Feeling anxiety before a big presentation isn’t uncommon. Michael Shane, Postlight’s Head of Digital Strategy, knows all about nailing a great performance. This week he shares the lessons he has learned from over 15 years of training and performing as a clarinetist at the likes of Carnegie Hall. Michael breaks down how the key to overcoming anxiety involves removing uncertainty – and how that translates to presentations at work.
Michael Shane I believe that a big part of why we get nervous and why we have anxiety is because we haven’t really grasped there’s uncertainty.
[Intro music fades in, plays 10 seconds, ramps up.]
Gina Trapani Hello world. Welcome to the Postlight podcast. I am Gina Trapani, CEO of Postlight. As always, I’m joined by my beloved partner and president of Postlight Chris LoSacco. Hey Chris.
Chris LoSacco Hi everybody. Hi, Gina. It’s great to be here.
GT It’s so good to be here. I’m excited about this. We’re going to talk about something near and dear to my heart today. I’m excited about this episode.
CL Yes. And we are joined by head of digital strategy at Postlight Michael Shane. Hello, Michael.
MS Hi. I’m so glad you invited me back.
CL Always. You’re always welcome.
GT Excited to have you on.
MS Great to be back here.
GT Michael, you wrote a piece for postlight.com that when I read it, I was like Michael and I never discussed this and yet he went into my brain and read my mind. [Laughs.] And this is the topic that is near and dear to my heart. This is going to sound weird, but it’s anxiety. And let me be clear. I should start from the beginning. When we say anxiety in this show, we’re not talking about clinical anxiety. That is a different podcast with different people. We’re talking about sort of being a little nervy, a little bit stressed, a little bit anxious about having to perform. And in our world, performing is giving a presentation, showing up at a business meeting, like being in kind of a high stakes situation where you’re communicating an idea or you’re selling, or you are trying to right a troubled ship and knowing that you have to show up in a certain way and feeling nervous about that. And I mean, I’ll be honest, just three seconds ago, we pressed the record button on this podcast and I felt this wave of nerves, right? That is something that I’ve accepted. That is something that is just a part of me. It means I care. I embrace it and it means, okay, my body is primed and ready. I know that I’m in a place. We have our dear listeners spending time with us and I want to do a good job. And so nerves are just part of that process. Michael, I want to pass it to you because you have a really interesting career path that involved performance—not in the slide deck and get on a stage and do a pitch. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that.
MS This is correct, yeah. Well, basically from the time that I was about 14 until my very late 20s, almost 30, my whole life was classical music. I was a clarinet player. I am no longer a professional clarinet player. Obviously I’m now a professional maker of internet things, but starting in my mid teens, I was taking the clarinet very seriously and essentially my whole life was oriented around preparing for and then doing a career as a performer in classical music. So halfway through high school, I left home in South Carolina and I went to a high school in Michigan called Interlochen Arts Academy, which is a boarding school for the arts. They have other arts, creative writing, dance, theater, et cetera. But I went there for music with the specific goal of going to conservatory, you know, college education specifically around music performance. And I left home because where I was, I had access to great public school, great friends, great support system, but where I wasn’t going to prepare me to perform classical music at the level I knew I needed to to achieve the goals that I had. And I was very fortunate. I had to audition and I had to be accepted. I had to get scholarships and raise money and all those things, but I was able to go. And so I was at Interlochen for the last two years of high school. And then, I went to a school called the Cleveland Institute of Music in Cleveland, Ohio, which is associated with the Cleveland Orchestra. And I went there because the Cleveland Orchestra is, in my opinion, anyway, probably one of the five best orchestras on the entire planet. And it’s tough to get better training than that. So the Cleveland Institute of Music is like Juilliard or a place like that. It’s just in Ohio instead of in New York City. And that’s really where the most intense part of my training started. And so pretty much from the time I left home until I switched careers, I was performing, I was auditioning. I was delivering clarinet things under pressure in front of people on a nearly constant basis. And I was wrestling with how to do that reliably, repeatedly, on command. And I absolutely struggled with nerves and stage fright, the psychological, emotional aspect of nervousness and anxiety around performance, the physical symptoms of it. 100%. I can talk about all of that. And the truth is it wasn’t really until I was nearly finished being a classical musician that I felt I had mastered those issues and I understood how my brain worked, how my body worked, what the causes were, what possible solutions were, how I could mitigate and compensate for those feelings before and during performance and also after performance, which is part of it. You know, in hindsight, it turned into a really amazing set of experiences beyond even just what I got to do in music. You know, when I got into our world and I found myself in front of CEOs and high powered executives and colleagues and impressive collaborators, I’ve just never had any of the issues with nervousness and anxiety that I had when I was in music. Because I went through 15 years of sort of nonstop, intense pressure. Right. And I don’t think it’s because I simply acclimated. Over time I figured out solutions and strategies to help work through it. And so in our world where I’m presenting often to people, I’ve never had those challenges. And so awhile back, I sat down to write this piece and I thought about how that, how that happened. And now we’re talking about it here on the podcast.
