I figured it was bound to happen and I’d only been lucky. In the hundreds of times I’ve spoken, I’ve been fortunate enough to only encounter one really terrible crowd. And that wasn’t their fault (or mine). Regardless, I’d been enjoying a nice streak of audiences that are interested in what I’m saying, engaged in the message, and eager to hear more.
Until last week.
I started off with a crowd of nearly 600 freshmen and it went downhill from there. Stories that I’ve told hundreds of times didn’t connect. Jokes that worked a week ago fell flat. People started looking at their phones. Then having side conversations. And then - and this actually happened - the coughing began. You know, where one person coughs and another does, too, thinking it’s funny and then it catches on with another section and then about a hundred guys are coughing at the same time.
And that was a sign it was time to wrap.
As I concluded and turned it back over to the event host, I just chalked it up as part of the grind. No one hits home runs all the time. People strike out and it’s part and parcel of what happens when you dare to stand in a room full of people with something to say. I was determined to analyze the talk and event for a hour afterward, draw some conclusions and learn some lessons, and then move on.
My campus contact apologized graciously afterward. She had seen folks who were checked out and unruly and felt bad. I thanked her, but once again, just chalked it up as something that happens every once in a while. My feelings weren’t hurt because I don't take situations like these personally, and I assumed at least one person got something out of it.
I was headed out thinking that this was just one of those times when things don’t go as planned and that it was just a bad crowd I didn’t connect with. Worst gig ever? Maybe. Worst audience? Probably. Oh well. I’ve got another speech in about 10 days in Georgia. Time to get ready.
But then, students came up to me in the foyer. Pockets of five or six guys approached thanking me for my time and message and apologizing for their classmates’ behavior and unwillingness to listen. This wasn’t an idle gesture - these guys mentioned parts of my talk and what they had learned. Several said they would start tomorrow with some of the challenges I issued. I got to chat with about 15 guys in all.
It felt good to know that I at least reached this small cadre in that massive room. That’s why I do this, after all. I never assume I’ll be 100% effective to 100% of the audience. I speak based on the size of my story inside, not the size of the room I’m in.
And then I woke up this morning to over 20 emails in my inbox from guys who attended last night. For the record, even when a talk goes wonderfully, no one emails. I mean, no one. People tweet nice things (see above), but no one emails.
My shuttle ride to the airport allowed me to sift through these messages, all of them positive. Freshmen were telling me they enjoyed the presentation, what they’ll remember, and why they were glad I spoke. Some were apologetic for others. This was a high class move.
Many of these emails were from future members of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at TCU. I’m glad to see that organization building a strong foundation of men who want to better themselves and others.
And like that, my worst audience became my best. When I thought people weren’t listening at all, I found the small group that was listening the most. There, in the midst of chaos and confusion was insight and clarity.
Mr. Rogers often quoted his mom’s admonition to “look for the helpers” in the midst of despair or disaster. And while a talk that didn’t go quite right pales in comparison to other real-life calamities, I think we can all use a reminder that when things aren’t going right, they may secretly be going perfectly.
Life swings in great big contradictory directions, it seems. And when we feel knocked out by the bad, I bet the good is lurking just beneath. Perhaps the way to get to the best parts is to face the worst parts a time or two.
The only way to enjoy a rainbow is to wait out the storm.