If you’re a public speaker you live some intense moments of your life in the limelight, on stage, in front of an audience – and you know what it is to make mistakes. We all react differently to them. For some of us, mistakes are so terrifying a prospect that it takes all the joy out of the moment. And we agonize about them for hours – weeks – years – afterwards. For others, mistakes are merely the cost of doing business. And for still others, mistakes are opportunities.
Stefon Harris, an accomplished jazz performer on the vibraphone, gives a spirited explanation of what mistakes mean to jazz performers in a recent TED.com talk. I highly recommend the talk both for some great music and a wonderful insight into the nature of error. Stefon says, “There are no mistakes,” in jazz, and I think those of us who live in the public speaking world should embrace his attitude. There are no mistakes.
I spent years as an actor, and doing Improv, and while actors believe in mistakes (fluffing lines, missing an entrance, botching a cue), Improv people don’t. Everything that happens in Improv is simply grist for the mill. As soon as you let go of the idea of right and wrong, you start loosening up and getting good at Improv. The attitude again is liberating for public speakers.
The audience doesn’t know what you haven’t said. So don’t obsess about getting every word or phrase exactly right according to some text, or to some idea of perfection. Just deliver your message as best you can, with passion, to the audience in front of you. In the end, it’s about the audience, not about you anyway.
Stefon’s other insights from the improvisational world of jazz:
1. It’s all about the present. Everyone tells us to be in the moment – our yoga teachers, our life coaches, even the Dalai Lama. Stefon says jazz musicians have to be in the moment because there’s so much going on, you can’t possibly worry about the past or stress about the future. Speakers take note, and focus on the moment.
2. Leading is about influence – and influence is about listening. Stefon demonstrates the difference between coming into a session and insisting on your musical ideas no matter what anyone else says, and listening. If you listen, then you’re inclined to pull ideas from the people around you, and they’re far more likely to follow your lead when the time comes. With enthusiasm. Audiences need the same treatment.
3. Good music comes from awareness and acceptance. You’ve got to be aware of your fellow musicians, and your audience, and you accept what comes at you, so that you can turn it into music. The same attitude helps public speakers deal with the inevitable differences in the setting, the audience, and the moment.
4. No micromanaging. If you are rigid and uncompromising, your fellow musicians will get turned off. If you let everyone else have their say, you’ll be listened to more respectfully when your turn comes. In the same way, speakers need to work with each audience, and treat it with the respect that unique collection of individuals deserves.
Of course public speakers have a road map in their heads (and Power Point slides on their computers) about where they want their speeches to go. But if we can relax a little about the precise road we take, and allow the moment to dictate direction to us, then just like a jazz musician, we can find serendipity in each unique occasion.