Oh No! Now What?! 100 People Are Looking at Me!

Vanessa public speaking

Ever been in a situation where, through totally your own fault, you’re suddenly stuck and there is no choice but to wing your way out of it or risk public humiliation, the likes of which has never been seen before? Do you want to hear one of mine?  (I might have slightly exaggerated with the “public humiliation, the likes of which has never been seen before” bit).

My job necessitates me occasionally speaking or giving presentations at conferences or events. I actually quite like doing it now, but it used to terrify me. Public speaking can be pretty scary can’t it. On one such occasion several years back my manager had asked me to do the housekeeping talk at the start of a conference. No big deal right? No presentations to give, no workshops to deliver, just some basic info to impart. What could go wrong?

There were around 100 people attending, my manager stood at the podium and welcomed everyone and then said, “I’m now going to hand over to Vanessa for the housekeeping.” I made my way up to the stage, hoping I wouldn’t trip (as if THAT was the only thing I had to worry about, ha! Little did I know).

There were three pieces of information that I was tasked with imparting -

1) Where the ladies and gents toilets were.
2) Where the fire exits and the fire assembly point was.
3) At what times the breaks were during the day.

My heart pounding, I walked up to the podium, turned to face the angry baying crowd of 10,000 (again, I may be slightly exaggerating), and that’s when I realised – I had forgotten to find out where the toilets were, I had forgotten to find out where the fire exits and fire assembly point were, and I wasn’t holding the piece of paper with the break timings. Seriously? How could I do that? I had three bits of information to impart and no idea what they were! It was like one of those nightmares, except that thankfully I wasn’t naked, and my dead grandfather wasn’t there passing round a basket of macaroons made from ground up rats. So what could I do? I had no choice but to wing it. Of course I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was pretty much like this:

“Hello everyone, thank you for coming. I have a couple of things to go through with you. First of all, the ladies and gents loos; if you go back out of the main door to this room and just keep walking, you’ll find them, if not, then ask at reception. If the fire alarm goes off, then please leave quickly by the nearest exit and head towards the fire assembly point at the far end of the car park (I figured that even if that wasn’t where the fire assembly point was located, at least I was sending them somewhere safe away from the building!). And we do have several breaks throughout the day which are detailed on the programme which you’ll find in your packs. If you have any questions, come and find me during the first break. Thanks very much.”

And there we are, I managed to stand up and talk to 100 people without telling them anything of any use at all, and I’m pretty sure nobody noticed. I’m thinking of taking up a career in politics.

When was the last time you were in a “Oh no! Now What?!” situation? And were 100 people watching? Because if there was less than 100 then mine was worse.

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69 responses to “Oh No! Now What?! 100 People Are Looking at Me!

  1. You’re an actor, for cryin’ out loud. You don’t expect me (us) to believe you’ve ever had a problem speaking in front of a crowd, do you? Is this some kind of gullibility test?

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  2. Bravo! Bravo! I am not sure I could have pulled that off.

    My example is not exactly like yours but did have that element of suddenly being the focus of attention in the crowd while I winged it.

    I was at a town hall type meeting discussing the possibility of starting an elementary school, though it was private it would have been akin to what we call a charter school in the states. I sat in the front so I could hear them talk (I should have known better). At one point the the speaker said they would send a team to help start up the school but needed five people to commit to working there…who would help? My hand shot up in the air…I will, I will. Then I turned to see who else was going to work with me. No one…no hands were up and they were all looking at me. Yet five minutes earlier they all were saying YES, YES , YES to the school. Suddenly my dream school was vanishing before my eyes.

    I must have borrowed courage from the guy next to me because I certainly did have any as I stood up, hands shaking like crazy, the butterflies weren’t just in my stomach, they were moving upward into my chest (At that time I had never spoken in front of a crowd before) and told them that no one was expecting them to all join the staff but who was going to help locate a building, equipment, textbooks, etc. Really, I wasn’t a shill and I had no authority to say that…I just made it up as I went. Anyway the crowd could handle the small tasks quite well and volunteers shouted out their willingness to help. Someone threw me paper to write down the names…which I somehow lost later on during the event. But it was enough to get the momentum going and the school opened in the fall.

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    • That’s a great story Mrs.P! You really stepped up for a good cause, and you had no time to even think about it beforehand because it was kind of just thrust upon you. That’s a much bigger thing that you did than mine, trying to rally support for a cause, go you! If you hadn’t been sitting at the front then you might not have had the courage to raise your hand when you saw no one else had and it might never have happened!

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  3. I think you did great with your speech, the mark of a good speaker is knowing how to cover up your mistakes.

    In one of my speeches this semester for public speaking class I had to use powerpoint, something I’ve done many times before. Only THIS PowerPoint was up on a giant magical screen and I was required to tap the screen itself (not click on the computer) to go to the next slide.

