Tommy’s Triumph

I was more than ordinarily nervous before a presentation on Monday. I was attending a pitch competition involving 12 teams, and I had given a little extra attention to team #3, which had selected Tommy as its spokesman.

The main reason I was nervous was that in last Wednesday’s practice run, he had performed abysmally. His opening was poor and it only went downhill from there. It was especially shocking because the week before it seemed like he was doing a good job in his practice runs, but the minute he got in front of a strange audience, his mind froze and everything he had practiced went out the window. After watching all the teams run through their practices, I had Tommy’s presentation ranked 11th out of 12.

The team even considered yanking him and using his backup, but Tommy insisted he wanted to try again. He had five days to work, and I helped out slightly. Here’s how it went:

Step 1 on the road to redemption was a clear, pull-no-punches assessment of his performance. There had to be absolutely no doubt in his mind what had gone wrong and how much work he needed to do, not to win, but simply  to keep from embarrassing himself and his team.

Step 2 was important: he had to have hope that he could succeed. We told him that he had proven he knew how to do a good job in practice, but he needed to show he could do the same thing in front of a live audience. Step 2b was critical: Tommy accepted the premise and the challenge. I can’t stress enough how much courage it took to try again. It’s hard enough for someone with no speaking experience to agree to face 300 people in a judged competition, but agreeing to go through with it after failing on the first try takes a special kind of guts.

Step 3 was a clear path to what needed improvement. Tommy and his team revamped their presentation from top to bottom, focusing on just three aspects: simplification, crafting a story that the audience wanted to hear, and on making it a conversation.

Step 4 was practice, practice, practice—at least 20 passes through the presentation during the weekend. That’s where I helped a little. I coached a couple of early passes through the new version. There was a lot of improvement from before but still a long way to go. After I left them on Saturday afternoon I know they went late from there, and finally wrapped it up on Sunday afternoon.

When Tommy came out on stage on Monday afternoon, I felt as nervous as if one of my own kids was up there. He may have been more nervous than I was, but he didn’t show it at all. He approached the podium, looked at the audience, gave a confident smile, and then nailed his opening. And it got better from there. It was as if someone had kidnapped the guy from last week and substituted a ringer instead.

In the end, Tommy did not win the competition; the trophy went to another team. But he triumphed in the competition that really counts. He won the battle against fear and doubt, and taught us all a superb lesson: how much could be done in such a short time with a little guts and lots of hard work.

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