Murphy’s Law and Public Speaking

Murphy’s Law states that, “If things can go wrong they will go wrong.”  In the case of Public Speaking there are always things that can go awry.  It would be safe to say that Murphy’s Law always applies in some way.   Sometimes the presentation goes so well that the little things which did not happen the way they should have are ignored.  They weren’t worth even considering as they unfolded.  At other times the ‘house comes tumbling down!’   An example of the former: The seating allocated is slightly less than that of the people who turn up. You could say something went wrong.  But it was so easily remedied that it was hardly worth a mention.  You put out a few more chairs.  On the other hand, if the whole building had to be evacuated because the fire alarm went off, then it is worth a mention.

Things do fall down

I was at a conference on the weekend where the ‘sound man’ went around the back of a screen to alter something.  He brought down a curtain, which brought down the end of a rod which knocked down a banner stand – the end of which struck a member of the audience on the head.  Memorable?   Yes.  Especially to the person who was struck on the head.   But even here the show goes on with virtually no interruption.


In this essay on things going wrong I would like to present from my own experience.  I do this so that you, dear reader, will be aware of some of those Murphy’s Law more common happenings.   Of course a large tome could be written on the subject but I’m going to limit it to just a few areas:  Venues, speaking dates, and a small range of miscellaneous happenings which have occurred during the thirty years I’ve been speaking outside of the Toastmaster environment.  My experience is extensive.   It would be fair to say that of the 850 or so presentations I’ve delivered ‘Beyond the Banner,’ (as Lesley Stephenson ACG CL refers to these) I would have presented at least two hundred different venues.    These have ranged from tiny church halls and small rooms to major conference centers.

Ensure correct geographic location


Firstly lets deal with Speaking Dates, for only this morning I turned up to present to a Probus Club I’ve addressed thirteen times already, only to find that the venue no longer exists.  The bowling club where they used to meet had closed down.  It is obviously waiting to be demolished – probably to put up housing units.   My booking was firm; made ten months earlier.  Because I’d been to this group so many times I assumed all would be routine.  I’d received no call to tell me this Probus club’s venue was now changed.   


On another occasion I turned up at a certain bowling club only to be told that, “No, it’s not here.  It’s probably at…”   And sure enough, it was.  The person booking me had given me an incorrect venue name.  Fortunately, the place where the meeting was being held was only about ten minutes away by car, so I wasn’t late.

Names can mislead

On at least two occasions, due to my own not being specific enough, I have turned up at venues only to find them closed (wrong date recorded by me)  or the group I should be speaking were waiting for me some place else.  Jumping to a conclusion because one expects the name of the group to match up with the name of the suburb or venue is a common error.     For example, you’d expect Winston Hills Club to meet at Winston Hills, not Baulkham Hills.   You’d expect Parramatta Club to meet at Parramatta not Northmead.   Point I’m making is venue mix ups can and do occur even when one is being careful. 


Murphy’s Law is serious if one misses a presentation because of a mix up such as this.   Of the 850 or so presentations I’ve given I’ve forgotten to turn up on three occasions.   That’s really embarrassing.   I didn’t look at the calendar on my kitchen wall that morning or the previous evening.   I’ve had the car break down once.  And have had a couple of other instances where I haven’t been able to make it.   Say half-a-dozen failures out of 850 times.  “That’s not too bad,” you might say.  Why, that’s less than one percent…


It IS bad.   The people booking you are not amused.   They might say they’re forgiving but it could be a couple of years before they risk booking you again.   Reliability is very important if you want a good reputation as a presenter.


Problems regarding being Seen and Heard


These can range from awful acoustics and no microphone to room configuration – even room shape.

Most common problem – Microphones  

Roving microphone ‘gives up the ghost.’   Won’t work; internal battery flat.   Program organizer never thought to have spare batteries or a spare microphone handy.    If you’ve got a big audience, don’t be tempted to ‘raise your voice and project’ for that forty-minute speech.  You’ll regret it.   Let the organizer fix the problem.   


I can recall one day arriving at a venue to find around eighty men all waiting for me to speak.  There was no microphone and there was a very noisy children’s Christmas party going on in an adjacent room.   The organizer was quite put out when I said that I was not prepared to speak over that noise.  “Get me a microphone and I’ll go on.”  
“We haven’t one.”  
I went and sat down.   Twenty-five minutes later a microphone eventually turned up.   Somebody had driven home to get one, it appeared.   Oh, and it did turn out okay.  By the time I got started the kid’s party was over and most of them had gone home.


