Kerrying On

Life's a Speech

When John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd started rehearsing the 1981 film Neighbors, one of the greatest casting errors in the history of movies was set into action. John, true to type, had been cast as the zany neighbor and Dan as the conservative one. For reasons only the two of them will ever know, Belushi and Aykroyd insisted on reversing roles. Now, thousands of fans would be able to watch John Belushi—the greatest maniac of all time—acting controlled and normal. What a disaster. By the time the director shouted, “It’s a wrap,” everyone associated with the film was convinced they had just created a train wreck that couldn’t be saved in post.

Sure enough, when the producers previewed the movie with audiences, they quickly learned that John Q. Public wasn’t in love with the new movie, hated the fact that John Belushi was the normal character, and were generally underwhelmed. Critics universally panned the film.

To avoid losing their investment, producers came up with a scheme that served as a marketing model for years to come. They chose to hype the movie with a deluge of ads for the two weeks immediately preceding the first showing—spending the entire marketing budget early on, knowing there would be nothing to market later. The plan worked. Hordes of adoring fans went to see Aykroyd and Belushi opening night, and for the first couple of weeks, the producers earned their money back—then the movie tanked as people told their friends not to go.

As this was going on in Hollywood, 1,370 miles away in Detroit I was about to give a speech. Fortunately, the audience I’d be facing was made up of people who didn’t expect much from me as a speaker. I met their expectations—delivering a presentation that was lukewarm at best.

Then to my surprise, I was invited to give the speech again—apparently I was the only game in town. Based on the reaction of the first speech, I now had an inkling of what the audience liked and disliked. So I altered a few slides, added a story here, clipped a silence-inducing concept there, and eventually delivered a greatly improved presentation.

Based on this upgraded performance, my speaking requests skyrocketed. Soon, I was giving a weekly presentation all around the country—each speech benefiting from the previous one. By the time Neighbors was pulled from the theaters and critics had hurled their last invective, I was being heralded as a decent orator who delivered a crackerjack speech.

As I’ve thought about these two events, my heart goes out to filmmakers. Producers spend tens of millions on a production, show it to audiences, and then wait for the fall out. There’s not much they can do if it doesn’t go well. The sets have been demolished, the people behind the cameras have moved on to new projects, and the principal actors have scattered to the wind. With a movie, you have one chance to get it right and then it’s on to the next one. At best, you can tweak a little here and cut a little there but nothing more than that.

My speech, in contrast, provided ample opportunity for me to improve on my original disaster by running short-term mini-experiments. With each new speech, I’d try out new ideas or methods, watch the reaction, make changes, test them, and then repeat the process until, by golly, I had a finely tuned, widely accepted, finished product. In fact, that’s not even true. With a speech, you never have a finished product. With each new delivery, you’re provided one more opportunity to make improvements based on your latest audience’s reaction.

And now, the reason these stories are relevant. From 1980 until now, I have received hundreds of papers from students and dozens of projects from young people I work with developing training products. I have observed that, far too often, individuals approach creative tasks as if they were producing a movie. They work hard to create a finished product and hand it to me—ta da!—never (or only barely) having tested it with an audience and too late to be altered.

I suppose we develop this life-is-a-movie attitude early on in our education. We work on our first science project or term paper, hand it in, and pray for a good grade. We’re lucky to get it handed in at all, let alone tested, changed, polished, and refined. As a result, by the time I work with students in graduate school, they’re used to dashing out a project, doing the least amount possible to receive the grade they want, and then moving on. They have neither the time nor the inclination to polish anything.

Unfortunately, when it comes to producing a noteworthy product, polishing is everything. Just ask professional writers about their craft. They’ll eagerly tell you, “Writing is rewriting.” And if they’re smart, they’re rewriting based on the reaction of members of their target audience. This lesson can be hard to learn. I have a talented friend who published a book that was universally criticized for being slow moving and lengthy. When I asked what had happened, he sheepishly reported that only his editors had read the book before it was released—and then solely for grammar. Life is a speech, not a movie. We’re almost always given a chance to rework our projects. Unlike movie makers, people who collaborate with us don’t disappear into the wind. It doesn’t cost millions to return to our initial work. It just takes the guts and humility to share our ideas with others—early on—and then ask for honest feedback.

For instance, when we develop a new training product, we don’t create two days of training and then test it with a beta group. We work feverishly on one hour of the training and then test it. Then we make changes and test it again. And again. Next, we combine two one-hour segments into a quarter day. By the time we release a finished product, every element has been vetted by real audiences, dozens of times.

Working and reworking a project until it appears professional, smooth, and “effortless” can be misleading to the casual observer. When I first saw Woody Allen perform a stand-up routine on the Tonight Show, I was astonished by his ability to deliver one hilarious joke after another. Years later, I learned that before performing that remarkable set, he had put together ten jokes and tried them out at a local club. One joke survived. Then he tried out ten more and then another ten until he had the “effortless” set he delivered on TV. Mr. Allen understood that he wasn’t producing a movie, he was giving a speech—and a speech can be easily tested and improved until the finished product looks effortless.

Understanding this idea gives us hope. It frees us from the frightening challenge of “getting it right the first time.” Instead, when it comes to working on complex projects, we should produce a first draft, run tests, make changes, and repeat. So I’ll say it one more time: life is a speech, not a movie.

And thank goodness for that.