Emiko Hori is the author of Let’s Play Speech! – How to Give a Better Speech Using the Principles of Musical Performance, available on Amazon.

Planning for the Unexpected, by Emiko Hori

Creating a mental list of unexpected incidents that might occur on stage is part of the preparation every musician undertakes. In the back of my mind, I always have this: “What if…”

It is a mindset, an adaptation of a quick response in case of emergency. Mishaps sometimes happen in a musical performance. There is a famous story about Midori, a world-renowned Japanese violinist. In 1986, she gave her legendary performance at Tanglewood, during which she broke one of the strings of her own violin (the E-string, to be exact). During the performance, she borrowed the Concertmaster’s violin and continued performing. About thirty seconds later, she broke the E-string once again. She finished her performance with the Associate Concertmaster’s violin. The next day, the New York Times carried the headline: “Girl, 14, Conquers Tanglewood with 3 violins.”

Speaking of mishaps, what do you suppose I do if I forget a note during my piano performance? I just move on. The performance should be flawless, just like riding on a moving escalator from the first floor to the second floor without stopping. There is no going back. As long as I am musically correct in terms of interpretation, I will succeed in engaging the audience despite a few missed notes. Usually, the audience is forgiving about a small mistake or two, or may not even notice you missed the notes. By the end of the performance, they will usually forget them. On the other hand, if I am not musically correct and I’m not engaging the audience, they will spot my flaws right away.

How can we apply this principle to a speech? Listing the possibilities for unexpected mishaps ahead of time helps when incidents actually happen. Here are some of the examples:

What if…

  • I forget the first line of my speech?
  • The audience doesn’t laugh at my punch line?
  • I forget to bring my prop?
  • I accidentally drop my prop during the presentation?
  • I cannot take my hat off my head during the speech (assuming that my hat is my prop)?
  • I cannot find a table to place my hat (or any of my props)?
  • My PowerPoint does not start?
  • My laptop is dead?
  • The room is too hot?
  • My microphone does not function?
  • The room has no microphone?
  • An audience member’s cell phone rings?
  • The stage makes noise when I walk around?
  • and so on

During the preparation, it is ideal to make a mental note (or write them down if you want to be totally sure) of what to do in every one of the scenarios above.

If an accident happens on the stage, then…

  • I improvise on Module A with plan B or ask my audience “Where was I?”
  • I kick my hat and say “C”
  • I leave my hat on my head and move on to Module B
  • I place my hat on the floor and say “X”
  • I make sure have a copy of my PowerPoint on a flash drive
  • I make sure that I wear layers of clothes to adjust the temperature
  • I bring my own microphone or I am prepared to speak loudly
  • I have prepared a joke about cell phones that acknowledges the distraction and moves on
  • Make sure to inspect the stage beforehand to avoid mistakenly walking on a weak spot of the stage
  • and so on

These are called “planned” spontaneous actions. It is like a fire drill. Keep a mental note in the back of your mind, and use it if necessary. We all hope that nothing unexpected happens on stage. If something does happen, well, you are ready to take alternate action!

Emiko Hori is the author of Let’s Play Speech! – How to Give a Better Speech Using the Principles of Musical Performance, available on Amazon.