Turning a Faux Pas into a Win

The other day I was doing a training on leadership communication for a large client in the communication technology industry. Among their many products and services are video and teleconferencing tools. In the course of my program, we got to the part about facilitating virtual meetings, and as I clicked to the next slide, I suddenly heard a couple of boos from the crowd. I look up and realized my gaffe: my default visual was an image of people chatting on Skype – a direct competitor.

I apologized immediately, and said I had completely forgotten that this image was in the deck… then wondered aloud if my next image had the same problem. Click. Yup, up popped a picture of a conference telephone by another competitor, which was confirmed by a collective groan, “Oohhh!” as if their favorite batter had just struck out at the plate.

Now I had a choice to make: I could flush beet-red, babble a string of mortified apologies, and run out of the room in humiliation, or I could turn it around and make it a “teachable moment.” I opted for the latter, and explicitly shared this very choice with the group.

“Actually, I’m glad this happened, because it allows me to demonstrate some additional strategies in leadership communication, rather than just talking about them.” From there, I walked them through a sequence of steps, both in addressing my personal mistake, and narrating the conscious strategy behind each step I was taking in the process. I share it with you here, so that you can also learn from my mistake, and use the experience to your advantage, as I did.

First, I apologized. Not over-apologized, as I described as common habit among some people, especially women, in this earlier article. But the fact is, plain and simple, I made an undeniable, objective mistake, and it was my responsibility to own it. I wasn’t groveling, but still clearly sincere. My voice stayed even in speed and volume to indicate composure, and model the degree of drama that I believed was warranted by the situation, so they could follow suit.

Note that people will mirror your tension level: If you start calm in a crisis, others will follow your lead and stay calm, even if unhappy, which minimizes the damage. But if you start frantic, whether frantic with guilt or frantic with worry, the audience will infer that that level of drama is warranted, and they will feel a comparative degree of indignation.

Second, I briefly explained my original intention behind the mistake, providing just enough information to help them understand what happened and increase empathy. In this case, I explained that at the time I selected these images, my focus and biggest challenge was finding appropriate pictures with sufficiently high resolution so I could zoom it on the slide and still have the picture be in sharp focus, which limited my options based on the images I found on-line.

That doesn’t excuse the fact that I still completely forgot about the connection to the client’s product line, but hopefully that gave them an appreciation for the fact that my intention was to ensure that they had clear visuals, not grainy, as part of their experience.

Third, I offered a solution to the problem, and engaged the audience in helping me to solve it. “Let me offer this to you in return: From here on out, I will replace these two images with your products instead, and have them be the standard images when I present to other companies in the future. How does that sound?” I saw lots of head nods in the audience. Free advertising for them; who wouldn’t appreciate that?

Then I followed up with, “But I’m going to need a little assistance. Since I wasn’t able to find good, high-resolution images of (Product X and Y) online, I need one of you to send me some. Who here will volunteer to send them to me?” Half a dozen hands shot up in the air. Now, not only had I offered an agreeable solution, but I had enrolled the client’s enthusiastic participation in helping me execute the decision. Now we were partners, sharing in the responsibility to achieve the desired outcome.

Finally, we debriefed the episode. I had the audience reflect on public mistakes that they had made or had seen others make, and compare how they were handled compared to what we had just done. This gave everyone the chance to digest the experience, and consciously identify for themselves what I had modeled as positive strategies for handling mistakes. They listed them, so I didn’t have to, which helped it to sink in.

Ironically, something that could have completely undermined my image as an expert in leadership communication turned out to be a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that very expertise.

At the end of the day, several people came up to talk to me, and most of them referenced that lesson about how to turn a faux pas into a win. One woman said, “I really wanted to see where you were going to go with it once that second image popped up, but you handled the whole situation perfectly! I’m so glad we got to go through the process.”

Naturally, the nature of your error is going to determine how you need to rectify the situation. My unintentional “affront” certainly could have been much more detrimental if in a pitch rather than a training, but still would not be nearly as critical as forgetting the decimal point when drawing up budgets.

In the end, what matters most is how you respond in the moment. Keep your composure, acknowledge the error, apologize appropriately and sincerely, give only as much explanation as is necessary (sometimes none), then offer a remedy and see it through. This enables you to maintain control of the situation and lead by example, which helps you to build (or rebuild) trust, and reinforce your image and reputation as a leader.


Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!