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Ideas. Insights. Inspiration.

The Big Scary Poem

Do you remember that uncomfortable presentation I wrote about a few weeks ago? The one I had signed up for to challenge myself?

Well, I f*cked it up.

Before I tell you how I did that and what I learned from it, let me provide some context... and one important detail I hadn't mentioned previously.

I applied to be a presenter at DisruptHR - Vaughan not just because I was interested in the theme of the evening ("Taking Risks"), but also because I was really interested in the mandated format of the presentations.

The event used a modified version of what I now know is called the PetchaKutcha format: each presenter was allowed 20 slides (no more, no less), and each slide automatically moved forward after 15 seconds. Notes were not allowed, and there wasn't a teleprompter in sight.

I knew the format would be a challenge for me because, while I've probably given thousands of presentations throughout my career, I've rarely needed to perfectly time my slides. For a typical presentation, a slide will appear, and I'll speak to the key message of the slide until I'm done, improvising as necessary. I move on to the next slide whenever I'm finished with the last one, minding only my total time allocation, not my time allocation per slide; the former is much easier to do than the latter.

But I've been thinking a lot about comedians recently, possibly the result of watching far too many Netflix comedy specials. Specifically, I've been thinking about how effective comedians often require perfect timing for their jokes to work, and how that perfect timing would most likely come from practice, practice, and more practice of their material. I decided I wanted to experience what presenting a perfectly practiced presentation felt like.

I probably should have left it at that. But the theme of this presentation was about "taking risks", so I decided to take one.

I decided I'd deliver my presentation on the topic of "The Talent and Brand Risk of Bad Recruitment Practices"... in the form of a poem.

Writing the poem wasn't the difficult part for me. I've been oddly good with creating rhymes since I was a child, although I don't do it often because it's not something that brings me joy and not something I've been able to monetize. Still, I thought it would be an interesting way to deliver an important message in a way that might get people to pay attention.

The difficult part was having to memorize it. I've never been great with memorization.

The poem I wrote is 120 lines of rhyming couplets, six lines per slide for 20 slides.

Almost every line has exactly 11 syllables, and when delivered correctly, it reads like a perfectly crafted Dr. Seuss fable.

Spoiler alert: it was not delivered correctly.

It wasn't for a lack of practice, mind you. I taped the script to the outside of my glass shower and recited the lines every morning as I woke up. I recorded myself saying the script and listened to it in the car when I was driving. I created a little flip-book of my poem and carried it around with me for a week, reciting the script a dozen times every day, I read that script aloud so many times I became sick at the sound of my voice. And then I read it some more. I believe, to this day, that I could have delivered my poem under perfect conditions. And that was the problem, of course: counting on perfect conditions is never a great idea.

My problem began with a small miscommunication on my part. I believed I'd be introduced, get up on stage, and then be given a "start signal" before my time would begin.

So after I was introduced, I approached the stage. I looked out at the crowd, then looked over at one of the event organizers and asked, "Are we good to go?" And she nodded, yes, go... because my time had already started.

Whoops. I began what had to be a perfectly-timed presentation with a five-second deficit.

Unfortunately for me, the damage was compounding. Feeling rushed, I managed to make it through the first five slides almost exactly as written but blanked halfway through the sixth.

I looked at the slide to try and jog my memory, and when that didn't work, I turned to the crowd and said, "I don't remember what I was supposed to say here."

The crowd burst out laughing.

At first, I thought they were laughing at me, but then something strange happened.

They began cheering and applauding as a show of support.

I was grateful for their forgiveness, and after letting one more slide go by, I jumped back in.

I made several more errors during the remainder of the presentation, but most of them would have come off as slightly awkward rhymes to someone who didn't have access to my script. I made one additional "very noticeable mistake" near the end, but it was trivial compared to my big one near the beginning. And it earned another laugh from the crowd.

I watched a video of my performance that a friend (and fellow presenter) had recorded with his phone and sent to me the following day. Cringing throughout, I determined I successfully delivered 92 out of 120 lines either perfectly as written, or close enough so an audience not having access to my script wouldn't notice.

92 out of 120 lines is 76.6%... hardly something to write home about.

But there are a few good takeaways from my experience.

1. You are often your toughest critic.

I'd prefer nobody ever sees the video of the event I fully expect will be published online at some point. But based on the many kind comments I received during the break at the event and the dozens of kind messages sent to me on LinkedIn afterwards, not everybody thought the performance was as awful as I did. One message I received after the event was insightful for me. An audience member wrote: "(Reciting a poem) was not an easy feat so when you missed a beat or line we all loved it. Keep your passion alive. It's contagious." I expected perfection from myself... but that's not what the crowd was expecting from me. They wanted to hear a few insights, delivered with passion. And apparently, I managed to do that.

2. Set yourself up for success.

In hindsight, there was something I could have done to make my poem much easier to deliver: I could have made it shorter. You see, to read my poem aloud slowly enough for an audience to understand the words being spoken, it takes at least 12 seconds to deliver each set of six lines. This meant that if I stumbled on a line even a little bit, the slide would transition before I was finished with the words belonging to the previous slide... and the mistake would be very obvious to everyone watching. In hindsight, would it have been better to only write four lines per slide and allow for some breathing room? Yes! And that should have been obvious to me from the start. When you're already attempting something difficult, there's no need to make it even more difficult than it needs to be.

3. When you take risks, sometimes you'll fail.

There were a dozen of different ways I could have made this presentation easier to deliver, but all of them would have made it less interesting. I regret not delivering a perfect presentation, but I certainly don't regret trying to deliver something unique and memorable.

If you've cared enough to read up until this point, there's a chance you're wondering if this massive 120-line poem will ever see the light of day again.

Probably, yes.

Disrupt HR - Vaughan will likely publish the video at some point, so if you want to see my terrible performance, you have that to look forward to watching.

But also, because I think this poem would make an amusing "Adult Storybook" for HR professionals (and since the holidays are just around the corner), I'm planning to self-publish it as such on Amazon. When it's ready, I'll post about it, I promise.

Will I ever recite my poem in public again?

I'd love to! If you're an organization committed to improving your hiring processes, send me a message -- I'd be happy to come and present my ideas to your human resources team.

But only if a teleprompter is available.


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