Bow Out Gracefully: How to Cancel a Speech

Career Blog

Itribune speeches room microphonef you’re successful in your chosen profession at some point you may be asked to give a presentation. Given the common assumption that public speaking is one of the top five fears countless books and articles have been written to help you muster the courage and develop the skills to shine on stage.

But what if an unfortunate circumstance is what prevents you from grabbing the mic? What if you have the will, but there is just no way to make it happen? While most people aren’t professional speakers, we should all strive to act like professionals in every setting. And as any pro will tell you, sometimes the uncontrollable happens:  you wake up with no voice, you get stuck in an airport, or a family crisis calls you away.

Thorough planning can help you navigate most of these issues, but occasionally you find yourself truly stuck. Proper protocol for these situations includes the following five actions:

  1. Provide Fast, Honest Client Communication: Let the client (and/or your manager) know as soon as possible, what the issue is and how it may affect your arrival/performance. Then provide updates.
  2. Plan a Backup: Depending on the setting and topic, sometimes having a go-to back-up speaker can fill the need. This is dicey as you are in essence entrusting your reputation to another person, but I’ve seen it work for both parties.
  3. Offer an Option: Most pros can power through a cold, but if your voice is effected, you have to let the client know and be honest about how that might affect your performance. There are always workarounds, but you have to do what’s best for the audience.
  4. Honor Your Agreement: Fee returns and other contractual agreements should be expedited and completed without undue administration. If you’re speaking internally without formal agreements, act as if they are in place and ensure your internal stakeholders are made whole.
  5. Create a Win: Like the speech itself, the interaction is not about the speaker. You have to think about the person who booked you, the client, the audience and how you can still deliver the best possible value to them. Sending a gift card after the wedding is not the same as being there, but creative add-ons and excellent customer service throughout a challenge can help fill the gap.

On the flip side, if you’re ever asked to fill in for a colleague consider it an honor, not a burden. While you can never replace another speaker as each has his/her own style, the goal is to preserve the message and provide value to the audience in service of your colleague. The speaking business is a community and everyone knows that karma comes around. Most folks will help out without inserting their ego into the mix. If you’re called to pinch hit, think of the team first and give them a win.

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