A tough audience: honing the craft

I’ve done this thousands of times before, why am I nervous now?

I wasn’t nervous a couple of hours ago. Why am I sitting here, waiting for my turn to deliver with sweaty palms and the shakes? I’ve delivered funny, engaging talks and sessions so many times that I really can’t remember the number. I feel horribly undercooked and unprepared. I’ve delivered countless times with slimmer notes than this. Why now?

Because this is different.

I really have delivered talks for tough crowds like Royal Marines Warrant Officers (chaps with 20+ years of experience as soldiers), I’ve delivered workshops for critical audiences of my peers at conferences, I’ve engaged with unforgiving crowds like teenagers excluded from mainstream education. It really isn’t as though this is a new experience for me. So why am I bricking it now?

I’ll tell you why: because this talk is a Best Man’s speech for an old friend. I’m looking out over a sea of unfamiliar faces, many of whom are waiting for me to fail.

Photo: Thomas Farmer

I’ve seen my fair share of these talks. I’ve seen the best man so crippled by nerves he reads a speech to the table. I’ve seen the Best Man whose tale of the groom’s misdeeds is excruciatingly inappropriate. I’ve seen the Best Man who really didn’t have anything interesting to say. Right now, I’m hoping not to be one of them.

I’m looking at a tightrope. On one side: a boring speech that goes on too long. On the other: offending everyone in the room, particularly the bride’s family. Both sides are alligator pits of agonising failure. The gap between them is a hair’s breadth across. No amount of practice prepares me for that moment when I stand up an everyone is looking at me.

They’re all waiting for me to perform.

It’s time to dig deep. It’s time to remember my craft. I know I can do this. I’ve done it a thousand times before. I’ve succeeded thousands of times before. I’ve convinced highly experienced Royal Marines I’m trustworthy with their heritage. I’ve introduced my peers to new ways of doing things. I’ve even convinced teenagers that a museum visit might actually be something worth doing.

Hold on to that feeling.

I know my material.

Make eye contact with as many people as possible. Watch the signs. Deliver the opening gambit. Watch how it goes. Mentally recalibrate the next element based on that assessment. Watch how that goes. Make eye contact with a different part of the room. Hold on. Watch how that goes and recalibrate again. Ok, I’ve got a feeling for the flow. Move slightly to make eye contact with another table and watch their response whilst keeping the other eye on the head table. Keep going, use the momentum of the early gags to get over any duff ones later. Feel the room warming. Gain confidence and belief in my craft. I know how to do this.

I’ve stopped looking at my notes. I know my material from here. I know where to pause to let the groom know where the punchline is going to fall. I know how long to leave it before bringing everyone else in. Weave the disparate threads together so everyone’s relationship with the groom is included. Build towards the final gag. Steer people’s expectations, set them up so they think they know where I’m going.

Then drop the hammer. Deliver the last line. Back myself to stop on a high and not fill the space with chatter. Let it land and then deliver the toast. Sit down without overstaying my welcome.

Done. Feel the relief wash over me. I’ve survived. I’d be better next time. I’m already evaluating and improving just like I would at work. The slightly duff bits would be ironed out. The pauses would be different lengths. I’d swap the running order slightly and substitute bits that I didn’t include this time for bits that didn’t really work.

Then I remember: there will be no next time. It’s done and I don’t have to evaluate this time. It’s second nature: an automatic reflex now that drives me to deliver better every time I do it.

Not this time. This time I relax and allow myself, for the first time in the evening, a glass of wine.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, Uncategorised, 2 comments