“I should’ve communicated better.”
That single horrifying thought repeated over and over in my head, silently, as I was being introduced to speak. The host for the event and I met over the phone once to discuss his expectations for the keynote I was about to give and he had given me some content ideas. They were vague and scattered, but I think I had the idea.
I was wrong. I didn’t have the idea.
He was now five minutes into an introduction where he was outlining a talk that I was not prepared to give. It wasn’t the kind of introduction that you can kind work with by adding a spin to it at the beginning of your talk and then just using the material you prepared. It was the kind of introduction that makes someone look like they don’t know what they are doing. Given that people knew and trusted the host of the event, that person was going to be me.
What happened next began one of the worst keynotes I’ve ever given. As the host transitioned to me he made a joke. People laughed. I tried to respond. People didn’t laugh.
I did my best to adjust my material to fit the new outline of what the host wanted the talk to be (which I had learned five minutes prior) and it just fell flat. By the end of the talk people were checked out and the person that recommended that I come speak had that “he really is better than this” look on her face.
People left through the doorways that I was not closest to so they could avoid having to say the insincere “good job” to me as they walked out.
I went back to my hotel room defeated and exhausted. How did this go so wrong?
We all fall down and fail. But many people fail repeatedly because they never stop to figure out why exactly they fell. Our first reaction to failure is pride. We don’t like the idea that we screwed up, so we blame someone else. I could have easily blamed the host for not communicating the content clearly or the audience for not being more engaging with me. I could even have blamed some other circumstances like being tired from an early flight or not having a good dinner beforehand.
But, none of those are really worth putting blame on. It was my responsibility to communicate with the event host about what he wanted. If he wasn’t clear enough to me, I should’ve asked more questions rather than assuming what I had was “good enough.” The audience is almost never to blame; if they weren’t engaged that was my fault for being a poor presenter. Clearly they were engaged with the host of the event. That vibe changed when I opened my mouth to speak.
Those realizations hurt, but recognizing them made me a better speaker and I am happy I had that experience early on in my career. It changed my perspective and preparation and I am much better for it.
That is the key to making failure something positive and constructive. Failed attempts give us insight into what is going wrong. Sometimes, failure can even show us how something we may think is working is actually flawed. For me, some major problems were exposed in the way I prepared for talks and communicated with the people that invited me to present. I remembered how terrible the feeling of failing was (and in front of so many people) and never wanted to feel that way again.
If I never spent time being introspective and deconstructing the failure, I would have missed an opportunity for growth. My mistakes probably would’ve been repeated. I would’ve continued to fail and blame other people and, eventually, I would get a reputation as someone that didn’t do good work.
It isn’t comfortable to examine the ways we fell short and look at ourselves first. I had a conversation with a young man and he asked me what it took to become a “professional speaker.” In the course of our conversation I asked him about experiences he had speaking to groups and he said that sometimes groups were really engaged and sometimes they weren’t. When I asked him why he felt sometimes groups weren’t engaged in his message, he began to blame everyone else. Surely it wasn’t his fault.
If he ever wants to be a professional speaker (or a professional at anything) that attitude needs to go. When something doesn’t go well the first place we need to point the finger is at ourselves.
Sometimes we may find that we did the best we could and there really were external circumstances working against us that we weren’t prepared for and couldn’t overcome. But even in that statement, we can still learn how to prepare for them next time. I used to dread giving a keynote after lunch. It seems almost inevitable that at any event a large meal is served at lunch consisting of carbs, carbs, and carbs. Then for desert everyone gets a piece of cake or a couple of cookies. It is a recipe for a lethargic and sleeping audience for the next two hours as people’s blood flows away from their brain and toward their stomach as the body tries to digest the starch bomb now inside of it. I realized that when I was unsuccessful and it wasn’t anything internal holding me back, I examined the external. It was often after lunch. The solution – find dynamics that engage people after lunch.
I no longer fear that keynote time slot.
The decision to really examine our failures or to simply ignore them is up to us. If you struggle with this, ask someone you trust to give you truth about where your shortcomings are. A good friend will tell you because that friend desires your improvement. Get that person’s insight.
We often fear failure, but we shouldn’t. Failure offers us insight into areas of growth. As much as it hurts to lose sometimes, we can turn those low moments into long-term wins. A football team would rather lose an early season game than a playoff game, and sometimes that early season loss provides the insight needed to make a Super Bowl run.
Embrace failure as an opportunity for growth. If you take your career, hobby, or passion seriously it is a necessary step. If not, tread lightly. The next time you fail may be the last.