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The Brain Freeze Watched Round the World

An onstage "Um ..." can go global in seconds.

Aww, poor Michael Bay.

And poor audience members, who thought they were going to hear from the world-famous film producer and director.

Bay had just started to address a huge audience at the annual CES in Las Vegas yesterday, when disaster struck — and the director of such action blockbusters as “Transformers,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon” made all the wrong public-speaking choices. CES is a must-see meeting for techno-geeks of all kinds, where the newest devices and games get rolled out amid great fanfare and global attention.

It’s also where, in the age of Twitter, the slightest brain freeze can go global in seconds.

Most of the speeches at CES are run off a teleprompter. Bay’s speech was one of them. When he accidentally skipped ahead of what was in the script, the prompter operator had to figure out where he was, which resulted in a moment of confusion for the prompter op — and a moment of silence from Bay.

Then he walked off the stage — only to feel awful about it later. He quickly apologized — humbly and graciously for a man known for bombastic epics. But immediately it was all anyone was talking about — including, of course, the public-speaking and public-relations industries.

After all, Bay was there to introduce Samsung’s curved 105-inch UHD TV. But no one’s talking about that today. What they’re talking about is something that was easily preventable, especially if you understand how the age of Twitter has changed the way audiences consume and appreciate live presentations.

At my company, InVisible Light Inc., we coach people in the tech industry, one of whom was in that CES showroom audience. She wrote to say, “When you say you can recover from anything, I don’t think you could have had this situation in mind.” We beg to differ.

What the heck happened? And what should you do, if this ever happens to you? A few suggestions:

Exhale. Frightened people inhale and hold their breath, and that starts a cascade of fear-related chemicals to race through your bloodstream. The reaction causes the blood to divert from the thinking part of your brain (the neocortex, right behind your forehead) to your heart, hands and feet — the better to punch or run your way out of danger. When you exhale, and don’t hold your breath, you can interrupt the chemical reaction. Sometimes, just sipping some water will let you exhale enough to relax and bring your brain back on line.

Say “yes” to the situation. “Okay. I seem to have lost my prompter, but I know these guys are pros, and they will find me in just a minute.” The audience doesn’t need you to be infallible. Just flexible.

Know the Big Idea of your message. That way you can still tell us the main idea of your talk, and, if the prompter never comes back on, you have still connected with us and done your job. All he had to do was say, “I love this Samsung curved 105-inch UHD TV so much that I came here to talk about it, and I never do that!”

Rehearse. I wasn’t there so what do I know? But my bet is Mr. Bay didn’t rehearse — he showed up to see where he entered from, do a mic check and waited backstage with the execs. It may have been his decision, or it may have been handlers who didn’t want to bug him. Either way — bad call! Always, always rehearse. Your producer should tell you things like, “There’s an emergency back-up script on the lectern, see?” And, “If the prompter goes out, just stop. These guys are pros and they will never lose you.”

Understand the stakes. Your audience carries cellphones with active Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and other accounts open in them. Your awesome moment might go viral, but your brain-blips absolutely will. You want to deliver well for your audiences, because they deserve it, whether or not they can make those blips and blurts public. But if you prepare, you’re that much more likely to get your great ideas shared.

Stage fright and brain freeze happen to all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. There are great preparatory tools to make sure that it never happens to you — whether or not you use a teleprompter. Michael Bay’s disaster made headlines today. If he had gotten the right support ahead of time, it might have been different.

Jane Beard, a former stage actress, is president of InVisible Light Inc., which has coached senior-level executives from Accenture, AOL, Google and others in high-stakes presentations that change the trajectory of companies and careers. She is the author of “Don’t Sweat the Talk Stuff: Instant Help for Nervous Speakers.” Reach her @JaneBIVL.

This article originally appeared on

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