Anything That Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong

Ah, good old “Murphy’s Law.” Examples of this adage abound in real life: Whatever line you choose to stand in at the grocery store, the OTHER line will move faster. If you drop a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the floor, it will always land jelly side down. The minute you buy a new pair of glasses to replace the ones you lost, you’ll find the old glasses. After your hands become coated with grease, your nose will begin to itch and you’ll have to go to the rest room. Any tool you drop will roll to the least accessible corner.

Examples of Murphy’s Law also abound in any live performance, whether it be a theatrical production or a business presentation. Once, a long time ago, Ellen was appearing in a community theater production of a play called “Christmas on Mars,” in which four very different characters become roommates and have to figure out how to get along. At one point, one of the characters, a very neurotic young man, decides he has nothing to live for any more and tries to take his own life by stabbing himself in the neck with a steak knife. (By the way, the play is a comedy.) One night, a few minutes into the play, the actors realized that the steak knife was missing from the table; the props person had forgotten to put it out with the other utensils. All the actors knew that this was a problem, as the steak-knife-stabbing scene was about to come up, but of course they weren’t going to let the audience know that something was wrong. Without missing a beat, the neurotic character just grabbed a butter knife from the table and tried to stab himself with that. The bit got such big laughs, the director decided to keep it in the show. 

On another occasion, in a community theater production of “King Lear,” the actor playing Edgar, the Earl of Gloucester’s good son, strides onto the stage in disguise to challenge his evil brother, Edmund, to a fight. What is supposed to happen is that when Edgar shouts, “Sound the trumpets!” the trumpets indeed sound, he bounds on to the stage, and the brothers engage in battle. One night, something went haywire with the theater’s sound system. “Sound the trumpets!” Edgar demanded. Nothing. No trumpets. “Sound the trumpets!!!” Edgar cried again, somewhat desperately. Nothing. “SOUND THE TRUMPETS!” Edgar bellowed again, knowing that he cannot say “sound the trumpets” one more time. So he improvised: “TO HELL WITH THE TRUMPETS!” and he bounded onstage.

Similarly, how can a presentation go wrong? Let us count the ways. Ellen remembers once, in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation, she accidentally kicked the power cord out of its outlet in the floor and shut the laptop down. Which meant that she then had to pause the presentation to plug the laptop back in, wait for it to boot up again, and then restart the program and find the current slide. On another occasion, at a presentation in a hotel meeting room, a person from the hotel interrupted the presentation by insisting that the speaker sign for the hotel bill. And on still another occasion, a training session was interrupted by the sound of what appeared to be gunshots right outside the training room door. (Turns out the folks in the nearby cafeteria were just setting off firecrackers. Still.)

So what do you do if you are rudely interrupted during a presentation or confronted with an unexpected circumstance? You take your cue from stage actors, who are taught to “stay in character” no matter what happens on stage. You remain calm, you assess the situation, you check to see who might help you (“Can someone boot up the laptop for me while I continue?”), you ad lib, you improvise, you go on with your show. If the problem is not caused by any action on your part, and the audience knows that you are not responsible, they will always be on your side, looking for a way to help you out. (“I just peeked outside. It’s just firecrackers.”) Indeed, Murphy’s Law shows up so frequently that nearly everyone will sympathize with you as they remember things that went wrong for them. In this way, an unexpected problem can actually become a shared experience between you and your audience.

We should note here that coping with unforeseen events is precisely why we encourage you to speak from notes and not from a script. If you are locked into a delivery mode where you have everything memorized (or, horror, you are reading your notes), when something goes wrong you will most likely lose your train of thought, become flustered, and start grasping for ideas. Audiences do not respond favorably to this behavior. (No one wants to see Edgar sit down on the stage and sob, “Why didn’t the trumpets sound?”) If you speak from notes, it will be easier for you to roll with whatever punches come your way, get back on track, and stay the course.

In a production of “Othello” at the New Mexico State University Little Theater in 1968, the great actor (not yet great, he was just starting out) James Earl Jones, playing Othello, found himself alone on stage when the actress playing Emilia missed her cue to come out. (She was in the green room playing bridge with the other actors.) Jones didn’t miss a beat. He simply started adlibbing a “Shakespearean” monologue, which kept the play moving along, until the horrified Emilia made her entrance. There were, of course, some members of the audience who knew their Shakespeare and were trying to remember if they had heard that monologue before. Didn’t matter. The show went on.

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