My colleagues and I always preach preparation and practice before you stand up to speak. And whenever I bring up these twin concepts in a workshop, there is almost always someone who raises their hand and says “well, what if you don’t have time to prepare or practice? What do you do then?” That question always comes up. And my standard answer “even five minutes of thinking it through and preparing what you want to say is better than nothing. But if you have only a few minutes to get things together, keep it really simple.” OK… that’s perfectly fine advice. But every once in a while, the teacher needs to live it so that they can remember what reality actually feels like.
And that’s what happened to me last weekend. I lived a moment of having to stand up to speak with only moments of available prep time. Here’s the story…
Last weekend, my wife and I attended a farewell event for a close friend who is changing jobs and moving away to another state. Another friend generously raised her hand to host a farewell event, and put together a wonderful gathering of about fifty people at a nice restaurant in New Haven. There was amazing energy in the room, as this collection of intimate friends from all parts of the honored guest’s life gathered.
Early in the evening, our host welcomed everyone and encouraged anyone who felt comfortable to stand up and say a few words about the honored guest. She encouraged humor, good-natured insults, and anything that came to mind about our dear friend. The drinks flowed, appetizers were served, and the evening went on.
No one stood up.
Our host spoke again, with an update on our meal (the restaurant was a little short staffed), and again invited people to speak.
And no one stood up.
I had decided earlier in the day that I would probably not speak at the event, assuming there would be lots and lots of toasts. (And fast forward for a moment… eventually there were tons of wonderful toasts. But like most crowds, this one was slow to warm up.) So, I came into the night with nothing prepared. But then I felt like someone needed to go first and break the seal. The honored guest is a dear friend, and I didn’t want him to feel badly. So, I whispered to Emily that in fact I might say a few words, because someone needed to go first. Emily encouraged me onward. I gathered my thoughts for about 3-4 minutes, picked my dominant theme to describe our friend, came up with a really funny opening line that riffed on something our host had said, and off I went to the front of the room. I checked with our host to make sure it was OK with her if I went first, and she thanked me… someone had to. And so, the professional public speaker and executive communication skills coach was going to take center stage.
I get up there, I tap the glass, I deliver the opening line that in my head was amazing, and guess what happened? No one got it… or perhaps they got it, and didn’t think it was funny at all… no one made a sound… the opening bit that sounded great in my head, sounded a lot less great as the words passed my lips. And I got absolute crickets. (Nice start to the evening, Dean. Don’t expect the phone to be ringing off the hook next week with speaking requests.) So much for the professional public speaker kicking things off.
Fast forward a bit… I fled my opening line train wreck like it was a crime scene, moved onward and spoke from the heart about our guest. I built my message around my main theme, which DID come out well, kept it short, and the opening toast was a reasonable success. Not my best work ever, but I got things kicked off, three more toasts quickly followed, then dinner, and then lots and lots more after dinner. And later that night and the next day I got lots of complements about what I had said. What felt pretty terrible to me seemed to resonate with at least some of the guests. (Or maybe they were just being kind… we’ll never know…)
This experience reminded me of a few things that are worth sharing here:
- When you stand up in front of the room, it is rarely going to be perfect, and the words will almost never come out of your mouth exactly the way you planned it. Know that ahead of time, and be ready to give yourself a break. It’s not going to be perfect. It just won’t be. But that’s OK. I beat myself up for about 12 hours after the fact… but eventually I got over it.
- When you have to prepare quickly, pick one main message, keep it super short and simple, and always remember FDR’s famous line about public speaking: Be clear, be brief, be seated.
- When you have to prepare quickly, be very careful with the humor. If humor is called for, poke fun at yourself only. And if there is ANY question whether the audience will get it or find it funny, then get rid of it. The biggest casualty of not having enough prep time is that you lose the time to vet your own jokes.
- And finally, even if your opening falls flat, if you speak from the heart, and say some nice words, that’s what most people will remember. When I got complements the next day, no one seemed to care or remember that it took me 30 seconds to warm up. They remembered the kind things I said about our guest. If the opening bit does not work, just take the next step and keep moving.
We all wish we had tons and tons of prep and practice time, all the time. But we won’t. Sometimes we need to prepare on the fly. And when that moment comes, don’t try to make it perfect.
Good luck, and have a great day.
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– Take too long to make decision?
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– Make things too complicated?
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