I brought a very bad habit with me when I started my first real job. Considering it was the day after I turned 16, I guess it’s not unusual that I still might have had a bad habit or two left. It wasn’t an uncommon habit. Whenever I burned my finger tips, I reflexively touched them to my tongue before shaking them (just like a Polaroid picture). Considering I was employed by the local McDonald’s, my managers were, understandable, not terrible pleased with this. At this particular franchise, the grill faced the front counter and I was in full view of the customers waiting for their Big Macs. This habit was quickly and brutally broken using the two time-tested methods that work best with inexperienced 16 year olds — ridicule and the raised voice.
Believe it or not, there was still a bad habit or two remaining once I became a member of the adult workforce. One of them was no big deal when I was stuck back in the office, but once I went out to work at meeting venues, in front of clients waiting, as it were, for their Big Macs, it became much more of an issue. Let’s just say I tended to get a little too caught up in the moment, a little too passionate when things didn’t go according to plan. Again, nothing uncommon, but definately not behavior you want to exhibit in our line of work. Luckily this bad habit didn’t last much after my first professional road trip, due, in large part, to some very good advice I got from my boss.
I had been in a quiet corner of the rehearsal room working on some slides. If I remember correctly, PowerPoint had just done something stupid and I had just lost an hour’s work (to be honest, it might have been user error). I responded with my usual passion and let loose a word or two that really aren’t meant for polite (or corporate) society. Turns out a couple client types were in discussion nearby and heard my little outburst clearly. My boss also heard me as she was sitting next to me and I was sharing my displeasure with her.
Apparently, one of the clients mentioned this it to her later, more out of amusement than anything else and she took me aside to point out the error of my ways. The way she put it stuck with me, and has served me well, ever since.
She said that as I was leaving my hotel room every morning that I was on site working a meeting, I needed to imagine I was surrounding myself with a “Valium bubble.” No matter what was going on, no matter how badly things were going, no matter what hell was breaking loose around me, the best, the only really useful response was a complete, thoughtful calm. Deal with the situation actively and directly, she advised me, but learn to leave the adrenaline upstairs in your room. Even when it’s the client getting over anxious and excited, it’s your responsibility not to join in, but to stay above it. The client might, at the time feel that you were not as fully engaged in the situation as they might have liked, but when they realize later, after the heat of the moment has passed, that your calm, cool, thoughtful reaction was the most productive, they will thank you.
She went on to say that some of the problem can be traced to anxiety over the possibility of screwing up and that it was crucial to get past that. A person who can get distracted by the possibility of doing something wrong is not going to be providing the best performance and will have a difficult time doing something right during a crisis.
I’m not going to pretend that my transformation was instantaneous. Habits, as we all know, are hard to break. I might have slipped once or twice while I began to put her idea into practice. And I have to admit, I still don’t always sleep soundly the night before the big show. However, putting on my Valium bubble and remaining calm when events are encouraging me to do otherwise has become more and more habitual over the years. It’s a good habit. A useful habit.
And although I don’t have any hard data to back this up, I’m convinced that one person’s calm can spread and help relax the rest of the team, and even perhaps the speakers, just before the presentations are about to begin. Stopping by the speaker’s breakfast buffet with a smile and a cheerful “good morning” can sometimes do a whole lot of good.
In case you’re wondering, I still don’t lick my fingers when I burn them. Thanks McDonald’s.
And thanks Barb, in case you’re reading this, for not only giving me one of the best pieces of professional advice I ever got, but also for giving me my big break to begin with.
The first two lines of Rudyard Kipling’s great (although somewhat sexist) poem If are: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”
[Late addition] Krys Slovacek also wrote a post today about dealing with strong emotions when you’re onsite and it offers some excellent suggestions: Chill out!
What’s your method for getting ready to go into battle. How do you put on your game face? Do you have an equivalent to the Valium bubble? Please feel free to respond in a comment to this post.