CL Before we talk about the solutions, can you give us and give the listeners a sense of how did this anxiety manifest? How did this nervousness come up in an audition, or at a big performance? What did you start to recognize or notice before you ever got to like fixing it? What was happening?
MS It manifests in different ways, right? In music, you generally always know what’s coming up. I’ve got an audition in six months. And the auditions are that big. And I took auditions for some of the biggest orchestras and most impressive conductors in the world. And you prepare for those things for many months, or you’ve got a concert coming up, maybe it’s a recital to get your degree, or maybe it’s a paid performance and people are paying money to see you. So you know about these things well in advance, as we often do at work with presentations and big events. And so on that timeline, there’s sort of a dispersed anxiety. There’s the anxiety that just like rents a room in your brain and lives there, rent free. And sometimes the room is sort of like a small closet in the back. And sometimes it’s like the penthouse with a balcony overlooking everything and a jacuzzi. And there are parties going with big pumping music until late in the night, every night. And it depends on, you know, whether it’s the closet or the penthouse, kind of depends on how close you are to the performance and how nervous you actually are, what you have to be concerned about, which is something we can talk about. But there’s sort of this latent persistent, underlying feeling of cycles being siphoned off. Right? And those are psychological cycles, emotional cycles, if you want to think about it that way. So that’s one kind of, sort of the latent background processes that start churning when we’ve got something coming up that you’re anxious about. And then you have the really acute symptoms. Physically they can be very different for people. For example, my teacher’s predecessor in the Cleveland Orchestra was a very famous clarinet player, kind of a luminary. And it’s just sort of known among people who know these things that he would often come to performances with lemon slices in a baggy so that he could, if he got dry mouth, he could smell the lemon and get his mouth moist again. Yeah.
GT Woah. Lifehack.
CL Wow. Next level.
MS Yeah, exactly. So some people get dry mouth. For me, you know, I was a clarinet player, a wind player, and control of your breathing and your abdominal and facial and throat musculature and your hands is essential to successful performance. So if my heart rate would elevate, that would be disruptive. Obviously that impacts your breathing, the rate at which your body uses oxygen is essential. Shaky hands absolutely would manifest for me, sometimes in the moment. Another symptom for me is actually yawning, lots of yawning. Yawning doesn’t, you can yawn when you’re tired, but that’s not really what it means, right? When you’re yawning, your body is trying to take in extra oxygen and yawning is actually, at least in my opinion, I’m not a doctor. You know, yawning is a symptom of some kind of fear or anxiety that your body is trying to release. And it’s trying to take in oxygen instead for comfort. So before I had to walk on stage for something, I could literally be standing in the wings, just yawning every minute, every 30 seconds. And I’m not tired at all, right? I’m hyped up, I’m ready to rock and roll. My energy level is at maximum because I’m about to go out and really try to give something to people.
GT [Laughs.] And the people sitting next to you and around you are probably watching you yawn. I’m sure they weren’t feeling—that probably wasn’t the most reassuring thing for them to see.
MS Yeah. I mean the most, basically physically, none of your body processes or symptoms work the way that they should. And when you’re doing something that is inherently physical and creative, but it’s manifested through physical action, like playing an instrument, that can be very disruptive. And then of course there’s sort of the psychological, emotional spirals that you go into thinking about what could go wrong, the parts of the performance that you’re nervous about. You know what’s difficult and really where you’re afraid to go musically. There are parts of a performance, maybe where you just want that part to be over as fast as possible, which can be really hard if it’s a really slow moment. So it manifests in sort of every possible way—physically and emotionally, before and during a performance.
