The other month I delivered a talk to a group of 50 some people at a large technology company. The executive that preceded me had gone over her allotted time in the presentation. Unfortunately, the moderator did not make up for lost time in the Q&A session. As a result, I found myself having to cram an hour-and-20-minute presentation I had so carefully planned into 50 minutes. Yikes!
Moreover, after the executive presented, half of the audience got up to get food, and some people left. I went from feeling excited and prepared to feeling rushed, uneasy and nervous, wondering how I was going to fit everything in. I actually started to feel like nobody wanted to listen to me. For a moment, I could feel myself losing my composure. I knew my saboteur, that inner voice of criticism and negativity, was about to get the best of me. Fortunately, I was able to self-manage and get through the presentation just fine. Here are some things that helped me get through this unexpected situation with grace and ease.
1. Put Things into Perspective
Rather than get annoyed at the way things were flowing, I had to pause and put things into perspective. I reminded myself that there have been far greater offenses in similar situations, and to much more distinguished people in a much more complicated performance environment! I had a flashback to world-class Indian artist, Pandit Chitresh Das* who I had the benefit of studying under for over a decade. He once lost his entire microphone system during a major dance performance in India. I watched as he was in the middle of a solo and his mic just shut off. Despite him being in the middle of a composition and getting thrown totally off, he kept going (though he looked quite annoyed - who wouldn't be?), finishing his compositions until the sound could be restored. Taking that lesson to heart, that’s what I did. I told myself this wasn’t the end of the world. It didn’t have to be perfect and, I should be nimble enough to go with the flow and improvise. I also thought about surfing and the way the ocean has taught me this lesson thousands of times in it's ever changing, unpredictable way, often reminding me what a speck I am in the grand scheme of the world. I started calculating in my head what I was going to cut. I also got clear with what was most important in the moment: how I showed up, as my attitude and mental state would either make the talk or break it. Putting things into perspective helped greatly in managing this snafu.
2. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!
I continued my talk just fine. I almost got through all of my slides when I clicked on the next one, only to realize none of my animated bullets made it into the master deck compiled by the company, which guided all my talking points! Surprised and embarrassed, I quickly grabbed my paper notes from the side and revealed verbally each point, one by one.
Even with 15 years of public speaking experience under my belt, I can’t stress the importance of being as prepared as possible for whatever presentation or project you may be doing. You just never know what will happen, and you want to feel comfortable enough with the content that you can improvise on it if you have to.
For a 20-minute talk, I often put in hours of prep time, as I’m not a natural, on-the-fly orator. I know my slides and points like the back of my hand. I made sure I had backup notes, just in case the slides clonked out. Instead of expending energy scrambling as a result of not seeing my bullet points on the slide, I put my energy towards grabbing my notes and presenting from there. Though it wasn’t completely polished, it was fine. And, I was able to get my points across with no problem, while still feeling confident in my delivery. This would have been hard to do if I were less prepared.
3. Get as Much Experience Under Your Belt as Possible
The more experience you have, the better you’ll be able to manage through unexpected bumps in the road. For speaking, experience can range from presenting something to your roommate or friend or spouse, to presenting at a full-blown conference. It doesn’t always have to be in the context in which you are doing your work. For example, I taught dance for years. Being in front of students and presenting to them absolutely contributed to the development of my public speaking skills. So, get as much experience as possible. The more experience you get, and the more the experience can mirror the conditions under which you have to perform, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and the better you will be able to manage on the fly.
When I was in high school, I was presenting an original oration at a forensics conference in Boston. It was my first time speaking and competing in that particular division. I felt so unsure and doubted my speech so much that I lost my confidence in the middle, and wasn’t able to finish it. I just sat down, feeling a bit ashamed, embarrassed and defeated. I was usually very comfortable speaking, but this was a new topic area for me, and I was out of my comfort zone. After everyone had completed their orations, the judge came back to me. He was kind, and gave me the opportunity to go back up on the stage and present, but I still did not do it.
When I talk about gaining experience, I mean facing situations that you may not be able to get through at that time, but that will stretch you, and yes, even scare you a bit. Contrast this story to many years later in my professional career when I’d find myself presenting in front of an audience of hundreds of women halfway across the world at a major women’s business conference (and getting paid thousands of dollars to do it). Things went fine, but I would have never gotten there without both the positive and not so positive experiences under my belt. Gaining that confidence takes time, and there can be some humbling experiences along the way. But just keep doing and learn to appreciate the experiences, even if you don't come out on top for all of them. Most athletes and artists get this at a visceral level (why they have a thing called rehearsals and practice), but what about taking that mindset to our professional work?
4. Know Your Purpose
During the unexpected bumps in my recent talk, it occurred to me that I could stay rigid to the way things were SUPPOSED to go and, as a result, fall apart or complain when they didn’t go as planned (this is a very left-brained way of seeing the world). Or, I could swing over to the other side and allow for a little possibility, a characteristic associated with right-brained processing.
On my way down to the talk, I was in a funky mood. I decided to close my eyes and did a meditation on the plane. I focused on my breathing and imagined a heart with a chocolate ice cream cone in it (hey, I was taught as a kid to meditate on ice cream cones throughout my martial arts training. It stuck so it’s fair game in my book. The point is to keep your mind focused on one thing). This was followed by a vision of what I call ninja love – spreading love through the sending of hearts all around me, in the shape of heart discuses. I know it sounds strange, but this is just what came to me. It was through this meditation that I connected with my purpose for the day. The content was important, but more than anything, I realized I was there to inspire, and - I know this will sound woo woo - to spread love. I realized that delivering a perfect presentation was far from the point. The point was all about how I showed up in relation to the people I would meet and what intention I had for them in the moments I was able to connect with them. The more relaxed, centered, connected and focused I showed up, the greater impact I’d be able to make with my words.
No matter what the chaos, I truly believe that the attitude and energy we cultivate in our space makes all the difference. This is not to say that it should have been all on me to make my talk successful. In the end, I was able to debrief with their team and share with them ideas for how to better manage these events, as well as make a checklist of what I needed to prepare going forward, should I encounter a similar scenario. Even better, the team members who organized the talk evaluated themselves, and they picked up on most of the hiccups so that next time, things could run smoother. Remember: there are no mistakes in life - just experiments with results as touted author, Gregg Levoy, says!
In the end, the participants were elated. They were engaged, and we got very positive feedback on the event. And that’s what mattered most.
Performance is a complicated tapestry of inner mental work, readiness and practice. (Note: That’s a tweetable. Tweet away!) Improvisation always needs a solid base. When things don’t go as expected, we need that base and mental readiness to move forward, whether we are an athlete, motivational speaker, or performer.
What strategies and techniques do you use to manage your performance when unexpected glitches happen? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section below!
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