by Brian K. Johnson

I had an excellent follow-up question from a participant in a recent program. I thought it would be worth sharing my response here.

His question was: “Regarding the ‘structured improvisation’ method – what do you do if you say something you shouldn’t (a gaff), but it is too late to take it back because the audience has already heard the first few words?”

It Happens to Everyone

First, I think it’s important to realize that listeners do not expect (or even want) us to be perfect. They want us to be human with all the flaws and foibles the human condition implies. There are a number of ways of dealing with the very common human tendency to misspeak, whether in a conversation or a presentation.

Acknowledge and Move On

If it’s just a stumble, one can simply say, “Or I should say…” or even “Rather…” Most of the time a simple misspeak isn’t even noticed by many listeners.

If it’s a major misspeak, one can say, “Let me try that again…” or “That wasn’t what I meant to say…” or “Let me try to say that more clearly…”

Speaking as often as I do, I’m keenly aware of how often the wrong word slips out. I’m only human, too. I once was lecturing and describing the need for energy while holding an audience’s attention. For no intelligible reason I substituted the word “money” for “energy.” (Some kind of Freudian slip from a speaker who derives his income from his energy perhaps?) It was so weird, I had to stop, laugh at myself and say, “I can’t believe I just said that! Money? Where’d that come from? I meant to say ‘energy’…” And on I went, fully believing my audience forgave me and was humored by my acknowledgment that even the “expert” at public speaking can misspeak so illogically.

Here is a fix that I learned from a trial lawyer colleague. During jury selection he asked a woman on the panel a convoluted question. From the puzzled expression on her face he could tell he had not been clear. He took responsibility for her confusion, and he said, “Mrs. Smith, was that the dumbest question you’ve ever been asked?” The whole panel laughed at his acknowledgment, and he claimed he won the case at that moment when he dropped his guard so completely and admitted his own humanity. That mistake cemented his rapport with the folks who were ultimately picked for the jury.

Plan to Forget Technique

It is easy while improvising to follow a creative train of thought and find yourself unsure of where you are in your structure. When that happens you can say, “As you can tell, I have wandered off topic, so let me return to my central point…” If you need to look at your notes at that moment, use one of the techniques in my books in the section titled “Plan to Forget.” To justify returning to one’s notes, or simply stopping to pause and think, you can say,

Let’s move on.
Let’s continue.
What’s next?
I want to get this exactly right.

You can either go look at notes or stop to pause and think. Those short phrases justify what is happening. Practice saying the lines out loud. Read more about that technique here. 

Nothing is more liberating than to trust that listeners are far more forgiving of our misspeaks and stumbles than we are as speakers. Of course, I’d much prefer not to trip up verbally, but when I do, I know that a humble acknowledgment will win over most listeners.