4 Speaking Experts Share Advice on How to Address the Elephant in the Room

Last weekend at the Oscars, Chris Rock took dead aim at the elephant in the room by addressing the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Like him or hate him, he (and the Oscar’s producers) dove head first into the debate and showed the audience that they were serious about seeking change.

So how does this translate to speaking?

As Speakers, we at times run into elephants in the room and, as pro’s, we need to have a plan to handle them.

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The key to not getting thrown off track is planning for just about every type of event that could arise. So let’s talk thru a few scenarios and get some expert tips on how to handle these somewhat ‘uncomfortable’ situations.

Elephant #1.  You read an article the morning of your session with a corporate audience (because if you are talking about business, you have to stay right up to date!) and discover that 20% of the companies’ workforce is getting laid off. Yikes! What do you do?

I asked Joe Calloway how he would handle this, and he offered this advice:

joe calloway testimonial“I’ve faced similar situations; I think we all do over the course of our careers.  If it is something that’s causing a real distraction and sense of tension in the audience (I’ve been there), then what I’ve done is to tell them that I am aware of what’s going on with the company. I say that I am here with ideas that can work for the organization, but that can work for the individuals in the room as well. That is often enough to get them to listen with tolerance and a somewhat open mind, even if not complete enthusiasm. If it is an almost hostile situation, like the time my audience quite literally booed the CEO who spoke right before me, then I say that I am here with those ideas and ask if it is fair to simply give me and the ideas a chance. I make a direct appeal to their sense of fair play. So far, it has worked (fingers crossed for future luck).”

Elephant #2. A medical emergency occurs, and someone is having a heart attack in your audience.

Leadership expert and motivational speaker, Marilyn Sherman shares this advice:

marilyn sherman“I would immediately make sure emergency crews were on route. It is also my responsibility to take charge of the crowd by ensuring there is room for EMT’s to do their job, remind everyone to keep calm, and hold tight until further notice. Then, when the person is taken out, I’d say something like, “Wow. That was unexpected. Let’s all take a moment and send some positive vibes to our friend being taken care of. How are you all doing? Take a deep breath, and check in with the people next to you or in front/back of you. I want to make sure everyone is okay. This just affirms what I was saying earlier about gratitude and how we need each other. With your permission, shall we get back into my presentation?

Acknowledge the situation, honor the person, honor the audience, and continue on.”

Elephant #3. Your technology does not work correctly.

Leadership Speaker Mark Sanborn shares this advice on how to battle technology woes:

mark sanborn“Technology is the presenter’s tool. His or her message is the product. If the technology fails–for reasons beyond your control–focus on delivering the message despite the lack of enhancement the technology should have provided. I can tell you from personal experience, anger and frustration about how a technology failure can dramatically take away from your ability to deliver. Don’t let it rattle you. Instead, just share your message powerfully.”

Elephant #4. People are still streaming into the room and are creating a lot of chaos at the back of the room.

Lou Heckler, Speaker and Coach, offers this:

lou heckler“I used to have this a great deal when I did big public seminars.  My approach: I would get on the mike and ask the people in the back to come in as fast as they could…also asking the people already seated to raise their hands if there was a seat empty near them.  Using a little humor, I would then say to the throng in the back, “Look.  There are lots of hands raised.  Why not search for someone who seems especially attractive and sit there?”  It always got a laugh AND always got them moving.  I did NOT try to compete by starting until all were seated.”

Do you have an ‘elephant in the room’ story and solution? Please share with our community in the comments below!
  • GREAT advice Jane. Especially loved Lou’s advice on late arrivals – what an engaging way to bring the audience into it.

    • speakerlauncher

      Thanks Jen – I thought Lou’s was terrific as well. Always have something up your sleeve!

  • Erin Robison

    Jane, those are wonderful and timely tips. I love what you said about being prepared for each possible scenario. I know this is really impossible, but I also know the power of preparation. When I can visualize how I might respond it’s like I’ve already primed the pump to access that solution in the moment. I just have to remind myself to be present in the moments and not so hung up on conquering the speech. 🙂

    • speakerlauncher

      Yes Erin, that’s a good point. Recognizing that there IS an elephant is really the first step, and you have to be “in the moment” paying attention to achieve that.

  • James Divine

    Any tips for speaking at a banquet? I am doing so for the first time this summer. I’m used to being the “main event” and am wondering what plates, forks, servers and delicious desserts will do (although maybe I can think of my speech as the delicious dessert).

    • speakerlauncher

      Do as much as you can to control how much activity is going on while you speak (ie: ask that coffee/dessert be served and then wait staff leave the room prior to your intro). You’ll want to have more humor than normal, and keep it lighter and potentially shorter in length. With a full belly, folks will be tired. Have fun with it, it’s not ideal, but a pro can pull it off.

      • James Divine

        Thank you.