Embarrassing moments are an occupational hazard for speakers. Isn't that why so many people are so deathly afraid of public speaking? But embarrassing moments can often make a presentation more successful rather than less.
I was doing my “Filling the Glass” keynote for a convention that happened to be at a hotel where I'd worked before and knew the manager. He was a somewhat shy but extremely conscientious individual. Though this was normally a great venue, they were having one of those days. Everything that could go wrong had: wrong room set up, not enough seating, wrong A/V, a sound system that kept cutting out, a microphone with a cord so short that it kept me tethered in one corner of the platform. The meeting planner and I spent the 90 minutes before the presentation trying to get the situation straightened out, with little success. The hotel had also posted the wrong room on all their meeting boards and on the in-house TV, so people kept dashing in late.
I turned the problems into a running, self-deprecating joke at my own expense. That generated a lot of sympathy. So the keynote came off well, and I got a great ovation. Then, as scheduled, I went out into the hallway to sign copies of my new book. When the doors opened, I saw that, in atonement for all the problems, the manager had supplied a large assortment of pastries and fruit and ordered a huge pyramid of champagne glasses set up.
A chef dressed in white was standing on the table next to the glasses. As we watched, he began to fill the topmost glass with champagne. It filled and overflowed, the champagne cascading down and filling the glasses on the levels below. While the entire convention gathered around him, he poured bottle after bottle into the top glass, and eventually filled every glass from top to bottom.
Then the hotel manager himself appeared before the pyramid. Obviously a bit embarrassed, somewhat flustered and unused to public speaking, he nevertheless called for everyone's attention. He made a short but gracious speech apologizing for the day's problems, assuring the group that the hotel was at fault rather than the association or the speaker. He got a laugh or two, and as his remarks went on he seemed to gain confidence. He added a few very kind words about me, probably in atonement, and concluded with a flourish: “Since the title of Barry's new book is Filling the Glass, I'd though it would be appropriate to fill all your glasses with champagne. So let’s raise a glass to the success of the conference and the book!”
Then, caught up in the moment, he grabbed the first glass his hand encountered. Unfortunately, it was near the bottom of the pyramid. There was a quick gasp from the crowd, a millisecond of complete silence, and a cascading sound of breaking glass and spilling champagne.
At least the pastries were delicious. By the end of the break, everyone had forgotten and forgiven the earlier problems. From that point on, in fact, the manager and the hotel were looked upon with nothing but affection. More important, the group was energized: a coherent whole rather than the collection of strangers. They all had the perfect conversation starter for their networking.
Embarrassment came quite a bit closer to home when I was on stage at a Los Angeles hotel, finishing up a keynote at an awards dinner for about 400 salespeople. The audience and I were in formal dress, and just as I was concluding my session, I noticed for the first time that I'd neglected to pull up the fly on my tuxedo pants. What was worse, the audience noticed me noticing it.
I quickly put on a face of comic surprise, and everyone roared. Then, as the laughter died down, I leaned against the podium, nodded knowingly, and said: “Remember the sales strategies we're discussed this evening. Remember all the tips and tactics. But above all, remember that none of them mean a thing . . . unless you remember to close.”
I got a standing ovation. And for the rest of the evening, people were discussing whether or not I'd planned the whole incident.
Barry Maher, Sales trainer and motivational speaker, and author of Filling the Glass