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My high school speech team experiences failed in a key aspect of grooming public speakers; preparing them for the unexpected, bad situation. We gave speeches in classrooms of polite audiences.

I addressed this gap when coaching high school speech students.  One week we had the poised speaking contest.  Could you stand up, introduce yourself, and say something briefly in front of a room of badly behaving people trying to distract you? We made it a game, but I had a very real, very serious purpose behind it. Speakers must learn to think on their feet and deal with the unexpected. The pristine speaking environment does not exist in the real world.

For the past 25 years, I’ve spoken in front of different groups, for varied purposes, including teaching computer software classes the past 15 years. My audiences have ranged from preschoolers to senior citizens; from prison inmates to attorneys; from recovering drug addicts to medical professionals; and from front line industrial workers to top level CEO’s.

Some of my more memorable adventures in public speaking:

  1. A woman groaned in an Excel class while I explained a difficult formula. At first, I thought my formula setup was wrong. Then I realized we were having an earthquake. The class took a break while we checked the geological survey for the Richter reading. It was low, and class continued.
  2. Once as I spoke, a priest was giving a workshop at the same time. His microphone was being piped into the speakers in my room. I tried to speak over him until in a deep voice that sounded like God Himself speaking to us we heard, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” I stopped, told the attendees I couldn’t talk over a priest praying, and they laughed. We waited till he finished and prepared to move to the hallway when they finally fixed the technical glitch.
  3. Another time in an Excel class, I asked the class what a spreadsheet formula result meant. At that moment, a student’s cell phone rang, saying, “Don’t go apeshit on MY ass!” To which I responded, I hope that’s not what the result is. The student apologized after the class. I suspect she changed her ring tone.
  4. During a workshop with utility workers, a terrible storm began. We could hear the sheets of rain hitting the roof. Suddenly, there was a huge crash. I looked outside the classroom and realized the wind had torn the front door from 2 of its 3 hinges. My boss was there and grabbed the door, keeping it from crashing and shattering glass. The utility workers said, “We can fix that. We’ve got tools in our truck.” The class took a break, and I went to the bathroom. When I returned, the door was back in place, the workers’ tools were in their trucks, and they were in the classroom, ready to continue.

Public speaking is an adventure just as thrilling as skiing a slalom. Once you begin, you never know what will happen before you get to the bottom of the mountain. But the more often you experience the unexpected, the better you will handle….

…the earthquake, the severe thunderstorm, or the booming voice that sounds like it’s God Himself overpowering you.

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Saturday Night Live was groundbreaking 35 years ago.  I was young but remember the chatter; everyone wondered what would happen because they performed live to a national audience.

Now, as a speaker, Twitter back-channels change everything I’ve known for the past 25 years.  Though first it scared me, I love it.  What is it?

It’s a live feed Twitter stream where members of the audience comment live, during your presentation. They share a common hashtag for conversation. You may see the conversation live on a screen while you present.

This is the biggest change for public speakers since the advent of television.  Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook first discovered its perils at SXSW in 2008, when his audience revolted via Twitter.  Wired published  an article about it, SXSW: 2008, the Year the Audience Keynoted.

 How can you survive and thrive with Presentation Night Live?

  1. Tweet. Get comfortable with Twitter.  Know how to follow hashtags. Set one for your presentation if one isn’t given. Share your Twitter handle with your audience. Have access to the Twitter conversation. Bring a device with you, view it from a screen, or designate a trusted friend to view it close to you and share information.
  2. Prepare. Prep your talk and publish the materials. Either use Prezi or Slideshare and show your stuff. 
  3. Practice. Every phrase and sentence can be tweeted. Know your stuff and do it well, and you’ve got great publicity with a large audience.
  4. Seek. Feedback. Give sample presentations to the smartest, toughest friends you have, who will tell you exactly what they think. Listen to their feedback and adjust.
  5. Engage. Listen to your audience and adjust your talk to the feedback. 

Five verbs: tweet, prepare, practice, seek, and engage. Giving a talk with a back-channel is as exciting as skiing down the tough slopes at the resort. You never know when you begin what will happen during the ride. It’s not easy. With practice, the ride can be the thrill of a lifetime.  If you crash, you can view the instant replays via hashtag and figure out how to do better next time.

There’s a learning curve to backchannels for moms like me who remember when Saturday Night Live began. It’s worth the effort.  As a speaker, it’s the new What to Prepare accessory for your Presentation ensemble.

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