world. And the typical advice out there doesn’t do much to calm your nerves. 

Most of the recommendations and suggestions you’ll find will tell you things you probably already know—stay calm, think quickly on your feet, be professional, adapt to the situation, and be positive. 

Those are great reminders, but they don’t actually explain what to do in those situations or how to deal with the unexpected. And they leave out the most important part—the audience. 

First things first, we need to reframe “the unexpected”

The fear and anxiety that we feel when thinking about these curtain-call calamities stems from one thing—the unexpected. 

The unexpected is the unknown, the uncontrollable, the unprecedented. It’s that aspect of performance that you absolutely cannot control, no matter how hard you try. This is what causes us anxiety. 

But it’s also the very element that makes live performance so compelling and so powerful. And the truth is, the fact “the unexpected” exists and looms behind every performance is overwhelmingly positive.  

The unknown element in performance is what makes it unique. 

Now, this isn’t an excuse to wing your entire speech. No, as professional speakers we work to craft speeches that are repeatable, consistent, and effective—ones that work every single time. 

And even though you rehearse and know your speech, one element will be different every time—the audience. Never before, and never again, will you be on stage in front of a particular audience during a specific moment in time. 

Understanding this can help you craft a deeply present performance that feels like it’s unfolding for the first time in that very moment. That’s when the magic happens. And that’s where actual transformational speaking can occur.

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X Mark icon
Don't
be too scared of the unknown.
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Do
embrace “the unexpected” as a magical part of your performance.
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What it takes to be deeply present for every moment of your speech 

The typical advice for eliminating performance anxiety and overcoming the fear of the unknown is removing as many variables as possible. In other words, practice. 

But practicing your speech doesn’t mean merely memorizing it word for word. It means learning your material, and really learning to your core. 

You know how it’s structured, because you’ve used the Foundational Five to craft your speech. You know what words to use, because you’ve content-mapped the whole thing. You know what you want to make your audience feel, because you know your audience. You know what you’re doing physically on stage, because you’ve practiced blocking and staging.  (And if you're still crafting your speech and want to truly know your content, there's no better place to start than CORE | The Breakthrough Experience.)

This is very different from rote memorization. You see, when you memorize your speech, if at any given moment the string of text gets broken, you get lost. You lose the linear thread you were so strongly grasping onto. Any small disruption will throw off your presentation and it’ll be hard to get back on track. 

However, when you truly know your material, you can just take a brief detour from your “regularly scheduled programming” and address the unexpected situation. Then you can get right back to your performance, without stress, without further disaster, and without the whole show unraveling.  

Knowing your material—truly knowing it, not just memorizing it—makes you a malleable and present performer. It gives you the space to create a legitimate connection with your audience, no matter how “the unexpected” shows up. 

When you know your speech that well, you’ve given yourself the gift of removing as many curveballs as possible. On stage, you won’t have to spend your time thinking about what to say next. 

Instead, you’ll be able to be 100% present. You’ll be able to consciously focus your attention entirely on how you want your audience to feel, moment by moment.

X Mark icon
Don't
use rote memorization when practicing your speech.
Check mark icon
Do
prepare to be fully present on stage by truly knowing your speech.

Ask yourself: “What does my audience need, right now?”  

Most of the advice about performance blunders, tech problems, and “the unexpected” on stage is focused completely on the speaker. Save the moment, the show must go on, stay professional, don’t freak out. 

But this leaves out the most important part: the audience. 

As you’ve planned your speech, you’ve thought about your audience—their problems, fears, worries, dreams, and hopes—and you’ve prepared your speech for them. 

And when you’re fully prepared and know your speech, you can focus entirely on what you want your audience to feel while you are on stage and in the moment. 

Want them to feel accepted and welcomed at the beginning of your speech? Want them to feel anxiety and tension while you tell an intense story? Want them to feel motivated to take action and make changes? 

You can make your audience feel all those things through a performance technique called playing actions. This is essential for transformational performance. You see, playing actions is making your audience feel something—but not by demonstrating a natural state or emotion. 

You see, you don’t have to show an emotion to make your audience feel that emotion. In fact, what you are feeling might be completely different than what you want your audience to feel. For example, when disaster strikes on stage, you might feel anxious, worried, and stressed, but you probably don’t want your audience to feel the same. 

Average speakers focus on how they feel. Extraordinary speakers always focus on what they want their audience to feel. 

Focus on what your audience needs at any given moment, even the unexpected ones.

