10 Lessons Learned from Almost Panicking in Front of 500+ People at TEDxCMU

"Any fool can act when everything is going right. The true test of an actor is what happens when everything starts going wrong." --A quote that TEDxCMU host Dr. Michael "Doc" Chemers shared with me after I delivered my speech Carnegie Melon Lecture Hall for TEDxCMU 2011

I had the great honor of delivering the opening speech for TEDxCMU (Carnegie Melon) this Sunday -- in the very same room that Randy Pausch delivered his deeply moving last lecture. The team of student organizers did a phenomenal job with every aspect of the event, and the entire day went of without a hitch….except for a 10-minute glitch that felt like a lifetime to the person on stage at the time. Me.

The Set-up (how it all went down)

15 minutes prior to my speech: I checked my slides and made sure the clicker was working. Check.

10 minutes prior: I started pacing slowly and taking deep breaths to work out any last minute adrenaline and nerves. Check.

5 minutes prior: I smiled up at an audience of 500 people as I was being introduced by Doc, knowing that the talk was also live streaming to 2,000+ people and being recorded to last for Internet eternity on YouTube. Check.

GAME TIME. I walked on stage and started my delivery.

5 minutes in: I turned around to check the large projector screen and realized that the audience couldn't see my slides. My subconscious toyed with the idea of panicking as the 18-minute clock on one of the monitors in front of me continued ticking down.

At that moment I had two choices:Street signs with two choices: panic or crush it.

  1. Shut down -- stutter, give up, panic, stop in my tracks. Wait at the front of the room like a deer in headlights (literally -- the lights were so bright I couldn't see the audience) until the problem was fixed and ask for a re-do, if that were even possible.
  2. Keep Going -- make light of the situation, play the hand I was dealt, and use the opportunity to absolutely crush it.

In a mix of conscious choice and the universe blessing me with the miracle of grace, I landed on option number two.

The Recovery

6 minutes in: "You can't see my slides, can you?" I asked the audience. They shook their heads. "Joke's on you I guess!" Everybody laughed.

I started to feel a bond forming…like the room was on my side. They knew I was climbing uphill with a 50-pound backpack at this point. "Geez…there's like 500 of you -- one of you could have said something!" I jokingly chided. They laughed again.

Jenny Blake Speaking at TEDxCMU (Carnegie Melon)

For the remaining majority of my 18-minute speech, I delivered my talking points from memory. The glitch wasn't anyone's fault -- a breaker had gone out somewhere -- but the technicians' fiddling with my slides (projected for all to see) made it even more complicated to deliver my speech in a way that still clearly got my message across AND made an impact.

~13 minutes in: My slides started working again (hallelujah!), and I was able to close with a few powerful images -- all while somehow staying under 18 minutes.

When I sat down, the host (Doc) and my friends Julie, Amber Rae and Charlie Hoehn whispered, "You killed it!" And I really needed to hear that…otherwise I might have started crying from the sheer overwhelm of it all.

Bolstered by their positive feedback, I exhaled…hands shaking slightly from the adrenaline. I smiled. I felt deeply proud of myself, and the response from the audience during breaks and in "keeper" emails was incredible. I could have given up but I didn't. I persevered.

In fact, as Amber pointed out -- the technical glitches, subsequent jokes, and smooth delivery endeared the audience to me and my content far more than I could have done on my own. I had earned more than their admiration…I had earned their respect.

As soon as I sat down, I knew that this whole snafu would make a great blog post. As you may know by now, I love turning challenging personal experiences into life lessons that we can all learn and grow from. In true-to-Jenny-Blake-form, here are:

