Two paths have converged in this moment that has me sitting at the keyboard writing about the absolute worst moment of my life in front of an audience.
In many of the interview-style podcasts I listen to, a common request is to share a failure. Every time I hear the question and pause to think of my own public humiliation, a wave of nausea moves through me that culminates in a shudder I’ve been carrying for almost 30 years.
And then last week in my training feedback forms from participants, someone wrote, “The presentation was great. She is a comedian.”
That did it. I’m telling you about my biggest speaking engagement fail, and in so doing I hope I will release it to a degree so it doesn’t continue to have an active presence in my being. Also, there are some excellent learning points that stayed with me as a result of this infamous experience.
I was a reluctant public speaker. My comfort zone, since the time I was in elementary school being asked by teachers to help other students was one-on-one.
Was my worst public speaking moment the time I stood on a stage wearing my Brownie dress and sash, fingers held resolutely in the two-fingers-up promise gesture, as I prepared to advance into the Girl Scout level – when I suddenly realized everyone in the audience was looking at me, so I burst into tears and ran off the stage?
No. That was my first public speaking FAIL, but it wouldn’t be my last.
Was it the time I received the Female Athlete Award when I graduated from high school and looked out at the crowd with tears in my eyes and said nothing? No. That moment worked in my favor. People thought I was so moved by receiving the award that I was overcome with emotion. Truth was, I became furious and hurt when I looked down at the plaque and saw, after 12 years in that school district, they spelled my name wrong.
The first time I ever taught a class, I tripped over a baby carrier and fell in front of everyone. I’ve lost my words, said the wrong thing, reacted inappropriately, been confused in front of an audience, and even collapsed into a fear puddle at a leadership training in San Francisco; but none of it compares to the night I agreed to be hired as, “The Comedian” hired to speak at a friend’s new husband’s birthday party.
It started innocently enough. She said, “You’re so funny, I want to hire you to be the comedian at my husband’s birthday party.”
My immediate response was the correct response. “No, that won’t work because I don’t know him. You need to have people speak who know him and can share funny stories about him.”
Don’t talk on subjects you know nothing about!
A couple of days went by, and my friend brought up the request again, this time with increased insistence. Again, I stood my ground.
“No, it’s one thing to sit on the front porch in summer and make my friends laugh, but putting together a comedy sketch is an entirely different matter, and I’m not good at that. I’m not that kind of funny.”
Know what you are good at and what you aren’t good at. Don’t agree to do what you aren’t good at, knowing you will be promoted as having skills you do not possess.
I was surprised when my friend approached me again with such pushy resolve, it was clear she was ignoring the content of my protests. I want to write, “I don’t know why I caved in to her request when I knew I didn’t want to take on that gig.” But I do know why. I was young and I didn’t want to disappoint my friend.
And so, I said, “Okay.”
I regretted it the moment it was out of my mouth. And yet, I didn’t take it back. Of course, I ended up disappointing her horribly. Worse, I embarrassed her and myself.
Trust your instincts.
Allow yourself to know what you know.
NEVER make decisions based primarily on trying to please others.
My friend rented a country club venue for the birthday celebration. The parking lot was full when I arrived. I felt sick to my stomach. Why didn’t I run?
I was in a fancy sparkly show biz vest I borrowed from a friend. I looked great. Strangers were greeting me with, “OH! You’re the comedian!?”
“No,” I’d say, “Not really.” I wasn’t going to own that title. Also, I didn’t want people to have unrealistic expectations. They already did.
The room was full when I approached the mic. 100? 200? Doesn’t matter. The point is, there were a lot of people expectantly perched around tables, scuffling their chairs into position to have a better view of me. Oh God. Please don’t look at or listen to me. Why can’t this be the one time the rude people in the room keep talking – and loudly!?
Did I mention the birthday boy was a physician? Yes, the audience included some of the most prominent people in our community.
I started talking and I don’t even know what I was talking about. My cousin had recently visited, so I said something about that, which had nothing to do with the guest of honor – it made no sense to anyone. The room was heavy and so was my heart.
I had shared one experience with the honoree, and I joked about that, which got a decent laugh because it was the only thing I said that was appropriate to the moment.
I don’t know how long I was at the mic, but it was way too long.
Before I left, I talked to my friend. “I TOLD you I shouldn’t do this because I don’t know him. I’m sorry I bombed. Of course, I don’t expect you to pay me. It was awful.”
I was so angry at me for backing down. NEVER AGAIN I promised myself.
My friend didn’t talk to me much after that night and it wasn’t long before we fell out of touch for the most part. I was relieved we ran in different circles after her marriage, so I didn’t have to see her very often and be reminded of my public failure.
Years later I was relieved when she attended a holiday art show of mine and purchased a drawing. Perhaps all was forgiven. I wish I could be confident her memory has been wiped clean of that birthday event.
Fast forward 30 years and last week I facilitated an attitude workshop based on content from my book, “LIVE IT! Mastering Positive Attitude Habits.”
It was a 3-hour presentation. During the first hour, they laughed and laughed…it’s during that time I set the stage for self-evaluation activities scheduled in the second hour. They were laughing because I was sharing relevant content in which I am a subject matter expect. It was easy for me to share examples they could relate to. When you allow yourself to know what you know, you don’t need a fancy show biz vest: people will connect with you because you are being authentic. You don’t have to force anything. The exchange feels good because it is natural.
And so, when I reviewed the participant feedback about their experience at the attitude workshop, and saw several comments about how funny I was, and then the specific comment, “She’s a comedian,” it was a time of reflection for me.
See more feedback from the attitude workshop here:
I appreciate Brene Brown’s confession about picking a shirt up off the hotel floor to wear to her Ted Talk. That talk about Vulnerability changed the course of her life. All she had to do was authentically share her data. She trusted her instincts. She allowed herself to know what she knows. People loved it.
Lessons learned the hard way can be outrageously uncomfortable and even sickening, but then, that’s why I don’t forget what I’ve learned.
I find in my coaching interactions, people tend to be very hard on themselves. I can relate. There have been times when being too hard on myself stalled my thinking and vision. But now I have the confidence to know I’m making decisions for the right reasons and trust I’m giving it all my best effort no matter how it all turns out.
I hope the same for you.
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