If you’re truly focused on your audience, when something unexpected happens, you’re already thinking about what the audience needs at that moment. So when something unplanned happens, ask yourself: 

“What does the audience need right now?” 

Imagine the lights go out. 

What does your audience need? They need to feel comforted. Safe. Calm. And you need to make them feel that. 

How? That’s up to you. Maybe you lighten up the mood with a joke. Maybe you do something completely different. 

When you focus on your audience’s needs, you’ll always know what to do next. You’ll be able to handle unexpected situations with ease, and you’ll even be able to make those unscripted moments memorable. 

Break the Fourth Wall

As speakers, we often create a false sense of opposition between ourselves and our audience—us versus them. This erroneous feeling is largely because of the famed fourth wall. 

What is the fourth wall? Well, in the acting world, the fourth wall is the invisible wall between the audience and the actors. The audience can “see” through the wall, but usually they assume the actors can’t. 

In the speaking world, the fourth wall is anything that prevents you from fully feeling like you and your audience are on the same level. 

This disconnect is part of what causes those feelings of opposition. But the truth is, the audience is on your side. 

Your audience wants you to succeed. 

They want to hear what you have to say. They want to be inspired, motivated, taught, and entertained by you. They want to be transformed by you. Even when unexpected moments arise. 

If an audience member shouts out a challenging comment, you can think: What does this particular audience member need? What does the rest of the audience need? 

Your audience wants structure. They want you to solve the problem, because they came to have a positive experience. So you need to use your authority to take back control.

Some speakers worry they’ll come off as rude or unprofessional by correcting challenging behavior. But that’s usually not the case. As the person on stage, you are the one with the microphone, you are the one in charge of the room. 

The stage is your ship and you are the captain, so give yourself permission to steer the ship. It’s possible to handle situations with grace and directness in a way that benefits the entire room.

When you focus on what your audience needs, you’ll be able to read the room, and you’ll be able to read the heckler as well. Sometimes a single offhand remark (paired with a big smile) can shut down hecklers and make the audience chuckle, or even applaud. 

Other times it’s best to respond firmly and directly, acknowledging they have their own opinion and that’s perfectly fine. You could say something like: 

“The great thing about this subject is that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the end of the day, I’m here to teach about empathy. And empathy is a universal concept.” 

Then, continue right along with your speech. 

While it is tempting to debate and defend your ideas—especially when a challenging comment pokes your ego and makes you feel defensive—it’s best not to. Getting sucked into a debate gives away your power on stage and could cost you the control of the room. 

When you use your on-stage authority to respond to these situations, the audience will be cheering you on precisely because they aren’t against you. They want you to succeed.

X Mark icon
Don't
relinquish your leadership on stage.
Check mark icon
Do
remember that your audience is on your side. They’re rooting for you.

Ignoring the Elephant in the Room  

There’s one big mistake you can make when the unexpected strikes—ignoring it. 

Pretending that something glaringly obvious didn’t happen creates a disconnect between you and your audience. 

Whether an audience member shouted something out at you, you put your foot in your mouth with how you phrased something, a phone goes off or a technical issue happens, it’s best to acknowledge it in some way. You know it happened, they know it happened; it’s weird to just ignore it. 

In fact, ignoring the awkward reality creates an illusion that tells your audience that the connection they feel with you and the relationship you’re trying to build is false. So, say something.

As you try to come up with something clever to say, you’ll probably feel like an eternity and a half has gone by in awkward silence. 

From your perspective, it feels like you’ve stood on stage in silence for 10 whole minutes, inside one of the most embarrassing moments of your life. It seems like your audience is staring at you, holding their breath, thinking you’ve lost it. 

Nope. Not at all. 

The truth is, they can’t even tell. To them, it seems like just a very brief, even imperceptible, moment during your presentation. 

When you’re on stage, you perceive time in a very different way. The stakes are high, the adrenaline is pumping through your veins, and you’re hyper-alert to everything around you. What seems like 10 minutes to you, your audience doesn’t even notice. 

So give yourself some grace. If something unexpected happens, you do have a few moments to breathe, assess the situation, consider what your audience needs, and then react. 

Then you can get back to doing what you’re on stage to do—create a transformational experience for your audience.

X Mark icon
Don't
ignore reality and pretend whatever happened didn’t happen.
Check mark icon
Do
acknowledge the awkwardness and use it to connect with your audience.

