By Telana Simpson

The Scenario

What would you do if you found yourself in the following situation?

You’re one of the speakers of a prestigious event.  The main guest at the event is the former President of your country.  There’s three hundred people who have paid to attend the event and are waiting to hear you and the other speakers’ thoughts on the important, complex topic.  The media is also present and televising the evening.

The event is running late, and you’ve just finished the VIP section of the evening.  It’s now time for you and the other speakers to go to the main hall and address the audience.  The President has gone ahead with his security, and you and the other speakers get into the lift to go up the two floors to the main event venue.

And the lift breaks down.
You are now all stuck in the lift.

Help eventually finds you, and must wait nearly an hour for them to get you out of the lift, using spoons to pry the door open.

Because the event is now running so late, you are asked to shorten your 20 minutes speech to the essentials.  You will now have ten minutes or less to convey your point about a complex topic.

The lift doors are forced open, you have to crawl out the lift and then all walk into the room, to cheers and clapping from the audience.

How do you handle this?

Performance and Stress

Public speaking is of itself a stressful event for most people – never mind the added performance anxiety that can often come with speaking to a large group of spectators with highly influential audience members.  And all the cameras!

Life happens in unexpected ways and at often inconvenient times – like a lift breaking down.

And getting trapped in the lift just before speaking, and being asked to change your content with a moments notice, would test even the best speakers’ skills.

You need to manage your state to stay calm, think clearly, and also be spontaneous and flexible.

Well, this was an actual event that happened, and I got to witness some exceptional public speaking skills in action.

The Heavy Chef Lift Event

On Friday 14th September, our former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki was one of the guest speakers at the Heavy Chef event about “Educating Africa: How the 4th Industrial Revolution is changing education in Africa”.  This event was also to launch the Thabo Mbeki Foundation’s ‘Buy A Brick’ campaign.  This will help build the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library, “an African Centre of Excellence in learning, research and discourse for the transformation of Africa”.

The Founder of Heavy Chef and MC for the main part of the evening, Fred Roed, together with speakers S’onqoba Maseko and Sam Paddock, were among the people who were stuck in the lift.

They emerged and without hesitation took the microphones, stepped on stage and shared their excellence speaking skills.  With senses of humour, and confidence that was palpable, they conveyed the critical elements of the topic and we all enjoyed the evening.

Skills to Shine under Pressure

From my outside perspective, and what I could notice on the evening and surmising from attending a few of these kinds of events before hosted by Fred, listed below are the skills that stood out and contributed to the success of the event, where the circumstances could have easily derailed the entire evening.

  1. Leadership

People took initiative on the night.  Things were happening and the audience was being kept informed.  This gave a sense that the situation was under control, and I am sure helped keep those stuck in the lift calm

When in a crisis, it’s up to someone to lead and take control of the situation and manage the expectations of everyone – even if you do so from off the stage or within the lift – by delegating to your team.  Your confidence and calm, and being focused on solutions, can turn a negative crisis into a positive, success story that will be talked about at many dinner parties to come.

  1. Sense of Humour

When Fred and the speakers took to the stage, they brought a wonderful sense of humour to the whole situation, and the jokes and puns about lifts were elegantly intertwined into the serious topic of the evening.

Being able to laugh about a situation and at ourselves, can take the edge off a crisis, keep people’s emotions in check, and help them to keep calm.   And it allows those effected to still enjoy themselves and feel that they were not robbed of their valuable time.

  1. Flexibility and Improvisation

The MC’s were quick to improvise and use the time waiting for the captives to be freed from the lift, by opening the floor to questions and comments.  They kept the audience engaged and entertained.

This was followed by the speakers showing exceptional flexibility to be able to adjust their speeches on the whim, to accommodate the situation and still present confidently.

If you do public speaking often, it is worth developing a mindset of flexibility and the skills of improv.  This will help you to be able to think on your feet and make decisions quickly about what information to leave out, which bits to shorten, and which bits to keep.  As more often than not, things go wrong and your plans for your presentation will be impacted.  Being adaptability can help you to still deliver well and get your message across.

  1. Team Work

It appears that the Heavy Chef team work well together.  Some of the team just stepped elegantly off the stage to deal with the behind the scenes situation.  Others stepped forward to help manage the audience questions.  People appeared to work together and take each other’s leads to keep the evening moving forward.

If you have a team you can rely on, who each know their role and yet are flexible to step up or aside as is needed for the bigger vision of the success of the event, then you are not only lucky, but have a winning formula for team work.

  1. Passion, Knowledge and Experience

The speakers were well chosen for their contributions to the topic of Educating Africa, and their passion and knowledge shown through in their speeches and answering of questions from the audience.

Confidence comes from practice or experience, as well as from subject knowledge.  I believe this helped all the speakers of the evening to remain calm and confident, and still make sense and provide value as they shared their points of view.

They did it so well actually, that I and some audience members I spoke with afterwards, left with the feeling of wanting more and looking forward to hearing these speakers again.

If you prepare in a useful way by not parrot-learning your speech, but rather knowing the key points you want to convey and having the background knowledge and related wording and examples for your points, you will more easily be able to adapt when you step on stage to talk.

  1. Being Creative and Optimistic

Fred and the others in the lift used their time stuck there well.  They filmed a video where they shared some of their key messages, and laughed about the situation.

Being creative and looking for ways to turn the situation around and make the most of it, will go a long way to make up for any disappointments.  You might even be able to add extra value and keep people talking constructively about the situation, or even better, about the reason or bigger purpose of the whole event.

And an attitude of optimism, helps one to contain the negatives to the relevant situation, and not let it spill into all other aspects of the evening.

Learning from Lifts Breaking

From my vantage point in the audience, these are the six aspects of public speaking skills that I believe contributed to making this event an uplifting success ;-)

So here’s to more of us developing our public speaking skills, and taking a feather or two out of those who shine – especially in unusually challenging situations – so we can learn from their example and skills, and still have an impact around the cause we are representing.

Here’s to being stuck in a lift, and still shining.

About the Author:

Telana-Communication and Relationship CoachTelana is a dynamic transformational Personal Coach who focuses on communicating and relating. She works with people who want to change their lives, specifically to improve their communication skills and relationships and their ability to express themselves verbally, creatively, emotionally and physically. She specialises in self esteem, controlling emotions, overcoming self consciousness and anxiety, handling conflict, fear of confrontation and developing relationships. She is the host of the online TV show “ Let’s Talk Communication”. You can contact her through or Instagram, or tweet her @Telana .