10 Lessons I Learned from Almost Panicking in front of 500+ People During my TEDxCMU Speech

  1. Be careful what you wish for! Earlier that morning I said to Charlie and Amber (two other amazing speakers and friends) that I didn't have any good jokes for my speech, and yet I love to make audiences laugh. Oh well, I thought at the time with a shrug. HAH -- I got some jokes alright! I actually had the audience laughing throughout my speech -- thanks to the technical glitches. Lesson 1b: when the universe throws you a curve ball, laughter is the best way to knock the pitch out of the park. And you can't find humor if you're busy panicking.
  2. Practice and preparation MATTERS. In one of our prep calls, Charlie reminded me that coming across as natural and conversational comes from intense rehearsal. Practice and preparation are critical to nailing something you really care about. If I had not rehearsed (which I often don't), I would never have been able to deliver without my slides while watching a glitchy monitor and having the pressure of a countdown clock. P.S. For those who don't know Charlie, you must! He wrote the incredibly popular e-book, Recession Proof Graduate -- a must read for any recent grads looking for work or anyone looking to start a side hustle.
  3. That said, all the preparation in the world won't prevent surprises. No matter how much you plan or prepare, there will ALWAYS be circumstances beyond your control. The best you can do is learn to accept them and roll with the punches as best as you possibly can. Shit happens. Focus on what you can do to fix the situation, because it's what you do when surprises show up that really matters.
  4. I've said it before and I'll say it again…deep breaths are FREE. Use them! Deep breaths fix more than you probably realize. Doing my yoga breathing (as described in 8 Ways to Practice and Improve Your Public Speaking), greatly helped my release any nervous energy before I started. Once I got to the panic fork in the road, it was a single deep breath that saved me. In that breath, I gave myself the time to think and assess. Deep breaths can save you in moments when you are on the verge of panic or any potential emotional tipping point.
  5. Heed the principle of Wabi-sabi - the beauty in imperfection. Wabi-sabi is a Japanese term that my dad introduced me to after we found a handful of typos in my book. As my dad (half-joking, half-serious) says, you need typos -- that's how all the demons get out. According to Wikipedia, Wabi-sabi "represents beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete." I share my highs AND lows on this blog because I want all of us to remember the beauty in imperfection and in being HUMAN.
  6. Smiles are a powerful way to trick your mind into solving stressful situations. And guess what? They're free too! If you smile through a tough situation, you might be surprised at how quickly the rest of your brain will catch-on that this isn't so bad…and that there is some diamond in the rough worth smiling about. If you can muster a smile, you can start to re-ignite your positive energy. Smiling will allow you to release tension and (hopefully) handle the situation with grace.
  7. There is great power in learning to master improvisation and creativity. I've taken a few improv classes, and though the idea of doing improv on stage in front of a live audience terrifies me, I enjoy the classes immensely. Improv teaches you to drop your ego and get creative. To build on whatever is happening with a  "Yes! And…" mentality. No slides? YES! I got this. AND…as Amber remarked, it was a better presentation because of it. I encourage you to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to get practice with improvisation -- whether in speaking, writing, or other social interactions.
  8. There's nothing like a live (even if unexpected) demo to prove a point. One of my key messages was that ANY job can teach you valuable skills if you break it down into component parts. In reference to my time delivering AdWords product training to new hires at Google, I told the audience that "although I wasn't passionate about teaching people how to place Analytics tracking code or set their daily budget...it taught me how to stand up in front of a classroom every day; it taught me how to make people laugh, keep people engaged…and how to keep going without panicking when my slides don't work!" The audience broke out into applause. Many people said afterward that it was a great demonstration of my point…I was walking my talk.
  9. Challenges we "pass" become badges we earn -- and it takes much of the power away from our fears. Now that I've had this experience, I will A) practice the s*** out of every speech from here on out… and B) feel even more confident about heading up on stage in the future. I know that I have now had a worst speaking-related fear occur, and I survived. The same goes for you -- encountering some of our biggest fears will often take the sting away as we build the resilience to deal with them and the confidence of knowing what to do if they ever happen again.
  10. Kind words are one of the world's greatest currencies. Every moment of frustration and disappointment that I experienced because of the slide snafu was surpassed tenfold by incredibly meaningful comments and support from friends, audience members, the host, and the organizers. Never forget how powerful a genuine compliment can be. Those compliments sent me over the moon on Sunday. Thank you to everyone who lifted me up after nearly falling down.

Dying to watch the video (and check out Charlie and Amber's killer speeches)?

The TEDxCMU crew is currently working on processing the videos…they should be up in about a month, at which time I will definitely share with all of you! In the meantime, there is a great written recap in The Tartan, CMU's student newspaper, and a feature story on my career philosophy in US News & World Report.

Update: you can now watch the video here!

The key takaway if you read nothing else in this epically long post:

Get out there on the stage of YOUR life and stumble around a bit. It's the rush of a lifetime to fall down and get back up -- especially in front of hundreds (if not thousands) of people. What doesn't kill you absolutely makes you stronger. And more lovable, and more relatable. It will take you from average to human f***ing magic, baby.