Making Memorable Moments 

You can’t prevent undesirable and unexpected moments from happening to you on stage. But you can set your mind at ease by remembering two important truths: first, your audience is on your side, and second, time feels different on stage. 

When you truly know your speech and focus on what your audience needs, no matter how “the unexpected” comes at you, you’ll be prepared to handle it confidently (and with as little anxiety as possible). 

Embrace the unexpected.  

After all, that’s what makes live performance beautiful—and unique. You’ve crafted a repeatable, deliberate, and intentional performance. That spark with the unknown is the last bit of alchemy that makes your time on stage more exhilarating and memorable for everyone.

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Don't
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Do
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During just two days on campus, you’ll learn how to transform your performance and achieve your goals faster. After this, you’ll be a better speaker—guaranteed. Oh, and it’s absolutely free.
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What it takes to be deeply present for every moment of your speech 

The typical advice for eliminating performance anxiety and overcoming the fear of the unknown is removing as many variables as possible. In other words, practice. 

But practicing your speech doesn’t mean merely memorizing it word for word. It means learning your material, and really learning to your core. 

You know how it’s structured, because you’ve used the Foundational Five to craft your speech. You know what words to use, because you’ve content-mapped the whole thing. You know what you want to make your audience feel, because you know your audience. You know what you’re doing physically on stage, because you’ve practiced blocking and staging.  (And if you're still crafting your speech and want to truly know your content, there's no better place to start than CORE | The Breakthrough Experience.)

This is very different from rote memorization. You see, when you memorize your speech, if at any given moment the string of text gets broken, you get lost. You lose the linear thread you were so strongly grasping onto. Any small disruption will throw off your presentation and it’ll be hard to get back on track. 

However, when you truly know your material, you can just take a brief detour from your “regularly scheduled programming” and address the unexpected situation. Then you can get right back to your performance, without stress, without further disaster, and without the whole show unraveling.  

Knowing your material—truly knowing it, not just memorizing it—makes you a malleable and present performer. It gives you the space to create a legitimate connection with your audience, no matter how “the unexpected” shows up. 

When you know your speech that well, you’ve given yourself the gift of removing as many curveballs as possible. On stage, you won’t have to spend your time thinking about what to say next. 

Instead, you’ll be able to be 100% present. You’ll be able to consciously focus your attention entirely on how you want your audience to feel, moment by moment.

X Mark icon
Dont
use rote memorization when practicing your speech.
Check mark icon
Do
prepare to be fully present on stage by truly knowing your speech.

Ask yourself: “What does my audience need, right now?”  

Most of the advice about performance blunders, tech problems, and “the unexpected” on stage is focused completely on the speaker. Save the moment, the show must go on, stay professional, don’t freak out. 

But this leaves out the most important part: the audience. 

As you’ve planned your speech, you’ve thought about your audience—their problems, fears, worries, dreams, and hopes—and you’ve prepared your speech for them. 

And when you’re fully prepared and know your speech, you can focus entirely on what you want your audience to feel while you are on stage and in the moment. 

Want them to feel accepted and welcomed at the beginning of your speech? Want them to feel anxiety and tension while you tell an intense story? Want them to feel motivated to take action and make changes? 

You can make your audience feel all those things through a performance technique called playing actions. This is essential for transformational performance. You see, playing actions is making your audience feel something—but not by demonstrating a natural state or emotion. 

You see, you don’t have to show an emotion to make your audience feel that emotion. In fact, what you are feeling might be completely different than what you want your audience to feel. For example, when disaster strikes on stage, you might feel anxious, worried, and stressed, but you probably don’t want your audience to feel the same. 

Average speakers focus on how they feel. Extraordinary speakers always focus on what they want their audience to feel. 

Focus on what your audience needs at any given moment, even the unexpected ones.

If you’re truly focused on your audience, when something unexpected happens, you’re already thinking about what the audience needs at that moment. So when something unplanned happens, ask yourself: 

“What does the audience need right now?” 

Imagine the lights go out. 

What does your audience need? They need to feel comforted. Safe. Calm. And you need to make them feel that. 

How? That’s up to you. Maybe you lighten up the mood with a joke. Maybe you do something completely different. 

When you focus on your audience’s needs, you’ll always know what to do next. You’ll be able to handle unexpected situations with ease, and you’ll even be able to make those unscripted moments memorable. 

