Let’s get uncomfortable.
There’s a book that's had a big impact on my life: Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion by Pema Chodron.
I love this book because it’s a useful guide to help deal with the deeper conversations of life. And the great thing is, each of Pema’s 108 lessons are short, but dense (kinda like shortbread with words of wisdom in every sandy bite).
It’s important to have a toolkit available when things get uncomfortable.
And if you speak, pitch and present regularly, things will get uncomfortable.
A Very Bad Formula
One night, many years ago, I was in Lake Tahoe giving a talk. The atmosphere was a train wreck in the making: overcrowded room, TV’s blaring, and most weren’t there to listen to me—they were there to socialize.
A few minutes into my talk, I completely lost the crowd (I never really had them anyway). My heart pounded. I felt disoriented and helpless. I wanted to do something, anything, to save the night. But I froze...and missed a valuable learning opportunity.
Conditions are Rarely Perfect
The room is usually too hot or cold. The chairs are often uncomfortable. The lighting can be too dim, too bright, or worse—coming at you from an angle that blinds you. Panelists, judges or peers can be tired, chatty, distracted, boisterous or sometimes rude. The key is not to be surprised when this happens.
After the gut-wrenching night in Tahoe, I came to realize, I needed to prepare for the unpredictable.
4 Steps to Keep Flowing on Stage Against All Odds
I want to help you build resilience so you can bounce back when things go awry.
The trick? Insert intentionally-disruptive moments into your rehearsals.
In short—make the conditions to practice your talk increasingly difficult.
Level 1: Practice & Edit
This part’s easy because it’s only about memorization. For me, I usually need about 30 run-thrus to get comfortable with the flow. I know that sounds like a lot, but if you’re only going to take one thing from this email, over-rehearsingwill be your biggest advantage on the big day. And by over-rehearsing, I mean knowing your talk so well that someone can wake you up at 2 in the morning and you'll still nail it.
Power tip: Print out your script and edit as you go. Why? Because most of us don’t write like we speak. Editing as-you-go will help you reshape your talk in your natural voice.
Level 2: Start with an Audience of One
Rehearse with your partner or a best friend—or a colleague who is also preparing for a pitch. These are perfect 1-person audiences. Expand in size as you tighten up your talk. The key is to gradually build your audience so you feel confident across a spectrum of sizes (plus, have you ever rehearsed a presentation for one person? It’s actually harder than a group of 500. This alone will make you stronger).
Power tip: Here are two easy ways to find rehearsal audiences:
1. Host a “pizza and preso party.” I learned this smart technique from comedian and writer/director/star of Don’t Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia. Invite 6-10 trusted friends over to your place. Tell them up-front, “This is a work in progress, so know there will be moments that need help. That’s why I brought you all here. Oh, and did I say that afterwards—free pizza and beer?”
2. Start an informal speaker's group in your school, office or co-working space. Host it the same time/place once a week. This provides both a built-in audience and the chance for you and your guest attendees to practice in front of a group. Keep the whole thing under an hour. The key here is to find opportunities to pitch and present regularly, whether you attend existing speaker’s groups or invent them yourself.
Level 3: Tame Technology
Now that you’re comfortable with your talk and speaking in front of different sized audiences, it’s time to practice handling technical problems.
What happens when your microphone cuts out or the sound system dies completely? Are you going to stop speaking, drop the mic and storm off the stage? Clearly not. A true professional finds a way to continue their pitch.
If you have a microphone, have one of your friends turn it off during mid-speech(!). Practice so you get a feel for the difference between amplified/not amplified and how disruptive it can be to your flow. Then have them flick the power on/off as you go. Don’t let it stop you. Keep talking.
NOTE: When doing your official presentation, most locations have a sound person who will fix the problem without drawing too much attention. To know if they do, show up 2-3 hours before your talk to scope out the room, find out who’s running sound, and ask them if you can rehearse before people start to arrive. Better yet, contact the event producer a week or two before to schedule a rehearsal. The goal is to run through your presentation on the room's system with the mic they’ve assigned to you.
Bonus tip: If they let you rehearse your talk, ask if you can run through your slides, too. This will make you feel 10x more confident when you give your actual presentation and ensure you don’t have any bugs (like finding out the screen aspect ratio is 4:3 and not 16:9).
Worse-case scenario: If you’re on your own when the sound tanks or the mic keeps dropping out, remain calm and project really, really, REALLY loud. If you stick to your guns, the audience will stick with you, too.
What if your laptop or presentation totally crashes? Do you have 10 minutes to fix it (or wait until the entire IT department parachutes onto the stage like Seal Team 6 to assess the situation)? This is why memorizing your talk is so important and why you should never rely on your slide deck.
1/3 into your rehearsal, shut the lid on your laptop and continue without slides. See how far you can get without referencing your script. However, as a backup, ALWAYS print out a copy of your entire script (or talking points) and bring on stage with you during game day.
If your slides/computer does crap out during a real presentation, it will give you a window to more genuinely connect with the audience. And the good news is, the audience won’t mind if your laptop explodes. They’re way more forgiving than you imagine.
Power tip: Print a laminated copy of your slide deck for yourself (thicker pages will make it easier for nervous hands to turn the pages confidently). Also, bring along enough bound, colored copies for panelists and drop-ins.
Have you ever been speaking when someone's phone starts ringing, dinging and singing? (My ringtone is Fake Love by Drizzy. OK. I actually don't know what those words mean).
Ask one of your pizza & preso guests in advance to call someone else in the room every few minutes. Make sure they’re ringer is all the way up. Don't have a friend? (Sorry about that. Just...sorry.) Simply set your phone alarm to go off every couple of minutes. It will have the same effect—it's very disruptive and annoying and, unfortunately in today's connected age, it's worth getting used to.
The goal is to introduce small challenges that make it hard for you to continue.
Also, when someone’s phone does go off in a real presentation (and believe me, it will), no need to call attention to the culprit. Just keep speaking. However, if you are feeling extra brave when someone’s phone rings (or it’s so loud the entire audience can hear it), you could say, “My parole officer always knows where to find me!” Script your zingers in advance for such occasions.
Level 4: Command the Audience
At this level, you’re well beyond issues that are within your control. What about people you can’t control? For instance, someone might stand up in the middle of your talk and verbally challenge one of your ideas. Maybe you’re hosting a panel discussion and one of the panelists says something that offends the audience, or something they say hits an emotional nerve and they burst into tears.
Dealing with a tough crowd (or panel) is mandatory, but few presenters actually practice with a bad audience.
Enlist your friends to help. During your pizza & preso party, set some simple ground rules: invite them to talk over you (on purpose), ignore you (turn their backs or walk out of the room mid-talk), or even insult you randomly every few minutes (that should be therapy-inducing).
And remember...reward them after with glorious, piping hot pizza pie. Or feed them before you start. If they’re anything like my business partner, auGi, people are less likely to get all crankypants on a full stomach.
The Benefits of Practicing Under Pressure
I know I threw a lot at you here, but over the course of my speaking and coaching career, I've met many extremely smart and talented people who, with enough time and dedication, can put together a rock-solid talk. However, very few strive for mastery.
And by “mastery,” I mean the ability to transcend their content and connect with the audience on a deeper level. To achieve mastery, you've got to put yourself through the gauntlet. Just remember to build gradually and keep it fun.
If you put in the hard work well-ahead of your company presentation, TED talk, keynote or annual conference—and learn how to command the stage no matter what’s thrown in your direction—the audience will stay focused on your message, appreciate your professionalism, stay in the moment, and leave the room emboldened to take action.