What does this have to do with speaking? I’ll tell you in a moment (or maybe you can figure it out before then).
December 23rd, 2009, I found myself in the one-stop shopping spot for the “impossible to buy for” – the Liquor Store. Hey, people need to entertain. They appreciate me saving them the trip to replenish their supplies. It’s all good!
I don’t look around at people when I’m in the liquor store. It might be instinctive. I’m not sure I will want to see what’s there. I go straight to what I need and head for the check out line. Today was no exception. I scoured the rows of uniquely labelled wines, and seductively bottled liqueurs competing for my attention. I carefully chose what my friends and brothers would appreciate, but never buy for themselves, and headed for the checkout.
That’s when the Christmas Rush came to a shocking halt.
The power went off.
After a few confused and frenzied moments, the cashiers urged us not to leave (their electronic sensors wouldn’t work). I suddenly felt claustrophobic, but obeyed. They assured us that someone was working on finding the problem and they hoped to get power back in a few minutes. I guess it was limited to their unit. Some customers asked if they could pay cash, but were refused. We waited.
What do you do when you are waiting in a semi-dark store? I looked around at the people.
There we were, liquor store shoppers of all makes and models, some with tonight’s consumption of choice, some with a strategic basket of spirits (like me) and others with a shopping cart for a big celebration … or not. For the first time in my life, I looked into the bewildered faces of neighbours I had never met. We had probably shopped together before. We may have even eaten together once or twice at a nearby restaurant. I looked for someone familiar I could connect to and chat with. They were foreign. They were odd. They were just as shocked and scared as I was.
Looking into some of these faces, was like looking at despair, death and disconnect personified. I knew I shouldn’t judge, but I did. I knew one of these faces could have easily been mine had I taken some unfortunate turns along the path. I knew I should smile and talk to these strangers who were trapped in the same awkward spot. Some of these people were drunk already. It was 5:15PM… on a Wednesday … 2 days before Christmas.
Then I got mad. I was mad at the situation, at feeling trapped and vulnerable, at not knowing what to do, at being confronted with my own ignorance, biases and judgements. I was mad that in this dark place, a spotlight shone on my heart, and what I saw wasn’t pretty.
After twelve minutes, the discomfort became too much. I left my strategic basket of goodies, so carefully chosen. I joined the exodus of other angry (and uncomfortable) shoppers. Silently we all made for our cars … or bicycles … or headed out on foot in the frosty air.
Peace on earth, good will to men. I couldn’t shake my shame.
I couldn’t shake that spidey sense of fear down my neck and upper back. I don’t know what frightened me more – the sheer numbers of people I rub shoulders with in my neighbourhood who are heavily sedating every day, or the fact that this state of existence is reality to so many. A few wrong choices and it could be my reality too.
I went straight home to get back to my nest of the familiar. That night I made my kids popcorn and we watched a classic Christmas cartoon together. I tried to be grateful, but I still felt that sting of guilt at my huge personality flaw.
How does this connect with speaking?
I love to look in the faces of my audience. I appreciate their gracious words and encouragement after a speech. I feed off of their tips and insights. I love this connection with my fellow human beings and am grateful to be part of their world … but do I really want to be part of their world?
One of my rules is “Love thy audience.”
Do I really love these human beings, with all their flaws and darker moments? Or do I just fly in, select what I want and head for the checkout? What would I do if I really saw the true pain, some of these fellow humans face in their lives, and the way they mask it to keep going? Would it be too much for me to handle?
That self-revealing 12 minutes in the Liquor Store taught me to keep working on my character. I need to develop greater compassion and understanding, so if I am ever in that situation again, I can show up as a person, not a judgmental, shivering snot.
That flows into ALL I do – teaching, speaking and life in general. Speakers are considered leaders. If I want to speak for a living, I don’t have the luxury or the right to have an ugly heart. I must work to become a far better version of me. If I don’t, I will be confronted one day and that ignorant surface veneer will not protect me.
Have you had a reality check like this? … I really hope I’m not the only one with a fatal-flaw-revealing existential moment. Please share your pearls of wisdom below.
Thanks, and Merry Christmas.