GT Would it change with the moment that you went out and sat in your seat and started playing? Did it change for you? Did all those physical symptoms continue through? Because for me, there’s definitely a line between pre and during, during I just sort of go to a different place. I’m curious to know if that happened and can you think back to your performances and remember what happened? Because I often have like some weird amnesia. Where I’m just like, I don’t know how that went. I just did it. [Laughs.]
MS Yeah, those are great questions.
CL Hope that was good!
GT Hope that was good! I guess I can listen to the recording!
MS I guess as a performer, I very rarely went back and listened to my performances. Very rarely. In terms of what would happen when I sat down, I mean, it evolved over the course of my career. When I was younger and I was a student, certainly there had always been an element of you kind of go into the zone and I’d always been able to achieve a little bit of that naturally because I sort of gravitated to being a performer of classical music and it’s something that’s that’s built in. But when I was younger, when I was less experienced, certainly the symptoms of anxiety could persist through a performance. Even if my heart rate slowed down, because once you’re performing, you’re breathing in a way that’s going to slow your heart rate down anyway, other things might persist. But as I gained more experience, I found that things just really started to settle down. After I finished college in Cleveland, I was in the right place at the right time. And it was kind of one of those storybook moments where I was working my part-time retail job to pay the rent. And I got a call that the second chair clarinet player in the Cleveland Orchestra was sick that night. And could I be at Severance Hall, the concert hall there, in an hour to play Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony? And so of course I went to my manager, this was at an Apple Store and I said, Hey, I gotta go. [Gina and Chris laugh.] And fortunately they were incredibly supportive and it wasn’t one of those movie moments where I like stormed out to follow my dreams. They were like, yeah, absolutely. Get outta here.
CL Go, go, go.
MS It was not dramatic. But I went and it was kind of a turning point for me. Because I had been preparing for, at that point, six or seven years for that moment. That moment. You know, my teacher, when we arrived as new students, fresh-faced freshman in college, 18 years old, he said, look, by the time you leave, you should be able to sit down and play any clarinet part on any piece of major orchestral repertoire, top to bottom. You should know it. And you should know the whole score and you should know where you fit. And so this was that test. It went well. And that led to lots of other opportunities for me. But the point is that one of the best ways to deal with nervousness and anxiety is to show yourself that you can do it. And to focus on where you have been successful. And to really sit down and identify where your strengths are and to understand what you are capable of. This is something that I talk about a bit in the piece. I believe that a big part of why we get nervous and why we have anxiety is because we haven’t really grasped—there’s uncertainty. And I think fear of uncertainty is natural and it’s universal. And so my strategy in reducing anxiety around performance then and now was not to try to ensure perfection because that’s completely impossible.
MS My strategy was to have a clear-eyed understanding of where I am strong and where there is risk. Identifying where the risk is in my performance. And over time, I learned that if I knew where the risk was, it doesn’t make the passage easier. If I haven’t practiced enough, it’s not going to magically insert capability into my hands. Right? But if I have really thought about what’s coming and I have a clear-eyed understanding of my level of capability for that moment, it may not change the outcome, but I’m going to be less nervous about it and that’s going to make everything else at the very least better. And it’s going to mitigate risk generally. So a series of experiences that really allowed me to understand my capability accurately, both generally, and in the acute sense for a specific performance, that is a key part of how I learn to work through this over time.