This refusal was not a matter of being petulant or finicky.   If you ruin your vocal cords yelling to be heard, when you’ve got to see the throat-specialist for those nodules on the larynx that you’ve developed, no function organizer is going to pay the costs or help you get better.   Be wise.  Be courageous enough to say no.


In another essay I describe how the microphone I was given brought my voice not only to my audience but to every nook and cranny in a huge sporting club complex.   They heard me in the restaurants, the coffee shop, the foyer, the other meeting rooms, the swimming pool, the gymnasium and even in the toilets.   The central audio control had not been fixed up so that that particular microphone was only coming through the speakers of the room in which I was speaking.    Probably the biggest audience I’ve ever addressed…albeit only for about three minutes.

Smoke Alarms
In still another essay I describe how the venue in which I was speaking was almost evacuated three times because the fire alarm went off.  People were on their feet.  Each time it was found to be a false alarm.   Eventually the cause was found: a woman sneaking into a small room nearby by for a cigarette.  The smoke from the fag set off the alarm throughout the entire building.

Horrible Rooms

Many a time the room is far too big for the audience.   You’re given a room which will take 800 people easily and your audience numbers thirty.   Oh, and they’ve set out 150 chairs.   The opposite:  room too small for the numbers attending also happens. But this is far less frequent.  The ideal:  room full, every seat taken, does not occur half as much as most speakers would like it to.  


But it is often the room itself which is not right for a speaker.  Too much glass.   Too light.  Too dim.  Platform floor with various levels in the one room.    Ceiling far too high for good acoustics.   Speaking under a dome where your own voice is reflected back to you as an echo.  Worst I even experienced was an L-shaped room.   Fair dinkum!   L-shaped.  Half the audience sitting around the corner out of sight.    What to do?


Obvious answer:  speak from the corner from which you can look into both parts of the room.   Problem: That is where the glass wall and the glass door are.   You’ll have your back to the entrance.

Seating too far away

This is very common.   A lectern is set up on a podium far removed from the first row of the audience.  Don’t be tempted to speak from there.   Move down so you’re close to the audience.   Proviso?   If the audience number in their hundreds it is fine to be twenty-five feet in front of them and raised high on a stage.   If the audience is only forty or fifty, come down to their level and stand maybe ten to twelve feet in front of that first row.    Your intuition will tell you how far away you need to be to develop the contact your desire.


So these are some of the many instances where Murphy Law prevails as far as your Public Speaking is concerned.   Make a note of them.  Some you can lessen the impact of by adequate preparation and diligence; others are out of your control all together.   May your speaking experiences be mostly good ones.  By that I mean may Murphy be sympathetic towards your desire to give the best presentation of which you are capable.


About Tom Ware

I'm into speaking to audiences. My particular forte is telling stories. Morevover, I've addressed over 750 audiences and in excess of 40,000 people during the past eighteen years - excluding those I've addressed in my Toastmasters clubs. Additionally, I've presented classes to adults on Metaphysics and Spirituality (non sectarian) and Popular Psychology between 2001 and 2008. I'm an avid writer, been at it for forty-five years. Speaking is a passion, of course, as mentioned above. I started in 1972 with Toastmasters. My speciality is Storytelling and some years ago people began to flatter me with the titles: Prince of Storytellers, and Master Storyteller. Also, Tusitala Tom (Tusitala means Storyteller in Polynesian) I am also into 'serious' meditation (Vipassana as taught by S N Goenka) Started that in 1986. Additionally, I'm an Automatic Writing practioner and have been able to 'channel' for over forty years. Bit about me. Born in London UK and migrated to Australia in 1951. Started my first job day after my fifteenth birthday in that year. I've been a postal worker, sailor, aviation air-ground man, overseas telegraph operator. I've worked for an electrical power-supply company, been a truck driver, a foundry labourer, laboratory assistant, a police radio operator, and office worker - even an Antarctic expeditioner. Worked and lived in a number of countries, but am now 'retired' and enjoying life - probably as never before. I've been married - yes to the same woman! - for fifty-three years and have three grown up children and four grandchildren.
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