Will you be ready when your big break comes? Seriously. Will you? If you got the call for that dream presentation, would you be 100% excited, or would part of you panic?
In the mid-1990s at the beginning of my speaking career, long before the World Championship of Public Speaking contest, I was speaking anywhere and everywhere I could: Toastmaster clubs, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis. Heck, my mom even got me to speak at her Auburn Women’s club. I was struggling to get paid speeches but would get an occasional one here and there.
I was turning my standup comedy routine into a speech. I was writing a book with my mentor, Rick, and interviewing successful business people who used humor as a tool in business. Those interviews were providing substance and stories to add to my speech content.
Then out of nowhere, I got THE CALL. I was very excited to be invited to speak at the Massachusetts Credit Union Board of Directors conference. Yes! This would be huge! This would be one of my biggest paychecks to date. Have you ever had that feeling, “Finally, this is the big break I’ve been waiting for!”
That wasn’t even the best part. It was the multiplier. I had started hearing about golden opportunities at associations where people gathered from many different businesses, and each was a potential future client. If you were good, it could literally launch your career. There would be referrals. I longed for the speaking opportunity that would open so many doors. I remembered a quote by Abe Lincoln: “I will study and prepare myself, and some day my chance will come.” It was some day.
And there was more: 300 influential people from different credit unions all across the entire state of Massachusetts would be there! And to make it even cooler, they were having the conference at the Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod! This was a classy, well-known spa resort! Wow! Are you kidding me! I knew my own family would be impressed when I told them where I was speaking. Finally, credibility.
I was chosen to come in and end their evening with some inspiration and laughter. I would speak after their awards banquet. Perfect. I have to confess, I did have lots of stage time in comedy clubs and at Toastmasters, but I did not have much training putting together a powerful speech. So, you know I was excited, but what else do you think I was? Yep, a little nervous, but that was okay. I had been on stage in front of many audiences and some truly tough crowds at standup comedy clubs. These nice, professional people would be sober!
One of the tips that I had heard was to get to know your audience. So, I did my homework. I got a list of ten names and numbers of people who would be in my audience, and I called them to get to know them. I learned so much and felt that I had created a good connection. I found out that everyone loved Bob, but he was a horrible golfer. People enjoyed everyone’s teasing him about it. I discovered that Tom was the beloved class clown. I found out that Mary knitted during their meetings, but don’t mess with her because she never misses a thing. I found all of these little gems to bridge the gap between my audience and me. I did my homework.
I arrived early in the morning even though I was not speaking until evening. A mentor taught me to experience the entire event so you can know what the other presenters have said before you, and you can tie common experiences to your message and presentation. As I pulled up to the resort, I could see the ocean waves that surrounded that amazing historical resort. I took a deep breath and took it all in. I thought I had finally arrived.
Okay, it’s show time. Let’s get to work. First things first. Let’s check out the meeting room and see if any adjustments need to be made. The setting was beautifully classy as you would expect from a resort like that. The chandeliers brightened the room in a cheerful way. As I looked out at the chairs that would soon be filled with my audience, something caught my attention.
As the board members started filing in, they seemed to be happy, kind, and glad to be there. They also seemed to have a similar trait. What was it? Wait, they were all board directors for credit unions. Most of them were seniors. I noticed a few walkers, and one gentleman was pulling an oxygen tank. They resembled the cast of Grumpy Old Men. Well, that was okay. Older people tend to love me much more than younger crowds.
Then I made another observation. It was the number of chairs. The chairs? I counted only 200, but 300 people were coming. There weren’t enough. I searched out the event planner, introduced myself, and brought up the fact that there were only 200 chairs. She joyfully explained that it would be okay. “We could not fit everyone in the main meeting room, so we have another room set up down the hallway. We are going to run speaker wires down to the other meeting room, so the other 100 people can hear you.” Hear me? What? Well, it wasn’t the best situation, but having too many people was a good problem. At least I would have 200 people in front of me. They would be able to see my facial expressions and animation, which is where most of my humor comes from. I would feed off their connections and reactions.
I was scheduled to go on at 8:00 pm. At 7:45 pm it became clear we were a bit behind with the conference agenda. 8:00 pm came and went. At 8:30 pm a past executive decided to give a few unscheduled announcements. Then the awards started. Everyone applauded each recipient, and they were each compelled to say a few words. Then I started, but people were slowly starting to get up, hugging people, and leaving. What? They saw their friend receive an award, and now they could go to bed. They were tired, but that was okay. I just needed to step up my energy a bit.
The mass exodus continued. One third of the audience was gone, and more were on their way out. They didn’t care that the funny boy was about to speak. They were tired and had had enough for one day. That was okay. My thought was that I was going to remain positive and make the most out of the situation. Then a rush of panic started filling me up. I literally thought, “Yikes, lemons to lemonade, lemons to lemonade, how do I make the most of this?” I was a motivational speaker, and I needed to turn this around. Boom! The other room! I decided to rush down and invite the people from the other room to join us in the main room for my speech! Without hesitation I ran to the other room and went from table to table inviting people to come enjoy the show. They looked at me as if I had interrupted their little party. No one moved.
Through the sound system from the main room I heard, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your comedian for the night, Darren LaCroix.” That moment seemed to happen in slow motion. What? Noooooooo . . . Yikes! I made an about-face, started to dash back to the main room, and, in my haste, knocked over a man’s oxygen tank! “I’m so sorry!” Yikes! I’m going to be the first public speaker to kill an audience member!
