The Formula for Success
by Christopher Sunyata & Z
I stepped off the podium in the Pittsburgh auditorium, and kept my game face on. I said goodbye to the meeting organizers. I collected the business cards I needed. And I graciously accepted the tepid praise from the dozen or so meeting attendees who felt compelled to connect.
But as soon as I left the building, I collapsed — crestfallen. My forced smile dissolved, and as I trudged to the nearest bar for a cold Grey Goose Martini (that would hopefully relieve at least some of my pain), my feet felt like lead bricks.
After countless hundreds of hours of preparation, my speech had totally missed the mark. I could feel it.
But I couldn’t hit rewind. The opportunity had passed.
Understand: this speech wasn’t an everyday type of event in my life. The audience was a critically important one in my field – and very hard to get in front of. And my content: well, it had been the deepest expression I could muster of my life’s work. And yet, I had missed the mark.
I was bereft. I had polished my script with professional coaches to the point where every word was carefully tuned to the needs of this audience, and I had delivered the script flawlessly. I saw no way to improve on what I’d done; and I had another major speech for a similar audience coming up in only two days and this simply couldn’t happen again.
I set up an emergency call for 8am the next morning with my speech coaches. They listened to the recording. And then I got their feedback.
They were not gentle. They validated what I already knew: the speech had not gone well. (I’m continuously amazed at how much they can tell just from listening to a recording. After 30 years of practice, they somehow can feel the audience through the recording.)
“You didn’t connect with the audience,” said Bill. “You didn’t engage them, and so they didn’t care about what you were saying.”
“I could hear that you weren’t smiling,” said Shirley. “You delivered the words perfectly, but you weren’t having any fun … and when you don’t have fun, the audience won’t care about your message.”
My nerves were frazzled and I had barely slept. Their words weren’t really registering, and I was panicked. “I have another talk tomorrow morning,” I said, “and I don’t have time to rewrite the script. What can I do?”
“You do NOT need to rewrite the script again,” said Bill. “The script is fine. You just need to connect with the audience.”
Shirley jumped in. “The times when you’re at your best are when you’re just having a conversation with people; when you’re speaking off the cuff.”
“Now that you know the words,” she said, “what you need to do is forget them. So when you get up on the podium tomorrow, don’t worry about the words and don’t try to stick with the script. The right words will come to you. Your only job tomorrow is to open your heart and have fun.”
Our call ended after only 15 minutes. There was nothing left to say.
So, per their advice, I took the morning off in a daze. I didn’t rewrite a word, and I didn’t even practice the talk again. That afternoon I flew to Chicago, and the next morning, in front of another hugely important audience, as instructed I just had fun and I let my words flow.
I was the third of three speakers that morning, and I began my speech riffing off of what the previous speakers had said and describing how our messages were complimentary. Then I invited one of the other keynote speakers up to the stage to help me with a demonstration that made the audience roar with laughter. Then I went to a flipchart and I wrote down some ideas down that I’d never before articulated.
As the speech progressed, I never knew what I was going to say next, but the words kept flowing.
It was the best speech of my life. When the conference organizers got up to wrap up the morning and thank the morning’s presenters, they made a point of saying that my speech was one of the best and most important speeches they’d ever heard (making no mention of the other two presenters who had shared the podium with me). Meanwhile, several attendees had been tweeting and writing about my speech on their social media sites talking about how powerful it had been for them.
The next day, my inbox was flooded with people wanting to book me for other talks.
Funny enough, 95% of my speech followed my original script almost to the letter. The differences between the two speeches I’d given – at least in terms of my words – were minor at best. But nonetheless, the speeches were worlds apart.
Why? The second time around, I relaxed and opened into the flow of doing what I had rehearsed and knew so well. I had fun. I connected with the audience and they felt me. Great performance in any area involves these two key steps:
Step 1: Train as hard as you can
Public speaking is terrifying for most people. It is the most common phobia and, in fact, many people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. Any artistic endeavor that’s aligned with our deepest purpose is terrifying. And yet, at the same time, public speaking, (as with any art), can be mastered.
To be masterful at anything, you must begin by creating a deeply embodied foundation of knowledge and expertise in your chosen art, and to do this requires nothing more than plain old hard work.
Remember: before my speech, I had trained mercilessly for months – polishing every word in the script, and then practicing that script to the point where I knew it in my bones. All great performers do this. You simply cannot get good at something until it has been studied and practiced – over and over – to the point where it’s embedded in your nervous system.
The neurological basis of this phenomenon is simple: through study and practice, we develop new and deeply grooved neural pathways that allow the basic elements of our art to become automatic.
Step 2: Open to the flow
We humans have an extraordinary capacity to detect and align ourselves with the our environment – to a level far beyond anyone’s conscious understanding. We can feel other people and their inner states. We can feel where a basketball is about to go before someone throws it.
Our capacity to connect in this way is wired into our brains and bodies at a deeply primal level. To start with, your inner emotional state is directly communicated to others through “mirror neurons” – this part of the brain activates both when an individual executes an action and when he observes another individual performing the same or a similar action. And so, if you’re on a podium and you are preoccupied with your thoughts, the audience will feel disconnected and separate from you. By contrast, if you are relaxed, present in your body, and having fun, the audience will mysteriously begin feeling the same energy that you are feeling. That difference alone can make the difference between a boring and a great speech.
And when we allow ourselves to connect and feel, our capacity to “know” the right next step in any moment can become almost magical – like what happened for me in Chicago. Being “in flow” or “in the zone” is an extremely focused state of consciousness which occurs during intense engagement in an activity. Being in flow helps you perform at your peak, and this also results in feelings of intense pleasure and happiness.
The neuroscience and physics associated with flow states are only now beginning to be understood. What we know for sure, however, is that a flow state is a trainable state. And the easiest way to get there after practicing diligently is to simply do what my coaches told me: let go and have fun.