That’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and something I intend to work on in the new year.
Planning Only Takes You So Far
I consider myself fairly quick on my feet. I studied improv at Second City’s training center, and that’s been enormously useful to me, especially in keeping cool when things go off the rails.
But I’m also a planner. I plan everything — every meeting, every presentation, every interaction. I prepare for every possible objection, analyze every hole in my arguments, and I visualize how things should go.
But as they say, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” And I find that if I’m too wedded to my plan, I get stuck in that groove and it’s hard to get out.
How I Got Stuck
I was doing a workshop recently and the client and I had discussed ahead of time whether it would be a good idea to allow a couple of employees to dial in from another location. We determined together that the experience just wouldn’t work as well for people not in the room, and so we’d make it an in-person workshop only.
When I arrived that morning, the plan had changed. Stuff happens, so I did my best to roll with it, reconfiguring my technology to work with their web conferencing system.
In the end, the workshop was a success. But when it was over, I realized that I hadn’t made enough of an effort to integrate the remote participants into the conversation. Because it departed from my plan, it was hard for me to adjust and be in the moment.
The Lesson: Get Out of Your Head
I have a pre-event checklist that I use when I set up for a presentation. It mostly covers the technical elements (connect to wifi, silence phone, assemble handouts, etc.). But now I’ve added a new item to the checklist — a question — and it may just be the most important thing on there:
What was unexpected, and how will you account for it?
Now instead of just busily working through my to-do list, checking off one item after another, I’m going to force myself to stop for a moment and think — to ask myself this question and work out an answer.
So whether you’re giving a presentation, interviewing for a job or conducting a meeting, understand that preparation is important, yes, but no amount of preparation can anticipate every possible outcome. Simply expecting the unexpected is not enough.
You might get stuck in a lousy room, a key person may not show up, your technology could break down, you might get interrupted by a fire drill. When that happens, take a moment, breathe and think about what you need to do differently.
Why I Wasn’t the Greatest Improviser
This all reminds me of my improv experience.
I lived about a mile’s walk from Second City, and when I went to auditions (where, of course, there were no scripts — just a lot of what they call “make ’em ups”), I would envision whole scenes based on what I saw on the way.
I’d pass a dry cleaner and act out a scene in my head about my shirt being ruined. A restaurant? I’m on a first date. A park? I’m a single dad pushing my kid on the swing. All the way to the audition I’d carry out these dialogues in my head in order to prepare.
When I told another actor about my “technique,” he said, “I think that would put me too much in my head.” Which is the worst thing an improviser can do — thinking too hard instead of just being in the moment and relying on instinct.
This is probably why I was not a great improviser. Mind you, I think I’m better than a lot of people who have never taken a class, but among those who are really good at it, I’m just okay.
Someday I’d like to take classes again and see how I do. In the meantime, I’m trying to put this lesson to work in my everyday life.
Stop, breathe, think, adjust.