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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.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

13 thoughts on “Life's a Speech”

  1. This reminds me of one of the lessons learnt in the Marshmallow Challenge, where most adults only add the marshmallow to the structure at the end and then discover that the structure is not stable; whereas, children tend to continuously test the structure’s stability with the marshmallow, i.e. prototyping along the way.

    Thank you Kerry for sharing your insight!

  2. LOVE IT!!!
    Thank you for sharing this insight. It is such a beautiful demonstration of collaboration at its best. A strength that everyone wants to have, but few take the time to practice. I love the idea of chunking and testing small pieces of learning and then building a full program with smaller piloted sections. I will make a concentrated effort to use this strength more often.

  3. Very True. One of the hardest things in life is to be humble and accept our work is a work in progress and not a finished product. We do it every day and fight it all the way, but somewhere along the line we realize we are only human working on the final speech. Thank you.

  4. I am constantly amazed by your posts, Kerry. Like everyone else, I am deluged by emails on a daily basis. Most of the stream of emails I receive are because of my opting in on a previous email. I say this because for the most part I hurry through them just to get through. When I see an email from Crucial Skills, and it’s one of your posts, a smile spreads across my face because I know I’m in for a treat. Thank you for painstakingly developing your skills and insights over the decades so that you may bring a little joy into my life. Okay…I admit, you write for the benefit of others as well.

  5. The Marx Brothers’ first few movies were screen adaptations of their vaudeville acts, so they were already audience-tested. This gave them a huge competitive advantage. When they ran out of old material, they got a new producer who enabled them to get back onto live stages to test and refine their new material before filming it.

  6. Well said, Kerry. Life is not a movie, and being one who gives a lot of ‘speeches’ I always want to ‘test’ it out before I go live…particularly if I left them with the feeling I wanted, not just the information.

    Thanks.

  7. I work in an environment where people treat most projects like a movie, not a speech. They are so busy moving to the next big thing, they never stop to learn from what they have just produced. So the next big thing continues to elude them. I am often criticized for treating projects more like a speech, but find a great deal more satisfaction and success with them. Thank you!

  8. This is great! Just make sure you’re not going through these iterations on someone else’s dime, else it can become a cost of quality issue. If you’re billing by the hour, it’s wise to ‘get it right’ the first time.

  9. A very good story and a good lesson for life. One instance where this approach does not work is when a single encounter with another person that goes badly can damage or even end the relationship. While we can learn from such an interaction for the future sometimes we don’t get another chance to ‘re-write the speech’.

  10. This is a wonderful reminder. I’ve often struggled to get started when sitting down to write a presentation, draft an important email or update a resume. I finally realized that what was holding me back was this need to get it right the first time; I felt like putting something down on paper meant that I was committing to it. I’ve had to learn to tell myself that writing it down doesn’t mean I can’t change it later. It seems so simple, but it’s a lesson I need to keep relearning.

  11. My daughter referred me “Crucial Skills” and, after reading this article and several others, I can see why she recommended it. I always test drive my presentations. And I am never fully satisfied that something cannot be improved. I swear that Kerry is reading my journal. Thank you for your presence in the world.

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