But it was okay. Unlike my self-confidence, he was alive and well, and I had an audience to serve. I ran to the stage and began my routine. I was so rattled, I could hardly remember what I was going to say. My jokes were falling flat, But it was okay. I was going to deliver custom humor that they would love. So, I bailed on my regular material and started talking about them. When I started telling my joke about Bob, the bad golfer, most people just stared at me, but a couple of people at Bob’s table chuckled. Then I brought up Tom, the class clown. More blank stares, and a different table chuckled. When I mentioned Mary’s knitting, yet another table chuckled while puzzled faces looked like they were thinking, “What in the world are you talking about?”
It felt as if I was doing humor table dances around the room. Everyone at that credit union knew the folks I was joking about, but not everyone in this audience knew them. I was dying. It brought me back to my earliest days at the comedy clubs when I would throw out a punch line and hear only the ceiling fan. Ouch.
Okay, it was time for my surefire bit, my closing routine that always worked. With the help of an audience member, I tell a funny story about a night at my sub shop. It is an improv routine called “Helping Hands.” The audience member stands behind me and uses their arms and hands to make gestures as I tell the story. It works best when the volunteer is very animated. My volunteer from this audience stood there like an ancient statue. She did not move. I turned to her in desperation and begged her, “Please do something with your hands!” She did. She covered my mouth. And the audience erupted into laughter. OUCH!
As I walked off the stage, I told myself I would never speak again. If I could have tunneled out through the ground and not had to face anyone, especially the meeting planner, I would have. I could not leave fast enough.
I have never spoken for them again. They are not listed among my past clients. I’d be willing to bet there were some tough discussions behind the scenes with the committee that had hired me. I’ll never forget the feeling that night. In fact, before I left the hotel I had resolved to end my career. To make it official I called my mentor Rick, and said, “I bombed, I died, they hated me!” Rick replied, “So?”
So? How do you argue with so? Rick explained to me that every great speaker bombs. He himself had bombed multiple times. What? I was thinking that it meant the end of my career, and word would travel fast about my lack of talent, rather than getting the multiple paid speaking engagements I had initially imagined.
It took me a while to lick my wounds and heal from that experience. I can’t remember exactly how long.
5 Lessons Learned:
I learned so many lessons from one event. I started asking myself, “What was the problem? What went wrong? What could I have done differently?”
Early on in my career when I started having some successes, my ego grew. Thank God that happens! If we are paying attention, it quickly puts us into check and reminds us that we are not done. I was trying to compensate for a lack of material by customizing my material. It’s not a bad idea, but what I missed was putting more effort into creating powerful stories that would work again and again. We will go deeper into this insight in a following chapter.
In front of easy audiences, average material can work well. I realized I had stories and humor that worked well at my supportive Toastmaster clubs, but they were simply not strong enough in the real world. They don’t always clap and love you outside of Toastmasters. When you are in front of tough audiences or in tough settings, you will truly see which of your material or stories are the strongest. That is why recording yourself is powerful.
Another powerful lesson learned. The stage changes people. People can be having fun, but you pull out any kind of camera, and some people become very self-conscious. The demeanor of people can change dramatically. After this incident, whenever I was going to use a volunteer, I started asking for a person who loves being on stage and is very animated. Crucial lesson learned.
Your plan is important, and you can’t figure out a powerful plan from a place of unknowing. I would not learn a powerful speech structure until years later. I was convinced I could figure it out myself with some tips from professionals. I thought all I had to do for speech structure was tell a story, make a point, tell another story, make another point. I had no idea what world-class speech structure was. Patricia Fripp defines speech structure as “the order and framework of your speech.” I knew basic structure from the comedy world and from classes I took there, but speaking is different. It has a different intended result for the audience. Learn more about strong structure at http://darrenlacroix.com/online-store/audio-cds/create-your-keynote/.
I admire the courage I had back then. I was actually a bit naive about how courageous I was. Custom, untested humor is risky. Custom humor that is all about them can be powerful when you know what you are doing. It can be disastrous when you do not. I did not realize that everyone in the room did not know about Bob, Tom, and Mary. When they told me that everyone knew about them, they meant among their Board of Directors, not everyone who would be in the room on that day. Ouch! Big lesson learned. The setup must either be already in everyone’s mind, or I must clearly set it up myself. Learn more about getting laughs at http://getmorelaughsbynextweek.com.
-I didn’t know how to create a powerful one-hour presentation.
-I didn’t know the importance of powerful speech structure.
-I didn’t know how to create unforgettable stories.
-I didn’t know how to create custom humor.
-I didn’t know how to own the stage.
-I didn’t know how to prepare and handle tough situations.
-I didn’t have true confidence in my abilities or my material.
I needed to be better trained to be READY for the BIG BREAK.
I didn’t know because no one had ever shown me that. I THOUGHT I could do it myself. I thought my stand-up experience was enough.
Yes, I had a mentor, but he didn’t have time to spend teaching me the SKILLS of speaking. He was helping me co-author a book. He was not a world-class trainer of speakers.
One of the reasons I created Stage Time University was so that people do not have to feel the pain that I felt when I got the big call. I also wanted to give them the necessary processes to own the stage so that they could avoid spending the time, energy, and effort that I had spent to get there. I wasted years and thousands of dollars growing at a snail’s pace. Members get access to everything I’ve ever created.
You can learn from my mistakes, another teacher’s, or from your own.
REMINDER: Failing and learning from failing are essential to finding success.
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