Clear Comm Consulting

Gee, that was awkward! Dealing with discomfort in public

Jun 24, 2011

During a recent tour through New Hampshire, presidential candidate Mitt Romney seemed to put on an “awkwardfest.” Of course Mr. Romney may make a fine president — I take no sides on that question. (If awkwardness stopped people from inhabiting the highest office in the land I think we would have disqualified some of our best known presidents!) But I always learn something from public figures and it appears the former Massachusetts governor will occasionally provide us with a case study in the socially uncomfortable. Dana Milbank’s article from earlier this month provides a case-in-point.

Are you that person at times? Is your boss? Are there embarrassing silences after certain comments? Do you hear an occasional, “OOOhhhh” after a poorly timed aside? How about the struggle to make small talk? And then there’s just a general discomfort in your own skin? Well, the reality is we ALL feel that way sometimes, but some people seem to be magnets for that behavior. Let’s lend them a hand, okay?

“Oops, I shouldn’t have said that!” — For starters, there is the errant comment that falls flat, or worse, offends someone. Often, the source of this is the weak attempt to be funny — and men seem to do this as they struggle to be comfortable around the opposite sex. Here’s a hint — if the joke is about another group of people it is best to stay away! Make fun of yourself, but stay away from making comments that lead you down roads you should not travel!

Also, stay away from canned jokes. Rarely are standard jokes really new to your audience and straining to make them work from one audience to another is often a stretch. Unless you are one of the few natural born comedians, leave the jokes to the professionals and instead focus on compliments and kind comments that allow others to share in the conversation.

“Gee, what should I talk about?” — The awkward among us often complain about not knowing what to say. We all have that sensation on occasion. The best advice here is to keep the focus on listening and inclusion — not trying to be in the spotlight all of the time. The most impressive leaders I work with regularly are those who walk into the room as the CEO and walk out as a “regular person.” Of course there are times when a CEO has to play an obvious leadership role, but there are plenty of times when the leader sets a great example by being seen as a servant to others.

“I just always feel uncomfortable in public.” — Have you tried talking to your doctor about it? Seriously, more than once I’ve advised clients to get some help with generalized anxiety. There are manageable options out there, especially when preparing for a big meeting or presentation.

If you’ve seen yourself or colleagues in these quick examples I have one final piece of advice. You are not alone! I’m willing to bet the number of people nodding their heads in agreement while reading this Memo will be higher than most. What does that tell you? It tells you the awkward moment finds us all, but it also tells you that with a little thought and focus on our audience instead of ourselves, we’ll avoid the worst of them.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

Advice on How to Connect in Business