Over the past twenty years I have delivered hundreds of professional speeches; from lonely conference breakout sessions to substantial, large audience big productions in Las Vegas and Chicago. The vast majority of the time the gigs have played out well. I like to walk a fine balance between the deep idea and the immediately usable tidbit. I like to challenge audiences. When everything is clicking it is a great buzz.
An intern recently asked me if I had ever completely flopped. The answer is “oh hell yes.” There are plenty of examples of missed opportunities, screwed up logistics, bad slides etc., but two speeches tanked so bad they continue to haunt me.
I will tell you those stories in a second.
But first let me introduce a metaphor. My mother in law, Joyce Walter (not the woman in the picture), God rest her soul, was a pioneer. In the late sixties she wrote a master’s thesis on the microwave and the baked potato. This is the equivalent of writing about molecular gastronomy today. Nobody owned microwave ovens when she wrote that thesis. The first one I heard of was on Air Force One when the Apollo 11 astronauts made their world tour following the moon landing—and that meant microwave ovens were bad-ass. A few years later I remember my father bringing home an Amana Radar Range he purchased at the military exchange on Pearl Harbor. I remember him being very excited about a demonstration where a woman cooked a potato in minutes—right there in the store. “And it was delicious!” Of course the next few months proved that the microwave oven was far from the end all be all for the future of cooking. Most of us can list on one hand what we cook or warm in a microwave. Bottom line: there are some things that you just should not put in a microwave. We will get back to the microwave metaphor a little later.
Now back to my speaking nightmares.
The first one occurred shortly after I completed my Ph.D. I wrote my master’s thesis—and a part of my dissertation on how perceptions of influence vary with psychological sex-roles. Because of that, I was asked to deliver a speech to the American Business Women’s Association in a major west coast city. I asked a lot of questions about the association and their goals. I asked about the event location and logistics. Accordingly, I tailored the speech to focus more deeply on gender communication issues in the workplace. I arrived at the event in my business casual clothes, slacks, blazer—no tie. I then discovered the following:
- This was a dress up occasion with most of the 375 attendees in very nice clothes.
- The attendees were almost all women (I expected that) who were serious professionals—judges, doctors, politicians, professors etc. (I didn’t expect that).
- The attendees were mostly retired. I was 31.
I was expected to sit on a dais at the front of the room with several of the group’s leaders and eat before my presentation.
A former judge was going to introduce me. Before her introduction she leaned over and looked me straight in the eyes and said, “So you’re going to tell us about women’s communication issues in the workplace? I’m looking forward to that…”
As I started the presentation I confronted the horrible disconnect of my casting. Why would they have me here? What could I tell these amazing women about anything? My hubris was a dish served up very cold. I remember excusing myself after the presentation—that ended being a string of clumsy apologies. I went up to my room and peeled off my shirt. I had never experienced a rush of panic and sweat like that. Days later I received a nice note thanking me for the presentation. It was sterile, perfunctory and bland; and confirming that I really blew it.
The second disaster was worse. In 2003 I had the opportunity to speak to a national sales team for a large company. The event was a big deal for my fledgling company, Extreme Arts and Sciences. The idea I pitched for the keynote was to highlight the experience of the world’s best big wave surfers. The thesis was simple; these people do the impossible because they prepare for the impossible. What looks to us like insanity is actually studied in tremendous detail and supported by intensive preparation. Therefore, if their sales team sets their sites high and works hard—they could do the impossible too.
I interviewed a number of surfers for the speech including Jeff Clark, one of the pioneers of Maverick’s (a world famous big wave location south of San Francisco best described as “sharky and full of death”). This guy was the real deal. He talked about being held underwater for minutes at a time, and shrink wrapping his chest to give more strength to his rib cage. Crazy!
I arranged to have this amazing guy call in to my speech—live—and talk to the audience. Great idea right? Well, my surfer was not a speaker. He tended to wander. And then he started telling a story about the death of a dear friend—Jay Moriarity who died free diving in the Maldives in 2001.
I knew the speech was dragging, but I also knew this was a HUGE story for him to tell—I didn’t interrupt him or push him back to the talking points. The corporate stage manager made a decision and simply cut the connection—as if it was an error with the phone. I scrambled to recover, but the momentum in the speech was lost. Unlike the American Business Women’s Association—these amped up sales people were more direct with their assessment. One guy saw me leaving the hall and said, “Wow that sucked didn’t it?”
But I pressed on. Years later I met a woman who saw my nightmare with the business women. I asked her what she saw. She was direct and she taught me something. She said, “Well first we were wondering who the hell hired you in the first place. But you really lost us all when you gave this three point structure crap. It was insulting. It trivialized a very serious topic. And it was such smarty-pants-guy thing to do—as if to say, “let me make this easy for you.”
Wow. Zap. OK, I get it. She was exactly right.
I am writing this blog on an airplane. I just watched a movie called Chasing Mavericks. It’s a little cheesy—but if you love the ocean and have a passing interest in surfing it’s worth watching. And it tells the story of “Frosty”, Jeff Clark and Jay Moriarity. I realized while I was watching the movie and seeing the story unfold that I failed with the surfing speech big time. I failed because I tried to cook a turkey in a microwave. The Mavericks story is huge, the Jay story is huge. I tried to condense a deep story into a greeting card. In so doing I dishonored the story, Jeff Clark, Jay Moriarity, the message, and the audience.
So yes, I am much more careful about my questions and content when I speak. But maybe the more important lesson is that we need to be careful about demanding that every idea be collapsed onto a PowerPoint slide. It seems to me that the wisest cultures have figured out how to take time and work through complicated ideas more gently and carefully. We need crock pots as well as microwaves. Maybe we need to find more opportunities to share wisdom and not just factoids. What is really frightening is that this “bullet point” addiction is creeping into college classrooms. It was one of the few remaining public forums where diving into deep ideas was a part of the deal.
So, my big takeaways are:
- Love and learn from my mistakes.
- There are really, really smart women in the American Business Women’s Association
- Use a microwave sparingly.
- Go ahead and watch Chasing Mavericks
- Most important: “Live like Jay.”