That I belonged on stage. Here’s what happened and what I learned.
The baggage area was nearly empty. I was standing near the luggage carousel, staring with the intensity that can only be attributed to abject desperation, at the vacant hole through which the luggage would emerge.
It was nearly 10 pm in Minneapolis. I’d just disembarked from a Southwest flight from Chicago, where earlier that day I’d done a program for a women’s business council. I was tired, hammered, exhausted. And I was back on the next morning, starting around 6 am. As usual, I was in my flying clothing: jeans, a white sweater that bore the stains of spilled coffee, scuffed sneakers. No makeup.
By this time all the other travelers had left the building. It dawned on me with that awful finality that my luggage hadn’t made. Nor would it.
I collared the only employee in the area. The next flight would have my baggage, but that wouldn’t be until 9 am. Long after my program was underway, in front of some two hundred folks, dressed in their Sunday best.
I had a reputation in the industry for my perfect Armani jackets, my gorgeous five-inch heels, my impeccable and unlined skirts. Those things identified me as a persona. I was totally addicted to that image, and that image was under threat. Holy crap.
In that way that we call people hoping that somehow they can somehow magically fix what ails us, I rang up my speaking coach. I was spiraling out of control, my voice getting higher and louder. I’m sure he was holding the phone at arm’s length.
He waited for me to take a breath. At that time of night not even a WalMart was open in town. Right then, I needed sleep more than anything else.
I had no deodorant, no shampoo, not even a comb.
My coach said three words which would change my life forever:
“Make it funny.”
In that way that we understand down to our bone marrow that we’ve just been given the gift of grace, I instantly calmed down. I thanked him, found my way to the Holiday Inn, and did my best to cop five hours of restless sleep.
I got up, showed, dressed in my dirty duds, pulled my unruly hair into a ponytail and pinched my cheeks. Ran a finger over my fuzzy teeth. Then hurried like hell to the convention center where I was the featured speaker.
THE featured speaker.
I met the organizer at the door, a lovely Black woman dressed to the nines. She thought I was support staff. I told her not to worry. I wish you could have seen the expression on her face. The organization was a group of diverse suppliers hoping to get work with huge corporations. There would be plenty of folks from those corporations in the audience. Everyone was dressed to impress.
On the way to the stage I spoke with the A/V manager, Mike. (Note to speakers: ALWAYS know the A/V folks. Always. And by name.)
The stage was broad, the lectern in the middle with my computer on it. Two huge video screens on either side, which were sure to highlight the Utah-sized coffee stains on the front of my dirty white sweater. Sigh.
The Voice of God gave me a resounding intro. The lights came up and I bounded on stage. The audience sucked in its collective breath, a group of more than two hundred folks, dressed to kill, and giving me the hairy eyeball.
Who is this person to disrespect us dressed like THAT?
I let the silence hang for three long beats.
“Southwest Airlines. Your baggage flies for free.
WE JUST DON’T KNOW WHERE IT LANDS!!!”
The room erupted.
I haven’t had too many moments when I knew I had nailed it. That was one of them.
I owned the room. They loved me for my dirty sweater, my scuffed sneakers and my messy hair and no makeup. I loved them back for allowing me the self-deprecating joke. My guess is that the majority of folks in that room had the same thing happen. And that is the whole point.
One of my top clients at that time, Cargill, had a representative in the front seat. John knew me well, and he was grinning at me. He’d seen my program multiple times.
I launched into the material with a comedy riff about how if it could go wrong, it will.
“We as speakers know that at any time, without warning, our Power Points could go dark.”
At that precise moment, my Power Point did just that. And no, it wasn’t planned. You cannot make this shit up.
My audience laughed even harder. They knew they’d been had.
John, sitting in the front row, knew this wasn’t a gag. That was not in the program.
I looked off to my left and said,
“Mike, now would be a good time to save my backside.” (This is why you memorize those folks’ names)
While Mike rushed to fix the system, I made jokes about leaving your briefcase in the Uber on your way to the Big Presentation. Spilling egg on your designer tie in front of the Big Client. They were watching me walk my talk: making it funny.
Then I continued the program as though nothing had happened. I knew my material cold. The audience was already happily swimming the river with me.
By the time my computer was back up, we were a third of the way in, and I simply added the visuals.
I got a standing ovation, a congratulatory letter and several more gigs out of that program.
From that day forward, the notion that I HAD to have my clothing in perfect shape, that I HAD to have every hair in place, that I HAD to look a certain way all died a well-deserved death.
That was the day that I realized down to my DNA that there was nothing more important than the message. That my willingness to set my petty ego aside and worry far more about whether my client got what they were paying for, and then some, trumped any and all attachments I might have to being seen as professional and in charge and perfect.
The world, especially now, is chock-full of posers who look the part and can’t deliver. They’re far more invested in their looks than they are in delivering the goods. Our inability to have a good laugh at ourselves in public is part of the problem.
Some years ago I was doing a program for another client in Houston when I set up a training video and headed down the hall for a comfort break.
When I got back, the audience was watching me as though Something Big was about to happen.
I stood at the lectern, utterly oblivious, until suddenly the entire room erupted. A friend of mine, seated in the middle, having gained some semblance of control, said, between guffaws,
“You forgot to turn off your microphone in the toilet.”
I collapsed with giggles.
When the group got itself under control, a group which, by the way, happened to include the CEO and Chairman of the Board sitting in the back, I put on my poker face, waited a few beats, and said,
“Okay. We’ll just flush that away and get back to work.”
It was another fifteen minutes before we could focus again.
You and I WILL fail. If you are a speaker, you WILL fail publicly. If you write on line, you WILL screw up. It’s inevitable. However, the magic words, Make It Funny, were for me, my ticket to mastery. I’ve used them ever since.
Mastery, to me, meant being utterly vulnerable, human and available in the moment. Finding the humor in my humanity, which instantly and permanently cemented the trust that we so very much need in our relationships.
Above all, I learned to trust myself.
It has ever been in the moment of complete failure that I found my greatest mastery. Doesn’t always happen that way, but in a wonderful and ass-backwards way it has taught me to not just embrace failure, but to welcome it.
For you never know what you’re made of until you fail spectacularly and turn it into gold.