What to do when you swallow a bug (or other things go wrong during a presentation)

Earlier this week, a bug flew into the mouth of Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solis during an on-camera media interview. He swallowed it down and laughed as he matter-of-factly declared, “I ate it. I ate the wasp.” Solis took a drink of water and continued the interview as if nothing happened.

You may never have a bug fly in your mouth during a presentation, but you are likely to encounter a mishap every now and then. After all, no matter how much prep work you do, there may be a technology failure, you may trip and fall on stage, a fire alarm may go off, or as Solis experienced, you may end up hosting uninvited critters during your talk.

Remember, the measure of a great speaker isn’t being perfect or miraculously avoiding unexpected situations. Things can (and will) go wrong. The goal is to respond with grace and humility when they do, as Solis did. His reaction provides useful guidance to all public speakers:

1. Don’t panic

Solis didn’t frantically swat at the wasp, scream, grab his mouth, or gag. He very calmly gulped it down. Similarly, when something goes wrong during your talk, don’t get frantic. Panic just makes the situation worse. Continue to breathe and keep a level head.

Note: in the event of an emergency, such as a fire alarm or an actual fire, your composure is vital. You must calmly instruct listeners what to do (don’t pack up, leave your materials in place, walk to the nearest exit, don’t use elevators); where to exit (familiarize yourself with emergency exits and check evacuation procedures with event planners before your speech); and lead them out in a fast but orderly fashion.

2. Make light of the situation

For non-emergencies, humor is a great way to cut the tension in the room. I once saw a keynote speaker trip on the stairs to the stage. When she reached the lectern, she said, “You probably didn’t think I’d take speaking at your fall conference so literally!” While Solis didn’t respond with a joke, he did smile and laugh when he said, “I ate the wasp.” Poking fun at yourself when things go wrong can help your audience connect with and even empathize with you.

3. Calmly try to improve the situation

After Solis swallowed the wasp, he took a drink of water from an aide so he could clear his throat and continue on. Likewise, at a recent event at a local school, a small mouse ran by the feet of the district representative who was presenting. She said, “Oh, hi little friend. I’m going to walk over to this side of the room and any parents who want to join me, please do.”

In the case of failed technology, you might try troubleshooting for one minute before asking an event organizer or tech-support professional to take over. You may not be able to fix the situation (catch the mouse or get the PowerPoint slides back up on the screen) and that’s OK. Improve the situation as much as you can and leave the rest to others who aren’t on stage.

4. Move on quickly

You only have a minute to try to improve the situation before you will start to lose your audience. Just as Solis did, get back to your prepared presentation as quickly as possible. Don’t belabor the issue with long apologies or diatribes about the need for better pest control or better technology. Drawing attention to the problem or your frustration will do nothing to make it better; it highlights the problem, prolongs the negative, and robs you of time to deliver your message. Return to your planned presentation as quickly you can.

5. Continue with confidence

While you can’t do much about swallowing a bug, tripping on stage, burning out the bulb in the projector, having a fire alarm, or seeing a mouse run across your toes during a speech, you can determine how you will respond. The worst thing you can do is let a mishap ruin the rest of your presentation. Instead, as Solis did, remain focused on why your listeners came to hear you and committed to providing them as much value you can.