June 8, 2018

My triple Axel moment

If you don't watch figure skating (and even if you do), you may not understand the importance of the triple Axel in competition.

First of all, it's the only forward-facing jump in the skaters' arsenal. All other jumps are executed while skating backward. It's also the most difficult of the six jumps figure skaters do, with the highest potential point totals. 

Women skaters are required to include an Axel in competition, usually executing doubles, but three American women have landed triples (requiring three-and-a-half rotations in the air) in competition. It's a pretty big deal.

You might have realized that I'm not a figure skater, but I did recently have a "triple Axel moment."

There was a time when you would see a skater skip a jump during their program and add it back in at the end. Adding in a jump that was missed is penalized now, and most skaters won't do it because of the precise choreography that's rehearsed over and over. But from time to time, you'll still see a skater throw in a jump late in the program that was unexpected. Something similar happened to me during the Storytellers Project event last month.

I had been practicing this ten-minute story for about two months. By the time the event came around, I was able to tell the story pretty smoothly each time I rehearsed. There were a few transitions I kept getting stuck on, but the great thing about a storytelling event is the fact that you're telling a story! It's not a presentation; it's not a TED talk; it doesn't have to be memorized or use the exact same wording every time. It's a story.

I was the first teller on stage; what a relief! I could sit back, relax, and watch all the other tellers once I was done!

I will confess that I struggled with some aspects of the event. First, there was a fixed mic on a stand in the middle of the stage, and we were not allowed to remove it or walk around the stage, for the purposes of videotaping. I'm used to moving around the stage or the room, and it was awkward to have to stand in one place. But I had practiced this way, so it wasn't as awkward as I expected it to be.

Another thing that was strange for me: Stage lighting! My speaking engagements are mostly trainings in training rooms or conference rooms. The room is fully lit and I can see and interact with everyone. In the case of the storytellers event, the room was darkened, there was lighting on me, and I could only see silhouettes of the audience members. Because I couldn't see their faces, I couldn't read their energy or nonverbal responses, and just had to listen for verbal cues (hmmm, ahhs, laughter), to know how I was doing!

I started my story, and to my delight, the audience was right there with me. Going first, I didn't know how "warmed up" they would be. Were they ready? Would I have to warm them up for the other speakers? Well, they were warm. Early on, I got a laugh just where I wanted it. I relaxed and got into the story.

And then... I lost my place! And this was not a segment I had ever messed up in practice, so I hadn't developed mental tricks to find my way back. It was GONE. In my mind, I panicked, but out loud, I just continued on with the first thing that came to mind.

As I spoke, I reached into my brain to search for the missing piece of the story. Ahh, THERE it is! I remembered what it was that I had skipped, and as I continued telling the story, I now determined where to slip the segment back in.

Whew. Done. Segment re-inserted (my triple Axel moment), and my story continued to the end with no more mishaps.

It's hard to describe how I could be telling the story and engaging with the audience while being in my head rearranging the story so I could put the missing piece back in.

What I will say is that this is what experience gets you. I have been speaking, teaching and training for about 26 years, and I because I know my material and I don't fear making mistakes any more, I don't get into an outward "panic mode." I know how to stay calm and keep my wits about me. And I understand the importance of practice and rehearsal for newer material, so I can do things like rearrange a talk on the fly.

Skaters have muscle memory; their bodies know exactly what to do and when, even if they get thrown off in the moment by a mistake. They fall, and then they get up and keep going and complete the routine.

Speakers also have muscle memory. After having practiced out loud enough times, we can also pick up where we left off in a program, even after a mistake.

This is why I encourage my clients to practice more than they think they need to! And why I encourage my clients and audiences who are newer to speaking to take as many speaking engagements as possible. There is no substitute for experience.

As I came down from the stage and took my seat next to my husband, I heard him say "It was perfect." I said, "You didn't notice that I totally left out a piece of the story and then added it back in later?" Nope. He didn't notice a thing. Of course, he didn't have my story memorized. But he also didn't see me panic, didn't notice an awkward pause, and didn't find the flow to be interrupted in any way.


Click here to watch the video if you'd like to hear the story (it's about ten minutes long), and especially if you'd like to try to spot the mishap!

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