I want to share an experience that I had in front of the audience two weeks ago. I was thrilled when comedian Alise Morales asked me to be a part of her show The Roast of Your 15 Year-Old Self. This show usually takes place in NYC but Elise comes to Philly every so often run the show at Good Good Comedy Theater. I was ripe with roast material! 15 Year-Old Hillary had a wild ride, and this was something that didn't become apparent until very recently.
When I was telling stories on stage with much frequency most of my tales came from that time period and I always shared them with humor, optimism and through the lens of my (innocent) 15 year-old self. I never ever approached my life experiences as roast material. The humor came from the truth of the circumstances. Here's an example from 2012 -- it's a story about my huge crush and bizarre platonic relationship with the lead singer of the 90's ska band Reel Big Fish.
I chose to tell a version of this story for The Roast of Your 15 Year-Old Self. However my plan was to roast my 30 year-old self telling a story about my 15 year-old self. Because it wasn't until a few months ago that I realized that the lead singer of Reel Big Fish should not have been hanging out, writing letters, and calling the house land line of a FIFTEEN YEAR-OLD GIRL. This new perspective certainly came to be because of the #MeToo movement and the horror stories coming out about men in power preying on underage girls. All of a sudden I was disturbed by everything that happened surrounding me and that band from ages 15-17. But at the same time that I was disturbed, I found it to be hilarious. The humor emerged because of luck. Nothing horrible happened to me whilst in this bizarre “friendship” and I am grateful.
Flash forward to the show. I hop out on stage with a slide deck of photos to help me tell my story. I start off in the same way that I began this story in 2012, unfolding all of the magical things that happened after meeting this singer, and my naive proclamations that we were going to get married and live happily ever after. And then I broke out of that story and dug into all of the creepiness that lingered under the surface. I told the audience that it wasn't until recently that I googled his age and turns out he was 22 when I was 15. Back in 1997, I knew he was older, but at that time I wasn't concerned. Nor were my parents. Or anyone else that I told about my "engagement" to the lead singer of a ska band.
Mid-Roast, I shifted over to the dark side of my story and combing through all of the red flags (like an awkward hug while wrapped in the curtain in the wings of the TLA), I could feel the energy in the audience shift. The roars of laughter that accompanied my slide show turned into gasps and "Oh No!"'s. I could feel the discomfort, concern and sadness coming from the entire audience. I did not expect this to happen. Even though I was sharing a disturbing truth, I had planned for the audience laughing through my entire set.
In my workshops, coaching, and story rehearsals for the TMAS Live Shows, I often say this:
You cannot control how your audience receives your story. So don't approach telling it with a planned outcome for the person listening.
I planned for the audience finding humor in the exact same way that I did. And this was far far from what was happening in real time. So I jumped away from my plan. At that point my focus was on making the audience comfortable and happy by telling them: I am okay! Nothing terrible actually happened to me. There might have been some grooming going on, but young Hillary was oblivious and focused on singing musical theater and writing a fan zine. I am safe and so are you!
I adjusted the rest of the story I planned to tell with this motivation in mind. I don't quite remember how I wrapped things up, but that didn't matter. I recovered. And the immediate connection that I had with the audience when I changed course was the only thing I needed to get me through. I was committed to making sure that they were all doing okay. I made our interaction fun and collaborative and ultimately we ended the story on a collective upbeat. It was one of my favorite public speaking experiences to date.
I could not control how my audience received my story, but I could steer the ship and make sure that we made it safely to shore as a team!
Whatever your next public speaking experience may be, if you feel the energy change in the room (and believe me you will feel it), focus on your goals for the audience and adjust accordingly. Those spontaneous moments might be messy, but they will give you a far better outcome than one you try to control from the get go.
This story first appeared in The Speak Up, a twice monthly newsletter from TMAS Founder, Hillary Rea, on all things public speaking, storytelling as leadership, and an occasional rumination on the wellness industry. There are also lots of GIF’s.
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Ps. Here is a 15 year-old me singing with Reel Big Fish in 1997!