I try to hydrate when I speak (tip: it’s best to hydrate a day before speaking). This usually means stashing water bottles at both sides of an auditorium and having a supply at the ready in any classroom. Today I did not have a water bottle and instead chose the facility’s open cup. I caution against such to anyone I advise.I advise against it for exactly the reason that happened today. Mid-sentence, a gesture turned awry and clipped said cup — thankfully only half full — and sent it sprawling. It splashed me broadside. I know better.Several things at work here.

  • First, use a bottled/capped source of drink. If that’s not possible, don’t fill any cup to the brim.
  • I’d recommend drinking water over anything other type of liquid (I only drink water, so it’s not a problem for me). Water won’t stain.
  • If you have any chance of a stain or are on the road, have a backup set of clothes at the ready.
  • Set any drink — bottled or not — away from electronic equipment (today it was on a desk away from any computers).
  • Water resistant clothing is great (I had both shirt and pants on that repelled the water incredibly well. Two wipes and I was good as new).

But no matter the preparation, there will come a time in any speaker’s life when he trips, spills, stutters, drops, or fumbles. Handling it is pretty simple, as well:

  • First, don’t bring attention to the situation. Keep exclamations (and especially profanity) to yourself.
  • Make a (very) quick assessment of the situation. If immediate attention is not needed, move on. Today, it was clear nothing but the carpet (and me) got wet, and there wasn’t enough to warrant a mop. I didn’t even break sentence. Instead of stopping to pick up the cup, I moved towards my audience and engaged them immediately. I wanted them to know that my message and getting it to them was of utmost importance. When I finished a thought and had a nice break, I picked up the cup. It didn’t break up the message at all. I owned the situation instead of it owning me (and my message).
  • If the situation requires attention (oozing ink, danger to electronics, snake on the loose), make immediate plans to handle it. Delegate, as appropriate. If it’s possible, dismiss the audience for a quick break to not lose focus on the message at hand and make sure that you can give them all the attention they need.
  • Don’t go back to it. I’ve seen lots of presenters make the self-deprecating “I’m such a klutz” messages for hours after such an incident. Move on. Your audience likely has forgotten it — so should you.

In a skit at church one time, I was asked to barge in to an auditorium like an excited sports fan. I was true to the part. Except on the way in, I clipped a candle globe and it fell off its perch and shattered — loudly — into a billion pieces. It was one of those situations you just couldn’t move on from. But I ad lib’d a response in to the script, and didn’t stop — there was nothing stopping could do for the skit and its message. Next time (and the next) I spoke before the audience, I addressed it and accepted it, and moved on. Some folks still bring it up, but I didn’t let it define me, or the message I might have.

Don’t let distractions or mishaps derail your message.

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