Advice to sickly speakers: please be seated
New BMW CEO Harald Krueger passed out on stage at the Frankfurt auto show last Tuesday and generated some internet laughter. But as someone who has had to give more than a few speeches when feeling decidedly unwell, I didn’t think it was funny at all, and I have some advice for Harald…or anyone who is due on stage in 30 seconds and feels faint: ask for a chair.
Next Thursday evening I will be part of a North of 41 panel on “How to Deliver a Killer Presentation” (tickets still available here) at the Environics offices at Bloor and Yonge in Toronto. Our panel moderator will be Vanessa Cohen from Environics, and my co-panellists will be IBM’s Paul Zikopoulus and Dian Chaban from RBC Wealth Management. (Note to future panel organisers: please observe the 50/50 gender split. It’s not hard to do if you make it a priority!)
We’re going to tackle a wide range of topics, but the BMW example from this week is worth discussing as a sneak peek of what I am going to say. Why?
You may think you don’t need to worry about this issue. Maybe you only have to give one or two speeches per year, and the odds of them being on a day when you’re feeling poorly are low? Plus, speeches can be moved, or someone can fill in for you. But sometimes this CAN happen to you, and listen to your Uncle Duncan: fainting is WAY more common than you think. The medical word for it is syncope, and while it isn’t usually serious, it does ruin your speech…as Harald just found out.
In my own experience, the pre-conditions for a possible faint aren’t that unusual: lack of sleep, jet lag, a persistent cold or cough that you can’t shake, not eating properly/low blood sugar, too many meetings and too much stress and travel. Especially when all of these combine, you are a syncope just waiting to happen.
Assuming the event can’t be moved and there is no one to cover for you, I have always found the perfect solution to be 100% honesty. If you have even a suspicion that you might pass out, tell the organisers you aren’t dying, but you don’t feel well. Ask for a chair or a stool. (A chair is better, stools can be tippy.) Have it put on stage, and when you come out, tell the audience what is going on. “Hi folks…I am not feeling perfect, but you all came here to hear me talk, and I don’t want to let you down. So I am just going to talk while seated, and we will see how it goes.”
In the 4-5 times I have needed to do this over 20 years, I have never had an audience complain. I usually start slowly, but because I am not worried about passing out, I am able to keep my energy level high, wave my arms around, use my voice, and still try to keep things interesting. If I feel better during my talk, I might even get out of the chair and walk around a little…ready to sit back down if I don’t feel well again. It has always turned out fine! So here is my top 5 countdown on why this is such a good idea for speakers:
#5: Fainting on stage is really bad and to be avoided. Ruins the event, takes away from your message, and you will have to deal with a battery of annoying medical tests after.
#4: Fainting isn’t the worst thing that can happen. Not to go into too much detail, but feeling sick can have other symptoms too. That REALLY does not impress audiences. 🙂
#3: Giving a speech while seated will allow you to focus on how you present, and you may learn things about voice, projection, body language and movement that can use again when you feel 100%.
#2: Speaking while seated isn’t necessarily lower impact than bouncing around stage. Go find a version of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia to set yourself straight: 85 minutes of a guy sitting at a desk can be more captivating than most action movie chase scenes.
#1: If Dave Grohl can rock the house while seated…so can you!
[All of the above ONLY applies if we are talking about a vague sense that you are a bit sick and might faint. In the last few years I have had two blood clots and a pulmonary embolism, and the only reason I am alive today is because I went to Emergency as soon as I felt something wasn’t right. If you worry you are having a heart attack, stroke, or other serious medical problem, go to a fucking hospital right away. No speech is more important than that.]