    Of course, when I went to tap the screen nothing happened. I pushed on the button harder, still nothing. Then I swiped the button and my panic started to bubble up so my finger was shaking. Then I let out a laugh and said something dumb like “Ah, technology!” Someone in class yelled out to just press it harder and thank GOD it worked. But this happened in between every single slide. I was so nervous I could barely read my index cards. The funny thing was my presentation was on meditation and how to remain calm in all situations.

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    • Ah yes I’m familiar with those screens, I’ve used them too, they’re a bit of a strange thing I think. I prefer the little handheld remote controls because then I can pretend I’m just at home watching TV and changing channels which is much more relaxing.

      Technology failing in those situations is particularly hard to manage because if you start doing things on the computer to try and fix it, people can see what you’re doing on the big screen and then you worry that if you’re getting it wrong, they’ll all see and think how silly you are (or maybe that’s just me).

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      • I don’t know how to use PowerPoint. There. I said it. I must be the only person under 80 in this galaxy who doesn’t.

        We’re making big computer changes at my office and it’s all on me, and I’m clueless. Do you think it would be too late to choose stay-at-home-mom as a career now that my kids are 24 and 22?

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        • Don’t worry, lots of people hate PowerPoint so you can just pretend that you refuse to use it, rather than admitting that you don’t know how – just don’t mention that you don’t know how anywhere publicly viewable, ok?

          Never too late to be a stay-at-home-mum!

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  4. I’ll bet you were the highlight of the day.

    After all, even an “angry baying crowd” needs to go wee wee.

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  5. I agree with Exile. You are so funny you can deal with anything and everything. See, you just did in your story. Love it. Nothing dull about you, Vanessa. :-D Good for you!

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  6. You just illustrated the importance of the Scout motto “Be prepared”!
    My most panicked moment came when I was a sophomore in college. I was taking the basic course in English literature – I think it was called Major British Writers – and the topic was Jonathan Swift. Now, I always prepared my assignments, without fail, but I was horribly bogged down in other courses and so I decided not to read the day’s material. And guess what? The professor cornered me late that morning and asked me to lead the class discussion that day because he couldn’t be there! I had two hours to madly read … I don’t know if it was Gulliver’s Travels or something else. Anyway, I made it and things didn’t turn out too badly! But never again did I fail to do an assignment!

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    • That’s a funny story, the professor obviously felt confident in asking you, knowing that you were always well prepared! I can just imagine how you must have felt when he asked you, hehe. There’s another reason why it’s funny that you should have chosen to share that story here – the name Vanessa was actually invented by Jonathan Swift would you believe! Really it was: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanessa_(name)

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      • Yes, this was my major professor and we got along great! I almost let him down! Yikes! And that’s an interesting Wikipedia article! It says Vanessa is a favorite name in the US, but I had always thought it was more British. Anyway, I like the name – it has a pretty, soft sound!

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  7. I think I get more riled up in a smaller setting, where there are fewer things to distract the listeners and more opportunity for them to put me on the spot.

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    • I think you’re right actually, I probably get more nervous when I have to speak about something at a smaller meeting at work than when I have to present to an audience, you’re more distanced from them when it’s a large setting aren’t you.

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  8. You definitely would do great things in politics with your gift of gab. This made me laugh. I can imagine this scenario so well (probably because it sounds like something I could easily do as well).

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  9. When someone says (or types) the words: “What could go wrong?” you know something good’s about to come.

    I enjoyed this immensely, and I’m sorry to laugh at your expense, but this is so messed up, it’s priceless. And the worst part is, I can see myself doing it. So I’m glad it happened to you and not me. That way I can smile about it the rest of the day. :)

    Your save was brilliant. That’s where we differ. I couldn’t think on my feet that quickly. Yes, definitely politics could be in your future. Or stand-up comedy, but I think you already do that. And brilliantly too, I imagine. :)

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    • It is funny isn’t it! I think the improv classes I took when I was living in the states probably helped! I’m sure you would have coped though, when you’re in a situation like that, you just have to, you really can’t stand there and say “Oops, I haven’t prepared any of the information I’m supposed to tell you, oh well, never mind!”.

      I’ve only done stand-up comedy twice, and that’s much more scary than speaking at a conference, although at least with the stand-up I had prepared and rehearsed!

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  10. Wow. I think I would die. I’m so glad you were able to think on your feet. And not even your boss noticed and said anything to you about it? Good save! I’m petrified of public speaking. I’ve had to do radio interviews for my book, and that scared me. Once I was asked a question for which I had no clue how to answer. I was quite proud of myself for saying instead, “This reminds me of a story…” and I completely changed the subject! It was one of my finest moments! ;)

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  11. I couldn’t get up in front of people and talk! So good for you Vanessa! I get all icky when I’m in a crowd much less have to talk to all of them! :-)

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    • I’m sure you could if you had to, like if it’s part of your job you can’t really say no! I’m pretty introverted and I manage! It’s one of those things of course that gets easier the more you do it.

