I can recall a lot of failures like when I was seven years old and participated in a community-wide cross country race with other children. I came in dead last. I was so far behind all the other kids my mom was beginning to get worried about me. I was literally nowhere in sight when what seemed like the last kid crossed the finish line. When I finally finished everyone was gone except my mom and little brother.
I also remember my 1st grade teacher and how she always gave out stickers for “special” homework papers. I didn’t know she defined “special” as both especially good and especially bad work. One day she returned my homework to me with a cool sticker. The sticker had a bunch of cherries on it and said, “It’s the pits!” and it wasn’t until my mom explained it to me that night that I realized my teacher wasn’t complimenting my academic brilliance.
One of my more recent and public failures was at Podcamp Nashville in 2007. It was the first time I’d ever done a social media talk to a large gathering and I was really excited. I put a ton of time into my presentation. I thought it looked pretty awesome. The problem was I didn’t put as much time into what I was going to say. When it was my turn to speak there was also an issue getting my dumb laptop to connect to the projector properly so I ended up doing the whole presentation in Powerpoint’s edit mode. I stumbled and fumbled all over myself for the longest 20 minutes of my life. I was mortified.
There’s a moment when you’ve just done something embarrassing that you think, “Hey, maybe that wasn’t so bad. Maybe I’m just being hard on myself.” Only later your friends give you ambiguous and veiled encouragements like, “That shirt you wore for the presentation was perfect!” and “That was the best opening slide I’ve ever seen!” which only confirms how awful it really is. That’s how it was that day.
What made that particular instance worse was that I had just recently gone out on my own. I was hoping to be a consultant and speaker on the topic of social media so I didn’t just bomb publicly but I did so on the very thing I wanted people to hire me for. It caused some real soul searching and I decided that if I was serious about wanting to give this consulting and speaking thing a shot I needed to get better fast.
From that event through the next 18 months anytime I gave a presentation or speech (and thankfully I had many opportunities…apparently they weren’t at PodCamp) I spoke without PowerPoint. Sometimes I would use flip charts with markers and other times I just talked. I realized that PowerPoint was a crutch. I hadn’t developed much skill in communicating through the spoken word. By removing PowerPoint from my arsenal I had to get a lot better at connecting with people through words, stories, illustrations, clear concepts, applicable ideas, voice inflection, and passion.
I am very thankful that I bombed that day in 2007. It was the kick I needed to get more serious about presenting my ideas to people and keeping their attention along the way. I don’t know where I’d be today if my presentation had been mildly coherent. Though I would have been spared a temporary embarrassment I wouldn’t have had the fight or drive to get better.
Failure is going to happen. We all know that. Taking the time to figure out why, however, is not as common. When you fail, don’t waste the opportunity to figure out what went wrong. When you do that you position yourself to fix it and learn from it. What you may find is that it’s an unlikely blessing that you’ll be immensely grateful for down the road.