GT This takes a particular level of self-awareness. And one of the problems that I struggle with is just self-criticism. And as humans, right, you get two kinds of feedback. You get positive feedback, you get negative feedback or critical feedback. And as humans naturally, we overindex on the things that went wrong—the negative feedback, especially when you are getting feedback about a performance of yours and something that I think what you’re saying here, Michael, is that this clear-eyed understanding of what you do well and where you’re comfortable and what people respond to really well or what you feel good about in performances and where the risks are is so important. And it’s something that this is a lot about just kind of managing your own psychology, but also just being aware of yourself and giving yourself that grace and permission for here are places that I can grow. But here’s where I’m really good. I would almost never focus on the things that went well. I’d only focus on the things that went badly. And for a long time, when I was doing a lot of public speaking, I would just be feeling dread and like, I’m definitely going to fail. So this point you made about building up on successes, you know, you could start small, you just need one thing to go well and think that, you know, and when that person comes up to you and was like, wow, that was great. I really like what you said about X. You’ve got to really internalize that and be like, good. That works. I did that. Right? And getting that confidence, I think really it means so much. Because it means you can show up for the next one a little less nervous and a little bit like I’ve got something to offer here that others are going to enjoy. And I mean, I don’t want to skip ahead, but you make this other point about the audience, the people you’re performing for, they want you to do well. They are ready. They want you to succeed. They’re staring at you waiting to nitpick where it’s bad. They want to enjoy themselves. Right? And that’s also a big shift.
MS The way that you frame the interaction that you’re about to have, whether it’s a performance or a presentation is essential. And it’s up to you how you’re going to frame it. Nobody can define your first person experience of the universe for you. Right? And so you can walk into a room and you can decide that the audience is hostile or you can walk into a room and you can decide something else. I don’t want to oversimplify it. You know maybe it’s not always possible to say all these people love me and want me to succeed. But if you don’t have to focus on the negative in that moment, you have to choose to put your energy somewhere else. That’s a strategy that needs to be employed in the moment. I’m in the room. This is happening. Here’s how I’m choosing to see this experience. Other strategies are necessary before you show up. And in the article, I talk about how practice makes permanent not perfect. Because bad practice or ineffective practice will just cement bad habits and make things worse. So it’s really important to develop a process for practicing, for whatever it is, whether it’s a presentation or whatever, is going to ensure consistency and where you’re committing to a level of quality in your process. And not just trying to nail the passage or get through the slides without saying um 10 times in a row. You have to, in my opinion, orient around bigger ideas and sort of markers of quality and success that are more durable. You know, the way I thought about it when I was preparing for auditions was that if I’m going to try and audition for something and I have to give a one in a million performance, I have to perform the best of my life to land this, then the truth is I’m not good enough to get this. I shouldn’t get it. The person who’s good enough to get it can is walking in and the performance they give to win the audition or get the gig or whatever it might be. If you’re really prepared and you’re really qualified, that performance is how you are when you roll out of bed in the morning, that’s your baseline. And that’s how it should be at work too. If you’re giving a major presentation to your CEO or to another major executive, you don’t want to have to do a Hail Mary or pull a rabbit out of a hat in order to succeed. You want that to be your baseline. And that’s how I oriented my practice—was not trying to achieve great heights in the moment. It was trying to elevate the baseline slowly and consistently over time. So that eventually you roll out of bed and you’re world class. And you don’t need a miracle to perform at the level that is needed. You’re just there.
CL This is such a good, solid way to achieve this that I think many people just don’t even think about. Let’s be honest. It’s more obvious when you’re talking about the classical music sphere, because everybody knows that this is what you do. You practice a lot by yourself. You practice a lot as a group. You know, you start with scales and you work your way up and it’s like, that is the mode. But people, I think most people in a business context, just don’t even think about it. They don’t think about practice as something that is, you said it so well, which is that you’re not trying to make it more likely that you get the one in a million performance. You are trying to raise the bar. And the same principles apply. Like if you have a presentation that you have to give, you should run through it by yourself out loud, you should run through it with other people out loud, and you should welcome feedback. And the feedback is not a mechanism to point out the flaws. It is a mechanism to make things better. I think the word you used was durable, like more durable. It is not natural, I think, for many people working at a company or working within a division of a large org to think about, oh, I’ve gotta pull in a lot of criticism—basically criticism to make my work better.
MS Well, to be clear, there’s nothing natural about anything that we’re talking about at all. [Chris and Gina laugh.] It goes completely against instincts that have been hardwired into the human brain. From the time we were, you know, living in caves, like, this is lizard brain stuff. This is fight or flight. I’m in danger. These are deeply rooted instincts. And it takes a very long time and a lot of patience and kindness to yourself to re educate, frankly, the way your brain works. To change the way your brain works and the way your brain responds to threats, for lack of a better term, because that’s really what we’re talking about.
