The Music Played, the Lights Went Up, I Walked Out on Stage…..

Julia Hubbel, Walkabout Saga, Horizon Huntress by Barry Weatherall on Unsplash

And the Power Point presentation promptly died. Now what?

Have you ever had anyone play inspirational music as you stride out on stage, after an impressive introduction?

I have. Then everything went to hell in a handbasket. Stay with me here.

One of my favorite Wait!Wait! Don’t Tell Me! Episodes on NPR was from 2011, when host Peter Sagal brought ex-President Bill Clinton on to play Not My Job. Here’s the segment in full:

Bill Clinton Plays Not My Job
subscribe to Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! podcast In 2005, President Clinton founded the Clinton Global Initiative to…

One of the best lines out of this, as Clinton turns out to be pretty damned funny (I’ve met the man, and he is as charismatic as they say) is this:

“…The worst thing about not being president anymore is I was disoriented for three weeks because nobody ever played a song when I walked in.”

That’s just hilarious. BTW he’s very funny in person.

For my part, until I was a featured speaker for the annual Women of Color Conference that was hosted at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, nobody ever played impressive music when I walked out on stage.

Tends to shift your perspective.

I was the opening act. I kicked the entire program off, set the tone, and established the level of professionalism for the entire program.

No pressure.

I had practiced my program for days on end, even while I was driving. I practiced in front of a mirror. I was practicing in my room right up until the moment I went downstairs to do a tech check before the show started. When I take on a speech I take it seriously. YOU are responsible for making sure that things work up until you walk on stage. They did.

What I didn’t know was that the lead-up to my walking on stage was going to be rightly Presidential. Like for Clinton, somebody was going to play a song when I walked on stage. It’s a little disconcerting when it happens the first time.

I stood just off stage left behind the curtain folds, cradling my Power Point control. I’d just put in fresh batteries. You leave nothing to chance.

Inspirational music soared. The announcer rattled off this long, impressive list of my accomplishments. As I stood back stage, stomach fluttering (that always happens) I kept thinking, holy cow, that’s ME?

Then, my name. I strode out, the lights blinding me utterly. My lavaliere mike was firmly attached to my collar, and I smiled out to the invisible crowd (no, really, you can’t see shit with Klieg lights in your face).

Told my opening story, got the crowd laughing, then pressed my first slide.


Pressed again.


Well, sh*t.

While this wasn’t the only time my pointer hadn’t worked, it was the first time in this big a venue, having been introduced with such fanfare, and here we are.

I set the stage for the entire program. This is on me.

Okay then.

I grinned, walked to the lectern, slid the power point control onto the shelf, and launched into my program.

Sometimes I am convinced that the person who invented panty liners was a professional speaker. You think I’m joking. Kinda.

At some level you know that the sound people are furiously trying to figure out WTF, but there’s no time to wait. Nobody needs to know anything is wrong. And while I am quite sure I forgot a few things and ad-libbed a few others, the bottom line for me is that the opening program was a success. Photos

“I wanna do what you get to do”

I got that a lot. Still do.

I haven’t been speaking professionally for a while, having chosen to take a hiatus to get into adventure travel. That choice may well lead me back to the stage, a place where I’m at home, and have a pretty solid skill set. I’ve hired some excellent teachers who schooled me on stage craft, body positioning, use of my voice, pauses, and above all, storytelling. Like any other art, like acting or comedy, ninety percent of professional speaking is just getting the gigs, with a fair bit of seriously hard work learning the ropes of the business, the skills of the craft and doing the grunt work at the low end to get good at it.

You better like to sell, for if you don’t, you won’t speak. Those few glorious moments on stage are the pinnacle moments of long, hard slogs. In that way it’s not one bit different from the months of training to get me to the top of two huge African peaks. Those peak moments are delicious, and very, very brief. Which means, if you will bear with the obvious, you’d better damned well enjoy the journey.

Ask anyone in the business who is really good at it. Before you can get an agent, you have to be good enough to pay for one, because people don’t work for rookies, especially if they’re on commission. Then, you both starve.

If you want a speaker’s bureau to work with you, you have to have a portfolio, a record of solid, impressive results, a book or two or three. Speaker’s bureaus don’t hire rookies. They hire results, people who make them look good, folks who will rake in profits because their clients rave about them.

Professional speakers practice constantly. They never, ever, ever take their audiences for granted. They don’t get sloppy and they understand what could, and will go wrong and what to do about it.

There have been several times I knew I belonged on stage. That early evening at the MGM was one of them. When my power point went on the fritz, I put on the Ritz.

The only way you can do that is if you’ve put in the time to practice, know your material cold, and have the confidence to deal with the Joker that you’re dealt. Stuff goes to hell and nobody in the audience really knows the difference.

Or if they do, and they often can figure it out, they are eagerly waiting to see how you are gonna handle that Joker card.

And you will get them. No matter how well you prepare, how many batteries you check, how early you show up to check the sound system, someone is going to deal you a Joker card. True that for every single job you will ever have, every relationship. It’s just life. by Indrajeet Choudhary on Unsplash

The question is how you will handle it.

Belonging on stage, in this sense, is knowing why you’re there. If you’re there for the Klieg lights, the inspirational music and adoring fans only…

don’t bother getting into the speaking business.

If you’re there because you’re adding value, delivering something your audience and client want and need and are deadly serious about doing the best possible job you can, and you can deliver even if the sound system dies or the lights go down or whatever,

you might be a good fit for the speaking business.

As long as you understand that those precious few minutes on stage only happen about 5–10% of your overall time. The rest?

The stuff other people don’t wanna do. Sucking on stage, and I’ve done it plenty, is part of the price you pay. Failing at selling, failing at client development, disappointing clients are part of the price you pay. Lean years where you’re still working your day job are part of the price you pay. You may never leave your day job. I could go on, but you get it. People only see the expertise, what experts make look seamless and easy (when we don’t suck). That is what they wanna be: seamless, easy, and adored,

and someone plays an inspirational song when you come on stage.

Part of earning the right to do that, be that, get the accolades is doing the work. The impatience that I see so often expressed by people who see the end product and can’t deal with the demands of the trade aren’t limited to younger generations. It’s anyone who wants the Staples Easy Button version of getting to the top by cable car, not by the hard road.

Interestingly, Tanzania is considering putting in a cable car to the top of Kilimanjaro. I can’t even bear to comment on such a travesty. But there you are. That’s where society is: we want the Easy Button. photos

All the things that are worth having in life are worth earning. The confidence to deal with Joker cards comes of putting in the time, the dime, and the sweat equity, tolerating the mistakes and failures that are inevitable. The reason I could handle a failure on stage is because I’d already handled plenty before then. At that point, a downed power point program was child’s play.

This is the same path for pretty much any profession worth learning. In my world, the work I “get” to do takes enormous focus, effort, training and expertise. There is no “get.”

There is only “Earn. Perform. Train. Deliver. Rinse. Repeat.” And be willing to fail spectacularly, call it good, get back up and start over.

That is what “gets” us what we “get” to do.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this story, here’s my hopefully gentle way of ushering you to click the box below to follow my stuff. When you do that, I’ll know you’re comfortable with hearing from me once in a while.

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