evils of the comfort zone

evils of the comfort zone 03.19.13

In the pantheon of Things Likely Not to End Well, delivering a 3 hour and 30 minute presentation on no sleep the morning after returning to the U.S. from Iceland ranks high on the list. Further complicating things, I couldn’t get the projector to display my slides. Add in a sophisticated audience that has put patient care on hold for half a day and you begin to get a feel for what I confronted last Friday morning.

*   *   *

Speaking in front of people doesn’t scare me. It really never has. Maybe it started in grade school when one of my teachers, suffering from laryngitis, asked me to read long sections of a book to the class, a duty he normally reserved for himself. The fact that he chose me rather than any of the other students led me to believe that I must have preternatural reading and speaking abilities. (File, as always, under “Delusion.”)

When I played on high school sports teams, I was the kid who stood up at the season-ending awards ceremony to say a few words thanking our coaches. When I attended law school I discovered that despite my strong tendencies towards introversion, I enjoyed standing up in front of a fake jury and arguing the merits of an imaginary case. And as I grew older and had the opportunity to speak in different venues – whether the opening ceremonies at the Amputee Coalition’s national conference, or at other events as a panelist or solo presenter – the act of standing in front of large rooms full of people and spouting off became increasingly enjoyable.

It went beyond just wanting to do it. I needed to be that guy. I watched other people present and unconsciously thought about what I could have done differently or, more often than not, how I believed I could do it better. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every time I watch someone else present I get physically agitated, my mind blasting along, telling me how I could convey that information more effectively that the person standing in front of me.

Just this past weekend the trait reared its ugly head at my son’s middle-school play. One of his classmates had the kind of role that you kill for – that one scene that allows you to steal the show. He nailed it the first night. But on Saturday, he ran into problems.

His microphone somehow picked up interference on its frequency. (Think air traffic control in Spinal Tap.) No matter how much the guy at the sound board tried to control for it, jazz music inexplicably piped through the speakers on his mic. Mind you, it wasn’t so loud that you couldn’t hear him, but it was distinct enough to thoroughly distract everyone from what he was saying and doing.

As I watched the sound guy flip knobs and shrug helplessly, and saw the audience staring desperately around the theater looking for someone to fix the snafu, I thought about what I would do if I were on stage. And I quickly decided that during the character’s extended and imaginary death scene, he could simply reference the fact that in addition to seeing the white light, he could hear the angels playing music, though he didn’t know they liked jazz. While not the funniest line ever thought up on the spot, under those specific circumstances, I’m convinced it’s all the audience would have talked about had he pulled it off. That’s how compulsive I am about this stuff.

In any event, as I sat on the plane last week while flying over Greenland, the fact that I was still fine-tuning my presentation – as opposed to practicing it for the 100th time – sent tremors of terror into the reptilian parts of my brain that would have (hopefully) saved me from death millions of years ago.

*   *   *

When I consider the potential return on investment, I don’t know that it makes a whole lot of sense for me to continue to try to improve my public speaking skills. The chances at this stage of my career that anything I do is going to dramatically move the needle aren’t particularly high. If I did nothing but repeat the same patterns and habits that have gotten me to whatever level of expertise I currently possess, I’d probably still get decent feedback from audiences.

But I forge onward, my latest Kindle purchase a book on effective story telling that, it turns out, features multiple quotes from an old high school classmate and successful author. And as I took a break yesterday from trying to finalize the presentation that I started two weeks ago, continued on Icelandair last Thursday night, and that I have to deliver later this week, it hit me.

The things that end up meaning the most to me are the ones I do despite the uncertainty, whether it’s climbing a mountain in Arizona without first understanding the enormity of the task, using a chainsaw without hacking off another of my remaining limbs, or meditating regularly and hearing the dialogue in my own head. Or, for that matter, rehabilitating from the unexpected loss of a body part.

Similarly, scrapping a successful presentation that I’ve delivered for more than two years in exchange for entirely new content and a more interactive – read, “less controlled by me” – gets my pulse racing. That’s not necessarily the best place to be when you have to deliver that presentation to a room full of people in less than 24 hours. But then again, maybe it is.

*   *   *

I dragged my unshaven, jet-lagged self in front of the small audience last Friday. Bereft of a functioning projector, I placed my computer in the middle of the conference-room table so everyone could see my slides. I started talking knowing that I hadn’t had the chance to fully integrate several teaching examples into the final section. I hadn’t had the chance to do even one dry-run of the content before walking into the room.

It wasn’t perfect. Certain aspects went well, while others failed. When I got to the unfinished portion, I sat down at the table with my audience and explained what I hoped to achieve. Instead of “presenting,” I walked them through how I planned to deliver the content in the future. (I had scheduled this event explicitly as a “beta test” of my new presentation, so there was a tacit understanding that I’d need to work out kinks and finalize certain aspects while reworking others.)

I learned a lot by being “unprepared.” The comfort zone can cripple you.

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