I recently gave a 20-minute speech at a meeting for 150 people. It was an important speech and I had been working on it for weeks. I wrote out everything I was going to say and practiced it at least twice a day for several days. I knew the points I wanted to emphasize, how I wanted to deliver them and the key messages I wanted to convey. I was ready. I had never been so prepared for a speech since I competed in an essay contest when I was 13.
It was a disaster.
I am terrible at reading speeches, even if I wrote them myself. In the moment, it feels like my brain divides in two: one half is diligently reading the words on the page and the second half is thinking, “Really, you want to say this? Shouldn’t you say something else instead?” This sensation is pretty unsettling.
As I was giving my speech from behind the podium, I looked out into the audience. Most of the faces were neutral and I didn’t think I was connecting with folks. I got very nervous. This is my big moment and I’m blowing it!
You see, I normally have four or five talking points and then I just… talk. I walk from side-to-side so I can see everyone in the audience, not just the people directly in front of me. I never stand behind a podium. I stick to the overall theme, but I ad lib a lot. I can’t stick to a written speech any more than I can fly to the moon under my own power.
What was I thinking? Why did I trust such an important moment to a practice I’m clearly uncomfortable with and definitely not good at?
For more than 20 years, I have lived by the wisdom of Alf, the 1980’s TV character, “Find out what you don’t do well, and don’t do it.” This works for me and every time I depart from it, I get a bad outcome. This is not to say that I am unwilling to improve something I do poorly, I often will take on a new challenge and work on it until I can perform it reasonably well. This is different, for me this is teaching a cat to bark like a dog. I will never be a barking cat.
All I can say is that I wish I didn’t remind myself about this characteristic of my personality in front of 150 people.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I came in last in the essay competition.