When You Get Hit with a Surprise, Remember to Keep Your Eyes Open

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak at quarterly meeting of about 100 HR directors from a huge cross section of government agencies. I submitted my slides early; had a prep on the phone with the organizers; I've made a lot of similar speeches in the past. So I was feeling pretty confident, with a solid idea of how the day would go and what the room would look like. 

Fast forward to the day of the conference. It's big. A lot bigger than I imagined. The room is vast with audience stretched back 50 yards, or so. I am to present my speech on a raised stage, putting me even farther away from the audience. On top of that, the stakes are a little bigger than I thought. The conference is being opened by the Commissioner of one agency and the keynote speaker is one of the most important leaders in local government. The mismatch between the room I mentally prepared my self to speak in and the one I'm actually going to speak in is throwing me off a bit.  I feel my blood pressure start to rise. Some doubts start creeping in. “Can I do this? Did I adequately prepare? What if I forget what's on my slides? What if my zipper's down and I only realize it at the end my presentation?!!”

These thoughts continue to plague me as I watch the cream swirl into my coffee. The more I listen to them, the more disconnected I become from the world around me. That's a problem. If I make my speech in this state, the audience will feel like I'm not even in the same room! 

I need something to pull me back into the present. Luckily, a stranger takes a seat next to me. I strike up a conversation with him before the session begins. Then I listen to the Commissioner's remarks to kick off the day. I listen to the bigwig talk about government budgets, then the panel which follows him. And as I listen, I get a feel for the room: how the sound travels, what topics people are reacting to, what through line is being generated by the different speakers and presentations. Now I'm actively thinking about how I can reference their ideas in my speech. (I also check my zipper...)

By the time it's my turn to get up, I can't even remember what I thought the room was going to look like. I still have some of those little doubting fears in the back of my head, but they're fainter now. And as soon as I start talking, they almost disappear.