There I was standing on the stage in front of one hundred and forty-three people. These people were all high performing sales people, vice presidents in our company, sales managers, sales assistants, etc. I was kicking off a two-day sales training event. As the Corporate Sales Manager, all of these people had dotted line responsibilities to me. I knew most of them very well, and some fairly well.
I had spoken in front of large groups before, but standing there that day, it was really the first time I was doing something like that and of that magnitude. As the person who spearheaded the event and was kicking it off, I felt extra pressure that day to set high expectations and create excitement and enthusiasm, that would create momentum for the next two days.
As I was standing there facing that group to my front, behind me was what was really making me nervous. It wasn’t the one hundred and forty-three people staring at me. It was the one person that was right behind me on the stage. This person was the type that would judge and comment on everything I said and did. And they didn’t give a shit either. They would do it right there on the stage if I created the opportunity for them to do so. This person was the owner of our company.
I had a great relationship with him. I spent a lot of time with him. And because of that I knew what to expect or not to expect at any given time when you were in his presence. He had a way to undermine you and call you out in such an awkward way that you would want to run and hide.
As I am standing there on that stage that morning, I decided to do something that I had never done before to kick-off the meeting. I decided to tell a joke. I had heard this joke at least fifty times. One of my colleagues who had been in the business for forty years, who I highly respected. Had told this joke at lots of different meetings with internal and external customers over the years. He was, and still is, one of the best public speakers I have ever known or met. The joke always landed when he told it. His southern draw and timing with this joke was impeccable.
I went to him and asked if I could use it. He said sure. Go ahead. He probably knew that I was in trouble. However, he told me to go with it.
This joke was fairly complex. Well, at that time it seemed complex to me. It had four characters in it. And I had a sentence or two on each one of the characters in the joke. Maybe it wasn’t that complex, but it was all new to me at that time.
The stage is now set. I am kicking off a two-day sales meeting, in front of me is the entire executive committee and sales team, behind me is the owner and my supervisor. In my head is my colleague who had set the bar extremely high for me.
And what happens…I chickened out that morning on telling the joke. Well, not totally. I told the joke, but I decided to read it from note cards instead. I was so nervous that I would screw it up, that I decided that reading it from note cards was the better option.
I tell the joke, reading from the cards. Not directly reading, but using it as a guide mainly. The joke had a message about how timing and things being in the right conditions have to exist and we must seize those opportunities when they present themselves. I then tied that into the two-day training event being the right time and the right conditions. So everyone in the group must seize the opportunity.
It was really a beautiful message.
As a read the joke from the cards, I screwed it up. My timing was off. And the joke didn’t land. After that I was to introduce the owner of our company and my boss, and we were going to conduct a panel interview with submitted questions from the audience in advance.
As I walk towards where I was going to sit. Right next to the owner of our company. He was mic’d up already and leans over to me and says “If you are going to tell that joke, you need to learn how to tell it without reading it.”
Since I am being honest here. I agree with him. He was right. It is not what I wanted to hear at that moment, because I knew it was weak and could have been so much better.
The next two days I facilitated an awesome event.
I learned several things that morning. First, never tell a joke that you can’t tell without note cards. Duh! I know. I will never forget that.
The big thing that I learned was this though. That for me to grow and to develop, I must be willing to be embarrassed from time to time. Yep. Embarrassed. Most people cringe at the thought of being embarrassed, much less actually doing something that could end in an embarrassment.
By taking that risk that day, I learned more about public speaking and telling jokes than I would have ever learned if I wouldn’t have done it. I took a risk to do something different and it failed, but I learned and I have told that joke a hundred times since.
If you aren’t willing to be embarrassed from time to time, then the chances of you growing are greatly diminished. Be willing to take risks, screw up. You learn more in the screw ups than you do in the successes.
To your success and your future.