April 16, 2008

What to do when you're bombing

I learned a few things from Eddie Izzard the other night about how to deal with bombing.

When one of his jokes triggered only a few chuckles, he responded, "Thank you 12 people."

At one point, he said in response to another flat joke, "So it's true but not funny -- that's what you're saying."

Eddie frequently plays two characters having a conversation onstage. During this show, when a joke wasn't working, the two characters would occasionally discuss the audience's response.

All of these techniques brought more laughs.

I think this was my favorite response of the night: "Just shut up, will you? I know one or two people have heckled, but I will kill you. It's the middle of a flow. What was I saying?"

This is a great lesson for speakers. There are times when your audience will start to drift off, not pay attention, or not think your humor is funny.

Instead of panicking and trying to pretend it's not happening, why not address the issue?

You don't necessarily have to be funny when you address it; you could just as easily say, "Okay, let's shake things up for a moment. What would you like to talk about? Who's got some questions?"

But acknowledging a bad joke or some flat humor by saying with a smile, "That wasn't very funny, was it?" can get your audience reconnected with you and show them that you're not just a robot who's going to plow through the material whether it works or not.

By the way, saying "That wasn't very funny, was it?" with a frown or sad look on your face will not have the same effect. You're not apologizing or looking for pity. You're just acknowledging a fact.

At minimum, they'll respond with a relieved "No, that wasn't very funny" (and thank you for noticing). You might even get a laugh!

How have you handled a situation like this?

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insightful comments Lisa; I've always been an Eddie Izzard fan.

Keeping it light when things go wrong is a great way to turn around a flat joke or a mistake.

Nonetheless, when things start to seriously go wrong, it is easy to start to panic and get overwhelmed.

I personally have a 5 step process that I use, which anyone can practice in the middle of a presentation (or any high-stress moment) when panic threatens to cloud their faculties.

When things go awry or appear to be going badly, remember to practice these 5 steps:
1. Awareness
2. Become still and silent
3. Breathe
4. Focus on the task at hand
5. Speak / Act

In more detail, what do I mean and how do these steps help?

1) Awareness
First, you need to become aware that something has gone awry or simply differently than as planned. You may become acutely aware that panic threatens to take over and impede your ability to function.

2) Become still and silent
Generally, we will telegraph our inner state to our audiences through some verbal or non-verbal comment. A sigh, a frown, an apology – an overwhelming impulse to ask permission, “Can I start over?” DON’T INDULGE THE IMPULSE! Simply, become still and silent.

This will help your body and brain begin to settle and function. In addition, you won’t give off any clues to your audience that inform them of your inner state. In fact, if you can be still, their attention level will increase as the tension builds. They will be waiting to hear what comes next.

3) Breathe
It seems so simple but often in moments of anxiety we tend to forget to take a deep breath. Breathing will lower your heart-rate and blood pressure. It will bathe your brain in fresh oxygen, allowing you to think more lucidly. You will make better decisions when you remember to breathe deeply.

Focus on the task at hand
It’s easy to indulge our panicky thoughts.

“Oh, sh**! I cannot remember what is next. My heart is really pounding now. I hate this feeling – and now it’s even worse. Why did I agree to do this presentation?!?!”

“My God! This is the wrong PowerPoint slide. What am I supposed to say now?!?!”

“My cell phone is ringing – I am SO screwed. When I walk over there to turn it off, it will be obvious that it’s mine. What a moron I am!”

We want our mind to be focused – to become still and settled so that we can make better choices. The metaphor that I recently discovered is this: It’s a bit like enjoying the stillness of a beautiful pond. Suddenly, a large stone drops into the pond, ruining the stillness of the water’s surface. That large stone is the thought in our mind that says, “This is bad!” So, in response to this, in our panic and frustration, we throw a handful of pebbles into the pond by indulging our thoughts about the ‘mistake’, shouting, “Hey, you stupid pond! Settle down!”

The Chinese character for ‘crisis’ also means ‘opportunity’. Instead, ask the question, “Is this really a crisis? Is there some way I can I turn this into an opportunity?” I have seen some memorable moments flow from what could be easily branded as ‘mistakes’.

Remember, when things go “wrong”, ask yourself, “How can I turn this into an opportunity?”

5) Speak / Act
Once you have completed the process above, you will be ready to speak or take some action without having indulged in your fear (thereby giving it power over you) or signaling to your audience that you have struggled through a tough moment.

This process will work in any high stakes communication: a conference call with important clients, a one-on-one meeting with senior management, or a presentation at a large conference.

Repeated practice will give you a greater sense of control. You are much more likely to remain calm and to make better choices when you employ it on a regular basis.

Thanks again Lisa for bring this important topic up!

Anonymous said...


Great advice as always. You're absolutely right about how the way you say "that wasn't very funny" can get the audience back with you.

Thanks for commenting on my post about public speaking humor.


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