U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May overcame a coughing fit and a prankster to finish an hour-long speech – and you can, too.
This speech was a public speaker’s worst nightmare.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May was giving an hour-long address on Wednesday when she was: Interrupted by a prankster handing her a fake firing notice; suffered a severe coughing fit; and part of a sign fell on stage behind her.
Yet she plowed through the speech with grace, cracked a few jokes and even tweeted a picture of cough drops afterward.
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) October 4, 2017
“She did a great job, and there’s a lot you can learn from her about how she handled herself,” Lisa Braithwaite, a public speaking coach, told Moneyish.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that your audience wants you to do well, and there’s a ton of empathy for you when things go wrong,” she added. “So staying calm, keeping a sense of humor goes a long way.”
Braithwaite and other speech coaches shared their tips for setting yourself up for success – and what you can do to save a presentation that starts going south.
- Practice makes perfect. May was quick on her feet to respond to the interloper and her traitor throat because she’s a seasoned vet at speaking in public. “The more you put yourself in front of an audience, the more opportunities you have to deal with mishaps, and the more comfortable you become,” said Braithwaite. So run through your presentation in front of a friend or trusted coworker, get in the habit of speaking in meetings more, or volunteer to do a reading or make a speech at a wedding or birthday party.
- Save your voice. Allison Shapira, a public speaking expert and former opera singer, has suffered through plenty of sore throats and coughing fits on stage. “It’s not fun,” she said. So prepare by avoiding caffeine – which dries your throat – and sipping herbal tea with honey or water instead. Bring some tea or water (and lozenges) on stage with you. And avoid speaking before your presentation to spare your voice.
- Stay calm. If you get into a coughing or sneezing fit on stage that won’t quit, “It’s completely appropriate to pause and say, ‘Let’s take a minute, and I’ll be right back,’ as long as you stay calm and in control,” said Shapira. Then get your body back under control by breathing through your nose, which warms the air you’re inhaling and calms your throat. And use deep breathing techniques to re-center yourself.
- Have a sense of humor. When the British Chancellor handed May a cough drop, she joked,”I hope you noticed that, ladies and gentleman – the Chancellor giving something away for free!” Ashley Stahl, the founder of Cake Publishing ghostwriting and copywriting house, said a sense of humor “gets the whole audience to root for you.” She even suggests preparing a joke in advance in case anything goes wrong, like the time something huge fell in the back of the room while she was speaking. “I joke, “The universe agrees!’ and everyone laughed,” she said.
- Address the hecklers. If someone interrupts you – either with a question or protesting something you’ve said – gracefully respond with, “I hear you – let me finish this point I was making to the audience, and I’ll get back to you if I have time,” suggested Stahl. “Show humanity and respect. Ignoring the prankster will probably make it worse. And speaking could distract them long enough for security to come and remove them.”
- Repeat yourself. If a coughing fit or a heckler interrupted what you were saying, repeating the point you were just making will get you back on track and fill in the audience members who might not have been able to hear it.
- Engage the audience. If you’re losing the room – people are falling asleep or are on their phones – shake them up by asking them a question (“Have you ever experienced this?”) or even inviting everyone to stand up and stretch for a minute before getting back on topic. “Sometimes it’s not you – maybe you’re the fourth speaker they’re hearing in a row, or it’s that 3 p.m. slump,” said Braithwaite. “Don’t take it personally – just get the audience involved in your presentation again, and change the energy of the room.
- Back yourself up. Stahl suggests having a website or graphic summarizing your presentation handy in case you get interrupted. “Always have a URL or a graphic with some sort of free value ready that reinforces your topics, so if you get cut short or something goes wrong, you can direct them to the website to deliver your message,” she said.
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