Everyone who works for a living has some kind of ritual they've created, consciously or unconsciously, to manage their stress and increase their odds of achieving success, not unlike the way some basketball players go through the same dribble-the-ball-and-cross-themselves routine every time they step to the foul line.
Mozart exercised before he composed. Samuel Johnson kept a purring cat in the room before he wrote. My son, at 4, had to say good night to "Clowney," his paper mache mask on the wall, before going to bed.
I am very familiar with this phenomenon, especially during the 10 hours before I deliver a keynote presentation to a room full of business executives.
When I enter my hotel room the night before a talk, after tipping the too-smiling bellboy, I walk to the desk and remove all those completely unnecessary laminated tent cards promoting happy hour and the nearest take out pizza restaurant. I deposit this flora and fauna of life on the road in the nearest corner of the room, along with the coffee maker I will never use. Wi-Fi connected, email checked, I flop down on the bed and turn on the TV, hoping to find the "Big Game."
I think about unpacking, but dismiss the thought, reasoning that the day is still young and I've just flown such a long distance that I deserve some down time. Although I've packed my gym clothes, there is very little chance I am going to work out, now that I'm getting hungry and room service is only a phone call away. Grilled salmon is my first choice, though there's always a chance I'll go for the chicken, especially if it comes with side order of mashed potatoes.
When the waiter knocks, 15 minutes later than I was told, and asks me where to put the tray of food, I point to the bed. Meal consumed, mini-bar explored, I watch the news, ESPN highlights, review my talking points for the following day, and dutifully proceed to fill out a stack of 3x5 index cards, summarizing the key elements of my presentation, titles highlighted in yellow, start times noted in the top right hand corner of each card. Then I call the front desk, request a wake up call at 5:30 a.m., set my iPhone alarm to 5:35, floss, brush my teeth, notice that I'm chubbier than I used to be, and go to bed.
When I wake up five hours later, I shower, shave, and review my note cards. Then I put my plastic room card in my wallet and, 90 minutes before my presentation begins, make my way to the meeting room so I can set it up just the way I like, listen to my favorite music, and have enough time left over just in case the hotel has misplaced my supplies or there's been an unexpected earthquake in the middle of the night.
My routine, no matter how quirky, works every time -- providing me with exactly what I need to be "in the zone" when the client introduces me to a roomful of semi-skeptical business people wondering if I'm going to ask them to sing Kumbaya any time soon.
Did I say every time? If I did, please forgive me. That would be an exaggeration. You see, I have to wake up when the wake up call comes in order for "every time" to be part of the equation. And last week, I did not. Wake up, that is.
The wake up call never came. No one called me. Nor did my iPhone, mistakenly set to vibrate, rouse me from my jet-lagged sleep. The result? I woke up two minutes before I was supposed to meet my client in the classically named Ballroom "A".
Two minutes. That is not a lot of time to shower, shave, answer nature's call, meditate, dress, review a stack of yellow-highlighted note cards, and descend 12 flights to Ballroom "A."
What followed, for me, on that memorable day, was a surreal outtake from a Marx Brothers movie I've never seen -- a kind of Marriott-centered near death experience in which I did not see the light, only my crazed face in the bathroom mirror, blood dripping down my neck from shaving too fast.
Only one thing was clear to me in the white heat of the moment. With this kind of start to the day, my keynote presentation was going to be a major disaster, an unfortunate occurrence, indeed, this being the first time I'd be speaking to 200 senior leaders from one of the world's most respected banks.
I race out of my room and push the elevator button many more times than I need to. The doors open, I press "G" and the elevator... oh, the silvery Otis Elevator I have come to know and trust these past 26 years of being a road warrior... stops at each and every floor. Each. And every. Floor. It stops. It stops at each floor. Every. One. Of. Them.
When the doors finally open to the lobby, I do not let the women and children go first. Hey, they don't have a keynote presentation in a few minutes. They're not bleeding. Glancing at my watch, I see it's only 7:07 -- what political pollsters would call "within the margin of error". How could this be? Have I entered some kind of black hole? I mean, i woke up at 6:58 and now it's only 7:07? Huh?
Lunging forward, I race walk across the lobby and, doing my best impersonation of a Zen monk, enter Ballroom "A." My client smiles, asks if I had a good night's sleep, and mumbles something about Powerpoint. I nod and say nothing about the Marx Brothers movie I'm still starring in.
While I'm definitely relieved I've made it to the room, I am also very much aware of a large, lurking creature of doubt doing the Funky Chicken in the back of what's left of my mind
Am I ready? Am I prepared? Am I good to go?
Many business people file into the room, checking smart phones, drinking coffee. Someone offers me a muffin.
It's two minutes before showtime and then, without warning, out of the blue, like some kind of unexpected refund check from the IRS, I realize I have a choice -- an existential choice -- the same choice I have every single day of my life: I can either be present and trust what I know -- or I can give in to doubt and fear.
That's it. A choice.
I choose the former, as the AV guy, yawning, mics me up, hands me the remote, and wishes me good luck. I take a breath. I take the stage. And speak.
Mitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting and training company headquartered in Woodstock, NY. He was just nominated, by a leading speakers bureau, as a TOP FIVE SPEAKER in the field of innovation and creativity. If you want to vote for him, click here. Here's his approach to giving good keynote. And this is what he talks about.
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