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How failure can lead to growth and success

At the beginning of my career, I relied on creating and delivering public seminars. Out of all the methods I tried over my twenty years in the business, this activity was by far, the most effective for me.

It was an exhaustive process. I brainstormed for hours with my executive peer group. We discussed ad nauseam everything from the very start to the very end of how a seminar should play out. As part of my research, I attended dozens of seminars and took meticulous and copious amounts of notes. Everything from the color of the PowerPoint presentation to the speaker’s tonality, and even the way the room was set up. No small or seemingly inconsequential detail eluded me. I knew the experience of my seminar was just as important as the material I was delivering. People will forget most of what you tell them after 24 hours, but they will remember how you made them feel long after your presentation.

After hours and hours of brainstorming, I finally figured out what the “perfect seminar” would look like. I felt like I had the blueprint to my future success.

The type and color of the invitation. The font, the words, the pictures. The day it needed to be mailed so that it would land in people’s mailboxes by a certain day of the week. The information on the invitation. The wording and whom to call to RSVP their seats. The message they would get when they called the number. The location and whether it was easily accessible and had free ample parking. The layout of the seating. Tables or no tables. The snacks and drinks provided. The time of the seminar. How long it would last. The information shared on the day of the event. Handouts. Pencil or pen. Music played before and after the seminar. Which industry jargon should be eliminated. The format of the presentation; insert joke here, pause for effect, tell a story. What makes me different and why they should care. The close and how they could book a meeting with me. Created scarcity to encourage booking on the spot. The process of taking them from a prospect to a client. How and where my meetings were to be conducted. The systematic process of what happens from the time the prospect arrives at my office to the time they leave. Everything from being greeted by my executive assistant to the follow up process after the meeting. Even the types of premium coffee and tea offered when they showed up. How many phone calls they would receive vs how many emails. Objection handling was mastered every step of the way.

Literally everything was thought of, discussed, and created to make sure that every prospect would get a world-class experience whether they became a client or not. It was vitally important to me, that even if they decided not to become a client, they would walk away with value and a sense that it was worth their time to meet with me. You never know when their circumstances were going to change, and I wanted to be at the very top of their list of alternate advisors. My motto in life is to always leave people better off than how you found them. It’s a genuine and rewarding approach.

After hours upon hours of idea sharing, there it was in all its glory. A system as close to perfect as possible for delivering a seminar to the public. Now there was just one teeny tiny problem: I was without a doubt, absolutely, unequivocally terrified of public speaking. You can see how this could be an issue considering the entire strategy hinged on me being able to stand in front of a crowd and communicate in a public speaking environment.

Jerry Seinfeld referenced a study once that said people are more fearful of public speaking than death. If true, it means the average person attending a funeral “would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” That was me!

My only experience with public speaking at the time was enough to turn anyone off from ever trying public speaking again. It was a lunch-and-learn presentation I booked through a cold call. It seemed innocent enough. I ordered pizza and a bunch of employees would get to hear me for 30 to 45 minutes. Everything was provided by the company. The invites, the seating, and pretty much everything else was set. All I needed to do was bring the pizza and deliver my presentation.

It was my first public speaking engagement, so I asked a colleague who had done hundreds of lunch-and-learn sessions to accompany me. I told him I was fully prepared, and I was. I knew my presentation cold. I just needed someone there for moral support and to answer any questions at the end that I may have trouble with. He kindly agreed and there we were, at the front of an empty room. I carefully prepared the pizza boxes, drinks, and plates at the back of the room for easy access to the employees as they entered. My projector was already set up and displaying the first slide of my PowerPoint.

I was excited, full of nervous energy and well prepared. I went over the game plan with my colleague.

“You will sit near me at the front of the room, while I deliver the presentation. I will take care of the introduction, the presentation, the concepts and the close. At the end if someone asks a question that I can’t answer, I will defer it to you.”

My plan of action seemed bulletproof. I let out a thunderous roar inside my mind. The kind of roar a warrior would let out just before a crucial battle that would decide the outcome of a war.

I. WAS. READY. “Bring it on!” I thought to myself.

Then something terrifying happened. People began to enter the room. Can you believe this? PEOPLE started coming in. At first it was just a handful of people. Mostly smiling and helping themselves to the pizza slices laid out at the back of the room. Most of them greeted me with a cheerful “hi” and thanked me for the pizza.

