If you’re a public speaker, sooner or later you’re going to have to learn to deal with failure. A presentation is going to fall flat. Maybe you’ll have an off-day, or maybe the audience will be a poor fit for your material, or maybe the technology will fail and make you look bad.
It’s going to happen. I was thinking hard about this issue while glued to the TV screen for the Olympics this past week, watching the efforts of some amazing athletes to win gold in their respective competitions. The Olympics always brings upsets, creates new winners, and sometimes even allows the giant in the sport to win as expected.
But there’s only one gold medal for each event, which means a lot of top-notch performers, people who have worked for years just to have the chance to compete, are going to be disappointed.
Lindsey Vonn, probably one of the best skiers ever, had moments of glory and moments of disappointment. Another incredible skier, Mikaela Shiffrin, won and lost as well, with all the ups and downs of emotion that produces. The incredible Marcel Hirscher, who hadn’t fallen in a World Cup race in 2 years, slipped on soft snow, missed a gate, and was out of the race he was favored to win in less time than it takes to tell it.
But the most incredible series of events, for anyone interested in what it takes to be a pro, happened in the men’s half-pipe ski competition. David Wise, the reigning world champ, and the dominant presence in the sport for years, was competing in his best event, one where the participants had three chances to get a high score. The other two runs would be eliminated.
What skiers in this event like to do is to put down a great run the first time. Then they can relax a little, and try riskier things on runs two and three, and maybe even improve on the first great run. With the pressure off, after the first run, they’re far more likely to be able to reach that happy state of mind where you can go for broke without feeling tremendous pressure.
It didn’t work out that way for Wise. On his first run, he started out well, and then his binding released prematurely and he fell. On this second run, the same thing happened. Meanwhile, his best competitors were busy laying down great runs.
We got to run #3, and it didn’t look good for our hero. Alex Ferreira had scored a 96.4 (out of 100), and he was trailed closely by a young competitor from New Zealand, Nico Porteous, who had an incredible 94.8, for a first-time 16-year-old Olympian.
Somehow Wise managed to clear his mind of the previous two runs, and pull out a magnificent Run #3, garner a score of 97.2, and win the gold.
His performance was an extraordinary example of grit, determination, and poise under pressure. But he also modeled something else: the ability to put not one but two bad runs behind him and deliver on the third attempt.
How do you do it? How do you come back from a bad speech and give a great one the next time?
1.Don’t define yourself by your wins and losses. Define yourself by your passion. As tempting as it is, don’t label yourself according to your best outings. Instead, focus on the reason why you get up on stage and risk everything in that moment of connection with the audience. You’re a speaker, not because you did a great job once, or a bad job another time, but because you want to deliver a message.
2.Let the emotions go through you. Don’t emote about the emotions. One of the traps of success is that you start to get emotionally high on the feelings created by a gold-medal performance. So you’re not thinking about the message anymore; rather, you’re thinking about your reaction to the audience’s reaction to the message. You’re emoting about emotions. Instead, let the first-order feelings go through you. Note them, experience them, and let them go.
3.Develop compassion for yourself. If you’re reading this blog post, chances are you push yourself pretty hard. You may even be a perfectionist. Nothing wrong with trying to be the best in the world, but just as you had compassion for Lindsey, and Mikaela, and Marcel, and David, realizing that even great competitors have good days and not-so-good days – apply the same compassion to yourself.
There’s a good deal we can learn from the Olympics, and the greats who compete in them, and the best lessons are not about sport.