An Uncomfortable Lesson I Took Too Long To Learn

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Saturday, September 21, 1991, was the scariest day of my life.

I was 24.

It was the final day of a three-day company management conference. A bunch of trashmen, gathered in a Houston hotel to learn about what’s happening with the company.  How it’s performing, what the future looks like. What’s new, or next.

A month earlier, I’d been asked by my boss if I wouldn’t mind volunteering to talk at the conference about the work our division did.  We were a small group handling liquid waste, pumping septic tanks and portable toilets. The non-trash stuff.  The stuff nobody cared about.  It would be a great opportunity for me, he’d said. A chance to get noticed, to raise my profile.  It was one of those requests that was really more of a directive than an ask. Something that wouldn’t be smart to say no to, even though no would have been my preferred answer.

My preparation had been minimal.  I’d taken the ‘Allen Iverson’ approach.

Not smart. I’d assembled a few pictures of trucks, our shop and our portable toilets. They’d be converted into slides that would go into the slide projector machine that I’d click through (there actually was a click noise).  I’d written some notes on 3 x 5 cards.

On the 20th, the day before, we’d done a run-through with the conference organizer, the one responsible for the event’s success. Until then, my anxiety had been simmering. It was there, lying in wait, but not yet fully activated.  The run-through did the trick, triggering its full-blown activation. I was sure it was manifesting itself and becoming outwardly, and unmistakably, obvious.

“You’ll do fine,” she told me in her best ‘trying to be convincing,’ soothing Texas drawl. But I think she knew better. I know I knew better.  I was going to be rotten and putrid, like a dumpster at a seafood restaurant.

I was scheduled to speak after lunch on the 21st, which made the morning a horrible prelude of fear and anxiety, mixed with nausea and sweat. My whole morning was spent imagining me up on stage. . . bombing. I was sure that everyone that went before me that morning was better than me. Smarter, more relaxed, more polished.

At lunch, the CEO sat at my table.  Just the ‘raise my profile’ opportunity my boss had predicted. But by that time, my intersection with disaster was just 30 minutes away and, having him there, at the same table, notched up the heat inside me several additional degrees.

Dynamic young leader making a great impression?  Eh, not really.

Is There an Exit?

Could I leave and not be noticed? I was in the bathroom stall, trying my best to breathe deep breaths, to relax. Just a little alone time. To be with my thoughts. To prepare. Big mistake. I was sure I was sweating through my suit. I felt like I couldn’t move, like I might be paralyzed. But I was twitching, or I thought I was. Was it noticeable?  Or was it just in my head.

The two things I remember most about the 20 minutes on stage were the light and sound of the slide projector. Both mesmerized me like I was in a trance or hypnotized. I remember that my voice was soft and monotone, but I don’t remember what I said. I was sure that I was doing horribly, putting people to sleep and that no one cared. When it was over, I was relieved, embarrassed and spent – just completely wiped out.

“You’ll do fine.” Yeah, right.  I was convinced that my performance had gotten my name scratched off the list for any future speaking consideration, or promotions.  I pictured myself never again being invited to join the cool table for lunch, like what happened to Lindsay Lohan’s character in the movie “Mean Girls” (at least for a while).

To recover from this train wreck, I figured I’d take some time off to regroup. A speaking sabbatical of sorts.  There was no need to get back on that horse right away.  I needed distance. Time to reflect.

I became a messenger in a bottle.

As it does, life went on. I got fired from the job I’d had when I was asked to speak (was that a contributing factor – I digress), got a new job and quit, started a company, moved twice, had two kids, expanded the business, started buzz cutting my hair, had my eyes fixed with Lasik and my wisdom teeth removed.  All the while, I remained silent on the speaking front.  It was easy, since no one was asking about it – not even me.

Time to Look Fear in The Eye (Finally)

Until I woke up, of course. No, this isn’t some made-up story (“and then I woke up and discovered it was all a dream…”).  Jeffrey Gitomer woke me up.  He’s a sales expert who’d built his business through books, email campaigns, and speaking engagements.  I followed him closely throughout the 90’s, listening, learning and internalizing what he had to say.

Jeffrey kept mentioning an organization called Toastmasters,  ‘You have to get comfortable speaking if you want to grow your influence and effectiveness’ he was always saying.  ‘And joining Toastmasters is a great place to start.’

The local Toastmasters chapter I joined met in a classroom at The Medical College one night a week. I still remember some of the people in the class, like Ed, Aisha, and Ellen – the matriarch.  At first, I thought it was kind of corny.  We drew topics out of a hat and had to do a short speech about them. We gave each other constructive feedback on how to improve. We practiced.

I wasn’t totally open to being there, even though it was my decision to join.  But over time, I got comfortable with my uncomfortableness and began constructing a Toastmaster guided path to improving as a speaker.  Over the next 12 months, I built my confidence. The biggest breakthrough for me was when I realized that it wasn’t about me.  It was about the audience.  Toastmasters taught me that if you care about your audience (and what you’re talking about) and you’re willing to put the time into preparing to deliver something of interest, and value, for them, the rest kind of takes care of itself.

After six months of Toastmasters, I was ready to end my sabbatical.  By then it had been 14 years since my dismal inaugural speech in the Houston hotel.  Having taken 728 weeks of reflection, I felt reflected enough to try again.  An industry conference was coming up and they sent out an ‘ask’ for speakers willing to fill half-hour break out spots. I volunteered and got chosen.

When February 17 came, I was ready.  My talk was called “Creating the Future You Want.”  It was about my experiences as an entrepreneur having grown from a 2 man show to, at that time, a team of 50. It was about something I cared about, and that I thought the 250 or so in the audience might get value from me sharing.

Yes, I had some stomach butterflies and my palms were a little sweaty, but I wasn’t sweating through my clothes like I was the last time.  I had my Toastmasters confidence to thank for that.  I used all my newly acquired tools – eye contact, vocal variety, pauses – but I didn’t worry about being perfect.  I wasn’t focused on me, just them.  I saw faces that I could connect with, not the bright light of a projector bearing down on me like a train.

When I finished, they clapped like they were excited, rather than obligated.  People came up to me afterward.  Some thanked me.  Others had questions.  A few wanted to sell me stuff (there’s always that person who wants to sell you something). It was a rush.  Was it the greatest talk?  Doubtful, but it was the best one I’d ever given and, of course, the first one in 14 years.

Was my presentation in 1991 so bad that I deserved a 5100 day stay in my own public speaking purgatory? Was I really that scared, or was I just feeling sorry for myself?  Truth is that I’m not sure and, even if it was, it doesn’t matter because I can’t change that.  Knowing what I know now, though, I feel like I wasted a valuable opportunity to have led a higher impact life.  Had I realized that my fear (like any pain) was just my body’s way of telling me there is something wrong, that I need to pay attention, get some care – find the right exercise routine or the best medicine.  Toastmasters turned out to be the right medicine for me.   It also helped me realize that the only way for me to tackle discomfort is to run toward, rather than away, from it.  It’s not there to hurt me.  It’s there to make me better.


Special thanks to Hammerstone Marketing for blog design, SEO and featured image selection.

Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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