One of the worst parts of public speaking for a speaker is not knowing what else is going on while you orate.
My book on the subject Speeches for Leaders talks about the perils of e-heckling:
It gets worse. Imagine a woman leader giving a serious, substantive speech about global inequalities but not realising that the screens in the room are carrying a caustic stream of live e–demolitions of those very words. The Tweets undermining the leader may be sexist or racist, or sharp and quite funny, or utterly untrue, or all of these and more at the same time in fewer than 140 characters:
HAHAHA hot socialist black babe lectures us on world poverty but wears a FAT ROLEX COSTING $10K!!!!
LOL #hypocrite #stringemup #sexylegs
The audience starts tittering at the incongruity of this situation: Those stupid Tweets are a lot more interesting than this speech! And by the way what sort of watch does she have? The leader thinks that the audience is laughing with the speech, not at the leader’s plight, and adjusts her words accordingly. This produces more e–banter and more audience hilarity. The leader and speech spiral out of control, but the leader does not know why. Horrendous.
To add insult to injury, this unfolding calamity is captured on a smartphone video camera by someone in the audience and posted almost live on YouTube. A disobliging news story blows up from nowhere around this alone. The speech becomes known for this e-debacle, not for anything the leader said.
Take the relieved speech by Hillary Clinton last night after she more or less won the Iowa Democratic caucus. These days US leaders like to have a sea of faces as a backdrop for TV viewers, to show that they are among and with the American People or something like that. Where possible the people who are going to be in the TV shots are carefully selected/screened for age, ‘race’, gender, clothes and so on, to show TV viewers just how wide and deep and human the speaker’s appeal really goes.
All fine in theory, if a bit hackneyed. But there is one problem. If someone behind the speaker falls asleep or yawns or grimaces or otherwise draws attention to himself/herself, all of a sudden the TV viewers have a fine choice: do they watch the speaker, or is this other misbehaving dude a lot more interesting?
Walk to the fore, Stickerboy. You did democracy proud last night:
This fine fellow has a name: Peter Clinkscales; I’m a simple man. I like pretty, dark-haired women and breakfast food
Mrs Clinton then “just hightailed it out of here after concluding her remarks, failing to pause even a few moments to shake supporters’ hands”. This is what happens when you’re in meltdown.
It’s not what you say – it’s what they hear. And it’s also the pest making silly faces right behind you.