GT So Scott Birkun, who’s actually been on the podcast and is a friend of mine, wrote this great book, a formative book for me on public speaking. And this is one of the points that he made that really landed with me that like back when we were cavemen and cavewomen, if you were in a situation and this is a public speaking context, but it works for classical music too. If you’re standing facing as a single person, as a solo person, facing a group of humans who are all facing you and staring at you, back in the day, that means that they’re all about to run, attack and eat you. Like that is a threatening situation. Even babies did not face down a huge audience of people. When you think about that moment, looking out at the audience like that is built into us to be a threatening situation back in the day, right. When we were cave people. But going back to that earlier point, the fact is that that audience is there. They’re cheering you on. They want you to do well. They want to enjoy themselves. And this is stuff that’s truly hardwired and you have to kind of deprogram that. Yeah. I also, I want to go back to the practice point that you made because I think this is why the classical music metaphor, this analogy or your experience, Michael, I think is so useful because I didn’t think about presentations or public speaking. This is a performance.
GT Like I am going to show up and put on a show. And this is like even internal meetings, I think about our all-hands being this way. I think about pitches. I think about any meeting actually that I’m running. You have to think about it. This is a performance and I want to show up and put on and do my best for everyone there. And when you start to think about it as a performance practice and rehearsal, like we started calling our pre-run throughs dress rehearsals. I started calling them dress rehearsals. I want to see what you’re going to look like. We want to make sure that all the logistics are set up. We want to have the slides ready. Right? Because I think that sometimes in particularly the business context with meetings, folks are just like, oh yeah, I’ve got my slides. You know, I got my points. Like, I’m just going to show up and I’m going to talk through them and it’s going to go fine. But in a musical performance, that would never be the case. Right? Of course you would put in hours of practice. And this is the third point. I think when anyone takes in an amazing performance, whether that’s somebody on stage, at a conference or someone in a concert, you enjoy that amazing performance. The thing that you don’t see are the thousands of hours of sweat and preparation and mistakes that went into making that. You just think I want that. I want to be like that. Right? But there’s a ton of sweat and tears that went to get into that place. And that’s this point that you’re making is, you know, yeah. Practice makes permanent is such a great takeaway.
MS Yeah. I mean, essentially my point of view is that the more mastery you have, the less nervous you will be, as long as you understand your level of mastery of the material. One of the other things that I talk about in the piece is that you have to master the material inside and out. When I was playing music, I almost always had music in front of me because of the type of classical music I was doing. I was playing in big orchestras or I was playing chamber music. Memorization was not something I had to do very much nor was it something I enjoyed, but the truth is I didn’t really need the music once I was really, really ready.
GT I always wondered about that. Whether or not people are referring to the music that’s there just in case. But you know, you just don’t actually need it.
MS I don’t want to speak for everybody. You know, when I was sitting in with the Cleveland Orchestra on short notice and we were playing Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, I hadn’t looked at that score in I don’t know how long, but I knew the piece. I knew the material. I knew what everyone was doing around me. I knew what was coming before. I knew what was coming after. So I needed to read the music in that case, but I wasn’t consumed by the notes on the page in front of me. And that I think is the baseline for any great performance. You have to have such command of the material that you can roll with the punches and adapt when things don’t go as planned because things always don’t go as planned. I say this in the piece, but if you’re not ready to improvise, you’re just not ready. And so when I think about preparation and raising that baseline, one of the markers of being ready is that you’re ready to change on a dime. You’re ready to improvise. Mastery gives you leeway. And the leeway is the space that you have to make small adjustments or even big adjustments, if necessary. And that’s when you know that you’re really, really ready. And if you know that you’re ready to adapt to something unexpected, you’re not going to be nervous about what’s documented right in front of you. In the context of our work and presentations or talks at conferences or something like that, mastery also means that you are adding something to the moment beyond what is on the page or the slide. The best presenters usually say very little of what’s actually on the slide and in classical music, I think it’s easier to learn what a great performance looks like because classical music for the most part is reproduction. There’s a lot of really amazing modern music being written. I encourage everyone to go support their