A year ago I presented at a conference for the first time. (You can read about it here.) I was very nervous and practiced intently in the weeks prior. The hard work paid off and it went very well. I’ve since done that talk at many other conferences, each time with positive feedback and a sense of real connection with the attendees.
I decided to ride the wave of success to Vegas a few weeks ago. Even though the conference was not the largest at which I’ve spoken, something about Vegas made it feel like the big time. I learned that the organizers use a survey & scoring system to rank sessions. Then I was warned by other speakers that if your scores weren’t high enough, you may not be asked to return. Pressure was on!
I wish I could say it went well. Oh, how I wish. But the truth is, my session was not great. As a person who’s trying to view failure as something to be celebrated & learned from, I’ve evaluated what kept it from hitting the mark. Here are some lessons learned:
· Arrive early! I did not arrive early enough…and of course there were technical difficulties. The projector adapter I brought was incorrect so I had to run to get a conference person for help. They thankfully had an adapter that I could use, but I missed the opportunity to welcome folks and chat a bit as they entered. Plus, I probably appeared rushed and flustered when I started – not a good first impression.
· Practice! Because I’ve given this talk so many times, I underestimated the need to practice. Since this talk is very much a narrative, timing is important. After 2 months, the material was rusty and I should have rehearsed a few times. Maybe some day I can wing it, but for now, I am too new – and too nervous!
· Get enough rest! I presented on my 4th day in Vegas. After 3 nights of not getting much sleep, I can admit that I was tired. Maybe with more rest, I would have handled the technical setbacks better or at least been more witty or graceful about it.
· Know thy audience! I made some assumptions about the attendees to this conference…namely that they were like all the other attendees that I’ve met. I didn’t consider that some people select this conference because it’s, “Vegas Baby,” and maybe they are less enthusiastic about sessions. Even the eager learners stay out too late and then arrive to sessions a little less engaged.
This last one gave me my biggest takeaway: be prepared to read the audience & adapt on the fly. I’ve never encountered a disengaged audience so I had not considered that possibility. It wasn’t over-confidence – just sheer ignorance.
The day after I flew home, I gave the talk again in Pittsburgh. I was filled with speaker-regret for volunteering to speak after a week in Vegas! And I was a little more nervous than usual, but it went very well. There were very thoughtful questions and several people stayed behind to chat afterwards.
Which taught me an even bigger lesson…my abilities are defined by an entire collection of behaviors, not by any one attempt. My failures and successes are merged together to create an ever-changing picture of my competency.
So, as I add knowledge and experiment with new ideas, I’m improving my abilities and the picture gets better and better. The problem with failure is that it sometimes feels like the positive image is being deleted and replaced with a less desirable version. Thankfully, our capabilities do not work like a Word document.
If we allow it, the failure can become part of the image. And just like shadows enhance a photograph, our missteps enhance our abilities. They make our resilience stronger and our success sweeter. But only if we take the time to accept them, learn from them and move on.