March 7, 2013

Handling the pressure onstage

I've spoken to several clients this week about their concerns with thinking on their feet. This is the wild frontier of public speaking, the great unknown: "What if they put me on the spot and I don't know how to respond?"

There are the hostile or upset audience members who don't know how to communicate their discomfort in a healthy way.

There are the questions that have never been posed, so you've never thought of an answer.

And then there's this:

On American Idol last night, in a live telecast in front of millions of viewers, one of the contestants seemed to be breaking down. After some concern and criticism from the judges about his performance, Charlie Askew dutifully approached Ryan Seacrest for the "post-performance" analysis and interview.

But instead of the usual chitchat before the commercial break, Charlie made a rather unsettling statement:

“The message I was really trying to send is that a lot of people think I am a happy buoyant person a lot of the time, and the only reason I smile so much is that I have to.”

This is not the type of comment we typically hear from contestants, a snapshot into the mind of an apparently very fragile young man.

Ryan's response? He put his hand on Charlie's shoulder, looked him in the eye and said:

“Charlie, you’ve got some friends here, okay? We appreciate your courage and your honesty, and there’s nothing easy about having those feelings inside and standing up here and having to do that tonight.”

Entertainment Weekly had this to say about the exchange:

"The host's composure and instantly supportive words in the face of what seemed like an inevitable on-stage meltdown from Charlie Askew will go down in the books. All those history textbooks, with entire chapters about American Idol. We must never underestimate our often-bumbling, always-amusing host's role in ever so gently guiding these boyz II manhood."

I wish there were video, but I imagine Fox is doing everything it can to keep video of the meltdown off the Internet.

The moment was very touching, and I was infinitely impressed with Ryan Seacrest's ability to be in the moment with Charlie, be supportive, and also wrap up the interview so eloquently. Charlie was close to tears and left the stage immediately.

When you worry about thinking on your feet, worry instead about being fully prepared. Ask yourself, "What questions might come up for the audience? What objections might come up for the audience? How can I respond to these situations?"

Ryan Seacrest has been in the entertainment industry for a long time, and on American Idol since day one. I imagine he's been privy to many a contestant meltdown behind the scenes. Nothing can really prepare you for an emotional and pressure-filled moment like that one on live TV, but he pulled it off gracefully.

And so can you, with proper preparation and -- ultimately -- the mindset that you may not always be able to answer the audience's questions or objections, but you can listen, be open and be genuine in the moment when it happens.

Here are a couple of articles about dealing with difficult audiences or hecklers:

Heckle Schmeckle

When audience members attack

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

Peter Billingham said...

Thanks Lisa - I appreciate your ideas and suggestions about speaking on the spot, it's a real and genuine fear - how often has their been the time when "after the event" you say to yourself, with I'd said .... Your advice is great as well - think through what possible questions their might be, and also maybe a general phrase. I've used, "I can see that you are .... (sad, angry, frustrated,etc) and I can understand that. It gives 2 things - 1, recognition to the person on how they are feeling and 2, a split second to give you time to respond, rather than react. Thanks again.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Peter. Yes, giving yourself a moment to prepare a response -- even if it's a split second -- is always better than reacting without thinking!

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