Speak Like A Pro: How To Prevent Panic (5 Takeaways From Michael Bay’s Freak-Out)

Many were relieved to know from my first post on how to Speak Like a Pro that 99% of us experience an intense physical reaction prior to stepping on stage, 99% percent of the time. Plus or minus. Remember the context from Scott Berkun: you are an animal on an open plane, with no weapons and nowhere to hide, with dozens (if not hundreds) of eyeballs staring back at you. From an evolutionary perspective, this is VERY dangerous. It means you are about to be eaten alive.

Some of you have seen the Michael Bay CES gaffe making the rounds: he was set to introduce a speaker, his teleprompter stopped working, and he panicked. To the point of giving up and walking off the stage.

I’m not surprised that he felt panicked, but what seems to surprise everyone is that even an international film director can be completely paralyzed by a technical glitch without finding the improvisational grace to recover.

I’ve Been There

Back in 2011, when my first book came out and I had just started my sabbatical from Google, I was asked to be the opening speaker for Carnegie Mellon’s TEDx event. It would be my largest speaking gig yet: 500 people in the room, live streaming to 3,000, and posted on YouTube as part of my personal brand until — oh — the end of time.

To say I was nervous as hell would be an understatement. But there’s no way I could have prepared for what happened once I got on stage.

Everything stopped working.

My slides disappeared from audience view, then from the help screen in front of me. I now had 16 minutes left to deliver the whole thing from memory, while the student technicians were frantically sliding things and blinking settings windows around on all said screens. The countdown timer in front of me continued ticking down from my already tight 18 allocated minutes.

You can see it all go down in the first few minutes of my talk. I’m still a little embarrassed that 11,000 people have now watched it, even though it is a speech I should be proud of for many reasons.

An excerpt from my post immediately following the event, 10 Lessons Learned from Almost Panicking in Front of 500 People:

I had the great honor of delivering the opening speech for TEDxCMU (Carnegie Melon) this Sunday — in the very same room that Randy Pausch delivered his deeply moving last lecture. The entire day went of without a hitch….except for a 10-minute glitch that felt like a lifetime to the person on stage at the time. Me.
The Set-up (how it all went down)
15 minutes prior to my speech: I checked my slides and made sure the clicker was working.Check.
10 minutes prior: I started pacing slowly and taking deep breaths to work out any last minute adrenaline and nerves. Check.
5 minutes prior: I smiled up at an audience of 500 people as I was being introduced, knowing that the talk was also live streaming to 2,000+ people and being recorded to last for Internet eternity on YouTube. Check.
GAME TIME. I walked on stage and started my delivery.
5 minutes in: I turned around to check the large projector screen and realized that the audience couldn’t see my slides. My subconscious toyed with the idea of panicking as the 18-minute clock on one of the monitors in front of me continued ticking down.
At that moment I had two choices:
  • Shut down — stutter, give up, panic, stop in my tracks. Wait at the front of the room like a deer in headlights (literally — the lights were so bright I couldn’t see the audience) until the problem was fixed and ask for a re-do, if that were even possible.
  • Keep Going — make light of the situation, play the hand I was dealt, and use the opportunity to absolutely crush it.
In a mix of conscious choice and the universe blessing me with the miracle of grace, I landed on option number two.
Click here to keep reading how I worked myself out of the mess

System Overload: Freeze, Fight Or Flight

Our bodies are already in a heightened fight-or-flight state by the time we step on stage. However, this CAN be mitigated with physical practices to work out the adrenaline like pacing beforehand, opening and closing your fists, and taking slow deep breaths.

But what happened to Michael Bay is a classic Freeze then Flight.

Adrenaline and cortisol probably flooded his system the minute the teleprompter went awry (adding to what had already been there before he started), and he froze. Then, not knowing what to do, he hung his head and left the stage.

This post isn’t about raking him over the coals — he is only human. And that’s the entire point: we are HUMAN!

We will have very physical reactions in situations like this, even though the reality is that they are nowhere near life or death. Perhaps just heightened by the fear of reputational life or death, even if our rational minds know better.

So What Can You Do To Prevent Panic?

The catch-22 with situations like Bay’s and mine from TEDx is that there is NOTHING you can do to prepare. You just have to learn techniques for what to do in the moment — an emergency kit, if you will.

When I gave my Speak Like a Pro workshop at Google and Parsons, one of the most common questions was, “I understand the importance of practice, but what if you are on-the-spot? What if you ask a question in front of a large audience, or get called on randomly in class?”

Here are 5 Tips for Handling an In-the-Moment Flood of Nerves:

  1. First and foremost, you must breathe. This is critical. Take a few moments just to collect yourself and breathe. Take in a nice big inhale of air. The audience will hardly notice and it will start to reactivate your relaxation response, letting your brain and body know they are safe.
  2. Second, if you’re in a Bay or Blake Situation (hah) try to laugh! Crack a joke. Which brings me to number 3:
  3. BE YOURSELF! Nobody expects you to be perfect, especially when they can clearly see that things are going haywire.
  4. Acknowledge the issue. Bay did a good job of saying, “The type is all off . . . sorry, I’ll just wing it.” Okay, great! Now breathe and ad lib. Take an improv class if you want to get more comfortable with this.
  5. KEEP GOING! This is critical! The show must go on! Don’t make a fight-or-flight response worse with the internal monologue of, “Well now you’re really fucking it up.” Or, “Screw those tech guys — this should not be happening! My reputation is ruined!” Acknowledge the snafu, but KEEP. GOING. An American Psychological Association study even recently found that Getting Excited Helps with Performance Anxiety More Than Trying to Calm Down. The worst thing you can do is start freaking out about freaking out.

People will love you more for keeping strong and (awkwardly) carrying on, as was certainly the case after my TEDx talk.

And to think that on my way to the event I said to my friend, “I need a good joke to kick things off and make people laugh.” Be careful what you wish for. :)

I’d love to hear from you in the comments:

Has a speaking snafu ever happened to you? How did you work your way out of it?

*Thanks to Mary for first sending me the Michael Bay link! And on the subject of speaking, here’s a cool video that my dad found (I also highly recommend the book it’s based on, 100 Things Every Presenter Should Know About People):