Life has no script

Donning the customs and costumes of Halloween was one of the great thrills of my childhood. I was R2-D2 at age 6, Godzilla at 10, and at age 13, when my friends all said they were too old, I went candy hunting alone as a white ninja.

But my lack of real ninja skills became evident between Knowles Drive and Arlington Hills when I was ambushed by Frankenstein and a portly vampire. They pushed me in the mud and made off with my sugary loot – yep, an entire pillow case full!

I arrived back home with tears in my eyes and missing one of my ninja boots (a sock with an insole in the bottom). My mom hugged me, but I got no such sympathy from my older brothers, who could barely breathe from laughing so hard.

Losing the candy was a blow, but the truth is, I liked Halloween for another reason. When you approached strangers, you only had to say, "Trick or Treat." 

As a child, I was terrified of speaking to people I didn't know. Social settings soured my stomach and set my knees knocking. I'd rather face the real Frankenstein or Dracula himself than be trapped in a room full of "people."

The fear followed me through college and into the real world of web design firms, where I shined as an art director with the super power to interpret customers' cryptic requests. One day, my boss said, "Andy, how about joining our sales team? We could use your expertise." 

The very thought of entering offices full of people I didn't know rattled my bones. But there's only one thing that scared me more than social settings — backing away from a challenge because of fear. I swallowed hard and said, "OK."

I was plunged into the world of networking mixers, meetings with CEO's, and cold calls. However, my relaxed personality and confidence as a web guru was neutralized by my nerves. I couldn't sell because my anxiety and awkwardness was repelling prospects.

Finally, I was asked to speak at a local technology organization about building a strong corporate web presence. Company presidents, regional leaders, everyone would be there. I accepted... then threw up.

After 40 hours writing a carefully-engineered script, my plan was to stride to the podium, put my head down, and recite my speech. But when I arrived at the packed event, I couldn't find my note cards. In 30 minutes I was going to be called to the front of the room, and I had NO SCRIPT!

I did what any social misfit would do — I panicked! Sweating and trembling, I grabbed the arm of the stranger sitting next to me and whispered, "I lost my notes! What am I going to do?" 

He whispered back, "You're screwed." 

I begged, "Seriously, man, help me!" 

The stranger responded, "Just have fun." 

Real helpful, pal, thanks!

In a desperate attempt to rapidly recreate my week-long speech writing session, I pulled out a sheet of paper. Sweat dripping onto the page, I stared at the blank sheet. There simply wasn't enough time!

The idea of fleeing the room flashed in my mind, but running away wasn't an option! I would face this crowd even if it meant simply apologizing. 

I looked at the blank sheet again and wrote down four words: "Life has no script."

_ _ _

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, Andy Horner!" 

It was the longest two dozen steps I've ever taken. Looking out at the crowd, I smiled. "Hi everyone. Last week I jotted down a short speech which I seem to have lost. It only took me 40 hours to write, so no big loss." 

The room erupted in laughter. Unlike my brothers, they were laughing with me, not at me. I exhaled and let go. Fear released its grip, and my creativity, ideas, and thoughts returned. I interacted with the audience. I drew diagrams. I even pulled a customer up on stage for a testimonial.

My speech was a success!

Now, I'm far more comfortable at networking events and in front of crowds (I've had lots of practice). But when my nerves creep up on me — as they occasionally do — I just whisper to myself, "Life has no script." 

I let go and make the decision to just have fun.

Maybe you've struggled with confidence in corporate crowds. How do you fight off nerves and let go? Let me know: andy@outstand.com.