Drummer Stewart Copeland told a story about The Police’s first arena gig, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Selling out the show wasn’t the problem—it was adjusting from the small stage to a massive arena with a dispersed audience, strange acoustics, a cold space…and a drummer’s worst nightmare: a broken bass drum head with the beater stuck through it.
“Now, if a snare drum breaks, you can pull it and throw in another one in a heartbeat. No one even notices. If a tom-tom breaks, you flip it over, no problem. But if the bass drum breaks, you’ve got to pull out all the mics and cymbal stands and all the drums to get to the thing. You have to stop the show.”
And they did. “Sting stepped up to the microphone and started telling jokes and singing songs, and the other crew came out like a Chinese fire drill, clowning around. By the time they got that kit stripped down, the skin put on that drum and the whole rig rebuilt, the audience was in a frenzy of anticipation.
“‘OK. Are we all ready? We’re all right. Two, three, four.’ The place exploded. Now, we owned New York City, and it was that little moment of adversity that made it happen. The worst had happened, and we were over that now.”
The audience sensed it wasn’t supposed to happen like that. It was unique. They were there the night something special happened. “The little off-the-script repartee—Sting learned that craft on a cruise liner, by the way, where he learned how hit songs were constructed—that was the icebreaker.”
Copeland learned an early lesson: The worst thing can be a blessing. You can turn it to your advantage in a way that takes the hex off your need to be perfect. It can be real instead. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has reduced it to a simple worst-case scenario. “Like 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, the worst-case scenario was you get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Now, the worst-case scenario is you might have to crash on a friend’s couch.”
And there are those who invite difficulty, who actually use it to advance their presentation. Take it from the adversity maven Dr. Paul Stoltz.
“Adversity can be so great. Your audience recognizes it and thinks, ‘Whoa, this dude’s the real deal’ and [something going wrong] was a great demonstration of exactly what he’s talking about.” Paul looks for it. He embraces it. He craves those moments when things screw up, because it gives him accelerated credibility and energy.
He approaches every gig with a bring-it-on mindset. “I dare ya! Bring it on!”
Salesman Mark Papia says there are degrees of failure in the boardroom—tactical failures, which can be brushed off, and strategic failures, which are much harder to handle—failures to your credibility or your brand that could be game changing.
“Say you go in unprepared. You give a crappy presentation. The client says no. There are other issues, like the client thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how unprepared he was. That type of person would never work here.’ So, one ‘no’ can easily become 10 ‘nos.’ And then they think, ‘I will never take another meeting with that person. I will not be a reference for that person.’ These really are degrees of failure,” Papia says.
“Most people who put in the prep time are free from the fear of the strategic failure. I mean what is the worst thing that can happen? ‘I’m prepared. My content is rich and compelling. I might be off, you know. They might think I’m a seven when it comes to presenting and not a nine if I’m off.’ As long as a person does the advance work, puts in the prep time and shows up with a clear head ready to present, I’m down with the ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ Because there’s not a lot of bad that could come from that.
“Let’s say that you’re standing in front of a conference room with 30 people, you present and you don’t wow them—your presentation may be missing an element. Somebody will still raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I like the presentation, and I like where you’re going, but an important part of our business is X, Y and Z. How might your proposal or your presentation change to account for that?’ So, in a sense what you got was a ‘no,’ but now you’ve got more information that will enable you to tailor it to a ‘yes.’ You might be able to do that on the fly. It might require a second meeting. It might require you doing some developmental work.”
There are tactical components to every presentation that you just can’t control.
“If you look at the presentation side of it, you’re in front of a thousand people and you’re presenting an idea. Twenty percent of the people in the audience are not going to agree with what you have to say, anyway. If you’re speaking from the heart, if you’re speaking with conviction, if it’s obvious that you’re buttoned up and you know your stuff, people may say, ‘Well, the guy is a dope for his logic, but it was a good a presentation. He clearly laid out his arguments, and it was easy to follow.’ When you’re dealing with a room of a thousand people, you would expect dysfunction anyway so you just have to be prepared.”
Strategic failure closes the door to future business. With a tactical failure, the answer could be ‘no,’ but there is an open door for other opportunities. As Mark says: “People say no to me all the time. And every time somebody says no to me, I’m somewhat excited knowing that I’m one ‘no’ closer to a ‘yes.’”
♫ Action Step: Define Your Worst-Case Scenario ♪
Think about an intimidating presentation and identify the worst thing that could happen. Then, determine what you would do next. Repeat this until you laugh. The laugh represents release. With every release comes a realization, or moment of clarity, that enables you to think about logical choices and actions. Create a plan so you feel secure with your contingency should your worst-case scenario actually occur.