I nervously smiled back and replied “my pleasure, thank you for coming today.”

My heart began to beat faster, and I could feel beads of sweat beginning to form under my suit. I wore my best suit, shirt, and tie combo that day. I wanted to dress to impress. On the outside, I looked confident and ready to deliver a mind-blowing presentation that would have the audience eating out of my hand. But on the inside, it was a completely different story. The seeds of doubt were sprouting like weeds and devouring my confidence by the second.

I turned to my colleague and said, “Slight change of plans. I need you to do the concept portion of the presentation along with the close. I will do the information portion along with the introduction.” He smiled back at me and nodded knowing exactly what was happening inside my head. Years of wisdom was packed in that simple gesture. No words were required.

I still felt good about my situation. The information portion was the bulk of the presentation, and the introduction was much easier than the close. “I GOT THIS,” I told myself, as I gulped hard. Not quite as emphatic as my warrior yell but I was going to get through this.

T minus 5 minutes and as I scanned the room, it was more than half full now. People were still streaming in. We expected 40 attendees and about 25 were already enjoying pizza and drinks. The banter was exactly what you would expect from work colleagues. Talk of an upcoming meeting and comments about projects people were working on. The occasional friendly jab was heard here and there along with chuckles and laughter.

The noise of the room was beginning to get louder as more and more people poured into the room. My heart was beating faster, and it was getting hard to breathe. The sweat was now forming on my face. “Who turned the heat on full blast?” I wondered to myself. But looking at my colleague, he seemed perfectly comfortable, so I knew it was my nerves getting the best of me. Still, “who turned the heat up?”

I turned to my colleague and said “Slight change of plans. I’m going to need you to do the information part of the presentation along with the close.” That left me with the concept portion which I had done a thousand times for clients and the introduction. I still felt good, it’s my first time. This is still a WIN for me, I thought. No roar, this time. More of a whimper and the feeling that I was going to pass out at any minute.

It was 1 minute before show time. The room was now packed. 40 people may as well have been thousands. The chatter now felt like the thunder you would hear just before an impending storm. I could feel the sweat rolling down my back. My heart was beating like a jack hammer, and it felt like the walls were caving in on me. What would happen if I just walked out of the room and never came back? They got their pizza, what more could they want from me?

It was beginning to feel very real and terrifying for me. There’s a room full of people in front of me ready to listen to an industry professional deliver an educational seminar. But on that day, I was resolved to the obvious realization that the professional delivering the presentation on this day was not going to be me. I looked over at my colleague and said, “Slight change of plans. I need you to do the entire seminar. I’m just going to introduce you.” He stood up from his chair, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “No problem.” I don’t think he expected me to fold like a cheap suit, but he was supportive and empathetic. I’m sure he must have experienced similar emotions when he delivered his first seminar, although not likely as bad as my current emotional state.

I was an emotional mess, but also relieved that all I had to do was a 30-second introduction and my job was done.

When the time came, my colleague looked over at me and gave me the signal that he was ready to begin. It was time for me to introduce him. I just needed to get through this next 30 seconds, and I’d be free of this torture. Just 30 short seconds I reminded myself. I took a deep breathe, looked at him and said very sheepishly, “Ummm, you’re going to have to introduce yourself too.”

That was my first public speaking experience—if I can even call it that since I did exactly zero public speaking that day. It was a very humbling experience that I would not change for the world. Even though my results were catastrophic, I learned a valuable lesson that day. The lesson that if I wanted to be above average, I would need to do what average people were not willing to do. Even though I failed that day, I was determined to fail my way to success. With practice comes progress and with progress comes eventual success. This wasn’t the end for me, it was just the beginning. I took a tiny step outside of my comfort zone that day. It scared me half to death, but it didn’t kill me. I lived to fight another day and fight I did.

Over the years I became a highly accomplished public speaker, presenting hundreds of seminars and trainings. Not only did I overcome my fears, I feel completely at ease at the front of any room and love presenting to people. It’s one of my passions to this day.

Here’s the takeaway: it's okay to suck in the beginning. Even the finest of athletes, the virtuosos of music, and the geniuses of business sucked in the beginning too.

ZERO exceptions.



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