This is the second in a series of how to manage the unexpected, the unforeseen complication, the curve ball that can otherwise undermine even the most experienced and successful speaker. The first post was focused on technology and other mishaps that can occur in real time. This post is about things that can go wrong before you even arrive at your location, and how to catch yourself as you start to trip and fall over a tree root that came out of nowhere.
Lee Dowling is a public speaking coach and professor. This is her story. She has given me permission to tell it, and if I do say so myself, it’s well worth your time.
There she was, sitting at a Chinese restaurant, in her baggy sweatpants, fuzzy clogs, and 20+-yr-old handmade sweater having dinner with her husband. The entrées had arrived and after her third bite, she heard her phone chirp. She thought about ignoring it out of politeness, but something made her reach for it. The message said, “Reminder: speaking engagement in 15 minutes.” Instantly her stomach dropped and her heart sank. The feelings of guilt and shame continued to wash over her as she realized her mistake: she had completely forgotten about her commitment to be the after-dinner speaker for a local event that was 30 miles away as the crow flies.
It would have been easy to use the next few minutes devising a legitimate excuse to cancel. She came down with the flu. She got a flat tire. She was moments away from finding the cure for cancer.
But no, Lee Dowling, public speaking coach, knew what she had to do: she had to set a new land speed record to arrive at the venue before dinner was over. After all, what message would she send about overcoming a fear of public speaking if she cancelled because she did not look her best?
Here is Lee in her own words: “There was this tsunami of shame, guilt and fear washing over me. My husband kept asking, “What’s wrong?” and I, the speaking coach, couldn’t articulate my words. My first instinct was to find an excuse to cancel. Then I started bargaining with myself. Suddenly we were shoving food into cartons and finding a ride home for my husband so I could head out to the event.
“As I was driving, I called myself an idiot – once. Then I started moving past it. I realized I had a powerful message to share with the audience. So I said to myself, ‘Just do the damn speech’ – at least you’ll be authentic.
“When I got to the venue, my client took one look at me and her face registered her alarm. Fortunately, after I explained what happened, she was very accommodating.”
When you get right down to it, having a Plan B allows you to keep your focus on what’s most important: your audience and your message. The wrapping on a gift can be lovely. But it’s what’s inside that matters. Fuzzy clogs, baggy sweatpants and a worn-out sweater doesn’t have to undermine your message. Said another way: you can still exude personal presence and resonate with your audience despite your choice of clothing and whether or not you put a comb through your hair that day.
“I changed my introduction so that I could explain my attire. Then I fessed up to fantasizing about getting out of it. I told the audience that anyone can overcome their fears if they believe in their message. Practice, patience, time and commitment – that’s what it takes.”
It helps to have a way to counter the hard-and-fast rule we all seem to have about the need to be perfect instead of being real. Lee’s final thoughts about having a Plan B are worth considering: “I felt good about not copping out. If how I look is more important than my message, then I am doing something wrong.”
P.S. There is another silver lining to this story. The sweater Lee was wearing was made by her dear friend and maid of honor nearly 24 years ago. That friend now has ALS. When Lee told her friend the story, her friend had a good laugh. What a great gift to give someone nearing the end of their life.