Be Cool

I’ve watched people fumble in presentations, I’ve watched them lose audiences because they let a hiccup break their concentration.

Giant caveat here; I’ve done the same. For a long time, every time I was put on the spot I would make the same mistakes. Get lost in something loosely, or entirely unrelated, have glitches, or lose your place. Lose the concentration needed to pick right up.

The best speakers are the ones who take this all in stride and adapt their ideas on the fly. The first time I remember watching this failure to fail happen was in high school. Watching a garage band play, one guitar player broke a string towards the end of a song. The other members broke into a long, winding interlude while the other dropped out, strung a new string, retuned his guitar and picked back up. They didn’t pause, they didn’t even look at each other. Was this something they rehearsed?! It doesn’t matter. To most of the audience, they probably didn’t even notice that the band was short a member for 5 minutes, the show just went on.

This is the message I am trying to internalize. If you don’t act like something is wrong, nothing is wrong. I’ve seen presenters lose sound or video, and just keep right on trucking. Projector fails? Slides are wrong, missing, out of order, typo’ed? Just keep swimming.  If you show your audience that those things are unimportant to your message, it’s easy to get past. I was reminded of this situation recently by reading

  1. Look cool.
  2. Never get lost.
  3. If you get lost, look cool.

Looking cool is important to get your audience to believe you. To believe that you know your material. Acting cool is how you keep your audience, how you hold them tight when you’re going to shit. Public speaking is rarely as life-threatening as Special Forces operations, but those three rules still apply for the same reasons. Look cool; know your talk, know your slides. Be prepared to go it without slides, without a mike. Never Get Lost; don’t let something unexpected get in your head. If you do get lost, Look Cool; practice what you’re doing so that you can fall back on what you’re talking about, or how you’re talking. If you build your talk, your presentation, your meeting this way, you will succeed, you will get your message across, you will hold their attention.

This weighs heavy on my mind this year as I’ve started speaking at conferences, something I had never before even considered doing. Previously I was scared stiff of anything remotely related to public speaking, even in small meetings. Now I am forcing myself to build a simple message and deliver it to the best of my ability. I have rehearsed my talk, I have learned how to look cool while I’m doing it. It’s not easy, but it is a new muscle that needs flexing. Communication is always the most important thing in any job, so I am forcing myself to get better at the parts I know I struggle with.