My nightmare speaking experience taught me this 1 crucial lesson

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As a professional speaker, you have to be prepared for anything.

Personally, I speak at about 100 events a year. When you factor that into my 19 years of speaking, it sounds impressive. But all it means is everything that can go wrong during a presentation, has absolutely gone wrong for me.

I’ve had projectors explode, audiences not show, the technology fails—you name it, I’ve dealt with it. And usually, I’ve been able to think on my feet and find a solution. When the projector exploded, I finished my presentation without my visual aids. When I desperately needed a bathroom break halfway through a talk, I came up with an off-the-cuff group activity for the audience to do while I stepped out for a moment.

But out of thousands of presentations and speaking opportunities, and out of all the ones that didn’t go exactly how I wanted, there’s one that stands out from the others.

I was invited to speak in Washington, DC

A woman at a major American company had seen me speak in Paris and loved it.

She got in touch with me and asked if I would come to Washington, DC to present to her team there. Unfortunately, I had to turn her down—I had other things on my schedule. But she pleaded. “I will pay you whatever you want. I will put you on business class flights. I will give you a five-star hotel. Please, could you make it work?”

I managed to squeeze the event into a busy week and go ahead.

I immediately felt the pressure to do well, as I knew they were paying a high price to get me there. To alleviate some of that anxiety, I made sure to get to the venue early. I gave myself an hour and a half to set up and get ready. Unassuming, I followed my client through her office, down to a narrow corridor with pillars in the middle holding up a low ceiling. She turned to me and said, “I thought we’d do your session here.”

Confused, I asked her which room she meant. And she said again, simply, “here.” When I pointed out that there weren’t even chairs, she told me that everyone would bring their desk chair to the corridor.

“Plus,” she said. “We’re going to film you on this little video camera here and beam you live to 2,000 people across the country.”

This only added to the weight on my shoulders—if I messed up, it’d be recorded and I would never be able to apologize to those 2,000 people.

At this point, the stress began to build

And then they showed me the screen. It was a Microsoft TV, which would have been fine, except that I have an Apple Mac computer and the two companies don’t really work well together. When I tried to get my computer to connect with the screen, nothing happened.

We called the technical guy. He came in. We were 40 minutes out. I took a break to go to the bathroom while he fixed it.

When I came back, there were already 60 people with their desk chairs in the corridor, packed so tightly together I was going to have to climb over them to get to the presenting area. My client had already begun introducing me. Apparently, she had a different start time for the event than I did. If I hadn’t returned from the bathroom at that exact moment, she could’ve finished introducing me and nothing would have happened!

“So,” she said. “Here he is. We paid an extraordinary amount of money for him, and I think he’s going to be the best speaker that you will ever see in your careers. Ladies and gentlemen, give him a huge welcome.”

My stomach dropped. I don’t like being given that kind of introduction even on a good day—it sets expectations so high that unless you walk on water you won’t meet them.

I started to climb over people, apologizing as I went. Once I landed in the empty middle space, I felt the pressure to start speaking, even though I hadn’t had time to test the technology. I clicked on my laptop and everything died.

My laptop crashed and the Microsoft screen went blank

I tried to take a deep breath and I asked the room to talk amongst themselves while I figured out my technical difficulties. But they just stared at me.

To recap: 2,000 people were watching me online in this narrow, crowded corridor filled with a silent, staring crowd with blinding fluorescent lights beating down on my head from a low ceiling. There were only 2 inches between me and the front row of people, and I was kneeling in front of my now-dead computer.

I began to panic.

Had I been thinking clearly, I wouldn’t have sat on the floor hyper-focusing on my busted laptop. I would have just stood and spoken without the slides.

But my fear and anxiety had been triggered from the beginning—by massive expectations, by the tiny space, by the live stream. My mind just caved to the emotion and it was nearly impossible to pull it together.

But I had to try.

I stood up, thinking maybe I could still get away with it, maybe the crowd was still with me. But as I opened my mouth to speak again, my client interrupted and said, “Oh, Richard. Are you sure you still want to go ahead with this? You look like you need a shower.” The nerves, space, light had all added up to make me hot and sweaty.

I wanted the ground to swallow me whole.

But we went ahead with the presentation. I felt embarrassed the entire way through, and I kept thinking to myself, “I need to make sure in future that no matter what goes wrong, I can still perform at my very best.”

So, that’s what I do now

I go for a run or walk and meditate to get myself into a confident, unshakeable headspace before every talk I give. I see the event going exactly the way I would like it go – no matter what space I am given to present in, if the tech fails or timings change. I create an inner state that allows me to remain positive and ready to connect with the audience.

I also bring a beverage container with a spill-proof top so that no one can knock it over onto my clothes or my computer. (Yes indeed, I’ve lost a laptop five minutes before an event due to a colleague knocking a glass of water on the keyboard).

I make sure I know my presentation inside-out, so if I don’t have slides, it doesn’t matter. I know my story and all I have to do is commit to delivering it regardless of what happens with the technology.

And I am still always, always early to the venue, giving me time to overcome unexpected challenges as needed.

If you would like to learn more about improving your communication at work, you can listen to my new podcast ‘Born To Speak’ on many podcast networks like iTunes and YouTube.