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HomeEVERYDAY ETIQUETTEWhat to do when a speech goes wrong

What to do when a speech goes wrong

by Rupert Wesson

There has been plenty of press coverage of Theresa May’s keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference last week. Sadly for her, very little has focused on the content of the speech. Most of the column inches have been devoted to what went wrong and, more particularly, how she coped.

For those of you who missed the speech and its catalogue of calamities, she had to deal not only with a persistent cough, but also with prankster comedian Simon Brodkin interrupting her and handing her a spoof P45 ‘on behalf of Boris’. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the slogan emblazoned on the wall behind her started to disassemble, as if to symbolise the unravelling of Mrs May’s fortunes. Short of the building collapsing or a podium invasion by Boris Johnson, not much more could have gone awry.

Short of the building collapsing or a podium invasion by Boris Johnson, not much more could have gone awry

If this weren’t bad enough, it happened in a week when Conservative backbencher (and possible contender for her job) Jacob Rees-Mogg was widely praised for the way in which he dealt with protesters who confronted him at another conference event.

Disarmingly calm and polite, he was also careful to address the issues with which the protesters confronted him, without being baited by personal attacks (“putting my despicability to one side”, he deadpanned). Ultimately the protesters retreated, looking rather less certain of their arguments than when they came in.

It is true that Theresa May won some praise for her handling of the incidents that befell her. When confronted by Brodkin, she remained calm – glacially so – and took the piece of paper from him with no hint of panic.

A delay in Brodkin being removed by security staff also gave her time to create a line about P45s for her opposite number. Hardly a side-splitter, but it showed a flash of humour to offset her coolness.

Her cough was more of a challenge and she dealt with this less well. Whilst it is true that she ploughed on, even her most ardent supporters wish she had stopped, regrouped and instead delivered a rousing summary of what she had planned to say.

Public speaking is nerve-wracking enough, but how do you deal with unexpected mishaps like these?

Think about the worst possible scenario and prepare accordingly – perhaps asking a trusted friend to take you to task on a particular issue. Be ready for that moment when everything has gone wrong: technology has failed, the autocue has imploded and the audience is restless. You must be able to stand up and deliver your message in a way that appeals to heads and hearts in simple language and without a script. Not to be able to do so means you are taking a big risk.

Think about the worst possible scenario and prepare accordingly

If your speech relies on careful language, extensive context-setting and intricate policy detail, it will fail (with or without interruptions).

Other key tips for when events go awry:
  • Don’t panic or freeze. Accept that interruptions happen. Don’t think about how you look, just think about what the audience want (it is invariably for you to succeed).
  • Smile, acknowledge the interruption and, when you and the audience are ready, carry on.
  • Don’t blame anyone. Be polite. Grace under pressure is an attractive quality. Even Jacob Rees Mogg’s strongest critics could not deny him that!
  • Make sure you know whom to turn to for help. And that you know their first name. And that you thank them for their help. In her hour of need Philip Hammond offered her a lozenge – leading her to tease him for rarely giving anything away for free.
  • Ultimately, roll with it and try to take advantage of the punches. Distractions are often an opportunity for levity and a welcome chance for a speaker to display adaptability, humour and humanity. For Theresa May, they created drama and elicited an emotional response from the audience that the speech would not have managed on its own.

Arm yourself for any rhetorical eventuality with our popular Public Speaking and the Art of Persuasion course.

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Latest comments
  • I was always taught that phrases like “the delay in Brodkin being removed” were pidgin English, and that it should correctly be “the delay in Brodkin’s being removed”.

    • Thank you – much more elegant! We have amended to the active now.

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