Break the Fourth Wall

As speakers, we often create a false sense of opposition between ourselves and our audience—us versus them. This erroneous feeling is largely because of the famed fourth wall. 

What is the fourth wall? Well, in the acting world, the fourth wall is the invisible wall between the audience and the actors. The audience can “see” through the wall, but usually they assume the actors can’t. 

In the speaking world, the fourth wall is anything that prevents you from fully feeling like you and your audience are on the same level. 

This disconnect is part of what causes those feelings of opposition. But the truth is, the audience is on your side. 

Your audience wants you to succeed. 

They want to hear what you have to say. They want to be inspired, motivated, taught, and entertained by you. They want to be transformed by you. Even when unexpected moments arise. 

If an audience member shouts out a challenging comment, you can think: What does this particular audience member need? What does the rest of the audience need? 

Your audience wants structure. They want you to solve the problem, because they came to have a positive experience. So you need to use your authority to take back control.

Some speakers worry they’ll come off as rude or unprofessional by correcting challenging behavior. But that’s usually not the case. As the person on stage, you are the one with the microphone, you are the one in charge of the room. 

The stage is your ship and you are the captain, so give yourself permission to steer the ship. It’s possible to handle situations with grace and directness in a way that benefits the entire room.

When you focus on what your audience needs, you’ll be able to read the room, and you’ll be able to read the heckler as well. Sometimes a single offhand remark (paired with a big smile) can shut down hecklers and make the audience chuckle, or even applaud. 

Other times it’s best to respond firmly and directly, acknowledging they have their own opinion and that’s perfectly fine. You could say something like: 

“The great thing about this subject is that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the end of the day, I’m here to teach about empathy. And empathy is a universal concept.” 

Then, continue right along with your speech. 

While it is tempting to debate and defend your ideas—especially when a challenging comment pokes your ego and makes you feel defensive—it’s best not to. Getting sucked into a debate gives away your power on stage and could cost you the control of the room. 

When you use your on-stage authority to respond to these situations, the audience will be cheering you on precisely because they aren’t against you. They want you to succeed.

X Mark icon
Don't
relinquish your leadership on stage.
Check mark icon
Do
remember that your audience is on your side. They’re rooting for you.
,

Ignoring the Elephant in the Room  

There’s one big mistake you can make when the unexpected strikes—ignoring it. 

Pretending that something glaringly obvious didn’t happen creates a disconnect between you and your audience. 

Whether an audience member shouted something out at you, you put your foot in your mouth with how you phrased something, a phone goes off or a technical issue happens, it’s best to acknowledge it in some way. You know it happened, they know it happened; it’s weird to just ignore it. 

In fact, ignoring the awkward reality creates an illusion that tells your audience that the connection they feel with you and the relationship you’re trying to build is false. So, say something.

As you try to come up with something clever to say, you’ll probably feel like an eternity and a half has gone by in awkward silence. 

From your perspective, it feels like you’ve stood on stage in silence for 10 whole minutes, inside one of the most embarrassing moments of your life. It seems like your audience is staring at you, holding their breath, thinking you’ve lost it. 

Nope. Not at all. 

The truth is, they can’t even tell. To them, it seems like just a very brief, even imperceptible, moment during your presentation. 

When you’re on stage, you perceive time in a very different way. The stakes are high, the adrenaline is pumping through your veins, and you’re hyper-alert to everything around you. What seems like 10 minutes to you, your audience doesn’t even notice. 

So give yourself some grace. If something unexpected happens, you do have a few moments to breathe, assess the situation, consider what your audience needs, and then react. 

Then you can get back to doing what you’re on stage to do—create a transformational experience for your audience.

X Mark icon
Don't
ignore reality and pretend whatever happened didn’t happen.
Check mark icon
Do
acknowledge the awkwardness and use it to connect with your audience.

Making Memorable Moments 

You can’t prevent undesirable and unexpected moments from happening to you on stage. But you can set your mind at ease by remembering two important truths: first, your audience is on your side, and second, time feels different on stage. 

When you truly know your speech and focus on what your audience needs, no matter how “the unexpected” comes at you, you’ll be prepared to handle it confidently (and with as little anxiety as possible). 

Embrace the unexpected.  

After all, that’s what makes live performance beautiful—and unique. You’ve crafted a repeatable, deliberate, and intentional performance. That spark with the unknown is the last bit of alchemy that makes your time on stage more exhilarating and memorable for everyone.

X Mark icon
Don't
Check mark icon
Do
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