What To Do After You Screw Up That First Impression

 In Presence

From the first moment you open your mouth to speak, people are judging you. They are deciding who you are based on what they hear – geographic origin, your gender, your education, your emotional state, etc. – which influences whether or not they can relate to what you say, even if you’re not a politician. Those first 30 seconds are your chance to make a good impression. Conversely, you always run the risk of a first impression that creates a situation where you have to prove yourself over and over again in order to gain respect and attention. Stuff happens.

The mic fails, technology doesn’t work, the lighting is bad, you open your mouth and nothing comes out, you can’t see your notes – all of these are real possibilities. So what do you do if something like that happens to you? You can just walk off stage after a technology problem, as did action film director Michael Bay at CES in Las Vegas, creating a more embarrassing situation. Or you can stay up there and carry on. Even though “you never have a second chance to make a first impression,” how you handle that moment makes or breaks your credibility and your ability to influence.

You can find some answers for dealing with the various manifestations of voice malfunctions in my series, “Who Let the Frogs Out?” Otherwise, here are three ways to handle an opening crisis and turn it into a positive:

Hand holding up a sign that says "oh no" in red letters

Surprise people

Be transparent about the situation. Make a joke about technology. Stop and fix the slides or go on without them. One of my clients reminded the audience of how Peter Pan brought Tinkerbell back from the brink of death and had the audience clap while the lighting crew got the lights back on. Adapted from “4 Ways to Overcome a Bad First Impression,” by Dorie Clark.

Get personal

If nerves caused a problem, say so. The famous jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald, was immensely insecure. Years ago, I heard her in concert and she started her set by saying “I’m a little bit nervous tonight.” Those words put both her and the audience more at ease.

Have Faith

You are the expert, which is why you are up there talking. You don’t have to know what you don’t; you can have faith in your ability to speak to what you DO know. If something goes wrong technically, let the experts handle it and you focus on your part. If you see your boss in the audience and feel insecure and stumble, recover by remembering that you don’t have to know what your boss knows; your job is to be of service to those listening by sharing what YOU know.

Finally, preparation is the key to success in performance and public speaking. The better you prepare, the more capable you are of handling the issues that may arise when all the eyes are on you. As Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

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