Thursday, 30 January 2014

Grace under Pressure

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, Michael Bay, an American Director and Producer, walked off stage, apparently struck with stage fright after his auto cue failed. Think about it. The setting is one of the world’s biggest technology exhibitions; you’re on stage with Samsung, hoping to excite, engage and ignite a global media with the delights of a technological marvel in the form of a 105" screen television. And then the technology fails. The irony of the situation is almost funny.

But let’s get back to Michael Bay. What must that have felt like? And what’s our reaction as the audience? Do we watch and think "ha, ha ha"? Or do we cringe and think "there but for the grace of God?" Much has been written about what this episode means for the product; the expo; the company and Bay’s Personal Brand of course.

But let’s just consider it from a leadership perspective.

We could take the 'show your vulnerability' angle (as many leaders have). But really? Is that how we want to show it? I would suspect Bay would wish for all the world he could have done something different in that moment of disbelief, panic, fear and frustration. Shortly after he dashed off, his next tweet reflected with real honesty what was apparent for all the world to see…….sheer embarrassment. So what can you do?

I work with clients to help build their ‘Executive Presence’ skills, and this situation is a perfect example to show an element of that; what might be termed ‘Grace Under Pressure’.

All leaders need to build skills in this area. 

Why? Because it’s one thing to be confident, authoritative, calm, clear and engaging when you’re on top of your game and everything is working beautifully. But what about when everything is going wrong?

How do we learn the skills to react calmly; to manage our state when our pulse is racing, to manage ourselves when we’re sweating and possibly physically shaking; how do we relax, and to find a way to engage the audience to support you – not judge you or laugh at you?

Some immediate strategies which need practice to be effective in these moments: 
  • Manage your breathing – deep, oxygen rich breaths help manage the adrenalin racing around your body. 
  • Say what’s true i.e. for Bay, that meant he should have simply said ‘the technology isn’t working’. The audience knows something is wrong anyway – don’t try and hide it. 
  • Say what that means for you – again for Bay that might mean ’I feel embarrassed’ because this allows the audience to engage and connect with you at a human level. No-one (unless they’re truly unkind), relishes in the discomfort of others. Instead we connect and line up to ’support’. 
  • Smile – life’s like that sometimes…and make a virtue out of the disaster. The technology has failed. Well, guess what – anyone who has owned or used technology knows this to be true already. They won’t be surprised that occasionally things go wrong. 
  • Tell a story instead. Hone your skills so that you can ‘perform’ yourself, rather have to rely on some ‘thing’. 
Here’s hoping the whole experience hasn’t put Michael Bay off speaking in public again; and that he learns from it such that if a situation arose in the future where his poise and presence are tested once more; rather than run away, he’s able to stay put, dazzle and delight.