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  12. I’m fine at board meetings and the like, 10-20 people, but get me in front of a larger crowd and I’m a hot mess (yes – red face, red ears, sweaty everywhere). A few years back my business partner had to ‘rescue’ me when I had to give a talk to a ‘largish’ crowd of say 50 people. Don’t know what happened…

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    • Oh dear, good you had someone to rescue you! And if you’ve had one experience like that, it probably affects future ones where you’re worrying that the same will happen again. Sometimes when I’m speaking in front of people, even if I wasn’t particularly worried about it beforehand or don’t think I’m nervous, I start shaking once I’m up there, it’s so annoying, and then I feel like it’s really obvious and that everyone can see me shaking and that just makes it all worse!

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  13. I think you should make this a habit just to see how far you can stretch the truth without people noticing. So go ahead and run for office. I’ll vote for you. :D

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  14. I think you handled it beautifully. I’m not sure how many people listen to stuff like that anyway. It’s like being on an airplane for the skeighty-eighth time and not listening to the safety instructions from the flight attendants. How many times have I been told how to attach the air mask to my face? Do you think I could repeat it to anyone? Heck, no. But, it’s all good. ;)

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  15. I’m sure you are a wonderful public speaker, despite the nerves. What I really want to get is your dead grandfather’s recipe for macaroons.

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  16. That is so great :) I actually find public speaking to be fun and hilarious for just these reasons. You never know what’s going to happen so you just hope you say something funny to cover.

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  17. If I learned anything from being a hoodlum in my youth, Vanessa, it’s that if you look and sound like you know what you’re doing, no one will question your authority. I think you pulled off this example beautifully! :D

    I like doing presentation talks and standing at a mic, too. That’s the ham in me. I was a lector at my church growing up, and we were taught that if we make a mistake, just correct the stumble and move on: that’s always better than stammering an apology or otherwise bringing extra attention to the mistake itself.

    Do you ever find yourself turning into a different sort of person when you get a microphone in your hand? Or, is it that the “real” Vanessa is getting an unhindered chance to shine through?

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    • Yes, I think you can learn to like it the more you do it! I’m not sure if I turn into a different sort of person, I think I am to be natural and myself, but I’m probably different because of having my performance head on in some way!

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  18. Well there weren’t 100 people watching, so your situation was certainly worse, Vanessa. And you did characteristically well to survive.

    Some years ago I was working on a client’s site, automating a large retail warehouse as part of a huge modernisation contract. Things hadn’t been going well, and we were rather behind schedule. We were due to finish and have everything fully working by the end of June, but it was already mid-June and our best estimates suggested late August was just possible.

    My boss (let’s call him Mike) paid a flying visit to the site to check on progress, increase morale and show support. As he departed, he said “in my absence, Tim’s in charge – any problems, see him”. Less than two minutes later the client’s Chairman walked in to the site office and demanded to know who was in charge – he didn’t look happy. All eyes fell on me. A quick glance towards the car park confirmed Mike had already left. “Well, if this system isn’t completely operational by noon tomorrow, I’m going to sue your company for every penny it has”, and with that he left.

    Feigning a cool-as-a-cucumber pose I simply addressed the site team with “Ladies and Gents – that’s a reminder of how important this project is to our client. I think we all know what’s expected of us”. “But what about being sued?” enquired one of the team. “Nothing Mike won’t be able to handle when he returns next month. In the meantime, let’s get our bit finished” was my reply.

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  19. Actually, you handled that brilliantly! I would have stood there like a zombie with a dry mouth. Good for you!

    My most embarrassing moment in front of a crowd was while teach college. I had my period and it was a “heavy” day of bleeding.” I thought I had protected myself sufficiently, having gone to the ladies room just before class and put clean pads on. Well, a gush of blood came while I was writing on the blackboard, butt to my students, early in the class.

    At the end of class, an embarrassed-looking female student whispered to me that I might want to go to the ladies room. When I did, I saw a HUGE red stain on my green dress slacks. Nice huh?

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  20. Haha oh my gosh– I would die. That sounds like the sort of situation I would find myself in, no doubt. I would probably have tried to turn it into a pop quiz and just assumed that the most loudly shouted answer was correct.

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  21. I would have likely been reduced to guttural utterances and incomprehensible squeaks! I cannot think that quickly on my feet in situations like that. They can literally render me speechless. I’m also thinking this would make a great piece of sketch comedy!

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