local organizations and listen to it, but it is still true that the majority of what is performed is one that was written a long time ago or maybe even 30 years ago. But it’s a well known piece. And the audience knows what to listen for. That’s one of the scariest things about classical music. When you walk in and you’re sitting down in an orchestra to play Brahms’ First Symphony, most of the people in that audience know that symphony maybe not as well as you do, but they know it. And so you can’t hide mistakes, and you can’t hide distractions. And that’s one of the scary things about classical music. But when you’re getting up to do a presentation or a talk or a pitch, nobody has any idea what’s coming, right? How much freedom is there in that? I mean, to me, that is a great comfort. Even more than in a concert performance or a performance of a play or a drama or something like that, the mistakes are much more camouflaged. If you are sort of up there with poise. And if you’ve mastered the material, you have cycles available in your brain to pivot and adapt. If something goes slightly awry, if someone interrupts you to ask a weird question, or if the Bluetooth dies and they can’t change the slide and the slide stutters, you have cycles available for all that. When things break down it’s because we don’t have any cycles free to manage the unexpected. That is the purpose of practice and preparation is essentially increasing the efficiency of your performance, right? The more impact you can deliver with fewer cycles, the more cycles you have left over to adapt, to improvise, to simply counteract nerves or emotions or whatever might be coming up. But if all of your cycles in the moment are required just to get through the piece, then you have nothing left to support yourself psychologically or emotionally in the moment. And you have nothing left to give your audience when they need something different.
CL Exactly. It’s so funny. The chemical, like the things that are happening in your body, there’s a very strong relationship to what you’re talking about. I think with extra cycles, because when you get nervous or when you’re feeling anxious, your body floods with adrenaline. And your cortisol like amps up and your muscles tent. And like, you have all of this in a way, like these extra resources that come at your disposable disposal. And that’s kind of a really good thing, but most of the time what happens is they get burned off inefficiently because you’re compensating. Right? And it’s completely normal that you’re like, I’m not sure how I’m going to do, or I’m not confident in this material or who knows where it’s going to go or there’s a mistake like we were talking about. And so all of that, all of those extra resources get misapplied, so to speak counteracting all of those feelings. But, if you approach it in the ways that we’ve been talking about—and I think what made you so successful as a classical musician—with good practice and preparation, confidence in the material, the ability to, you’ve raised your common denominator so that even at your worst, you are going to have a really solid foundation, then all of those extra resources become those extra cycles and, and you are able to respond and sort of dance in the moment. The adrenaline in your blood becomes like a superpower, which is kind of great.
MS Yeah. I mean, there’s this idea, you know, people often say they see a world class performance and they say, God, they made it look so easy. But that’s not actually what’s happening. What’s happening is they’re just way more efficient than you are in what they’re doing. It’s not any harder. Right? Nielsen’s clarinet concerto or giving a presentation to Steve Jobs in a product review at Apple. Fundamentally it is a certain level of difficulty. The level of difficulty is empirical and it’s objective and it’s set by the universe. So it’s not that things are easier for someone who’s world class, it’s that they have worked to become much more efficient in how they execute that material. It’s about efficiency in the moment, but that’s gained through practice and preparation, raising the baseline, emotional and psychological strategies like we talked about. I mean, I really want to skip back for a second and really, really emphasize that if you are trying to reduce your level of anxiety or nervousness by improving the limits of what you are capable of, you will always be chasing a lottery ticket, right? You have to hit it from the other end. You have to raise your baseline and you have to commit to that process. And over time, you’ll wake up one day and you’ll find that your baseline is so high, that there’s now no reason to be nervous. And every once in a while, you’ll give a performance and you reach out and you touch the stars and it’s a one in a million performance. And those will be really wonderful and really special. But you can’t live your life chasing one in a million performances. You have to live your life trying to just raise the baseline a millimeter every day. And then the one in a million experiences, those are treats, but you can’t build a career on one in a million performances, whether it’s in sports, or business, or the performing arts. Nobody plays the lottery for a living. Right?
GT That’s true. I want to share my first lesson in public performance that I had. So I was a very anxious and nervous kid. I’m nine years old and I have to deliver a book report in front of my class. This is like my first sort of memory of having to get up in front of a bunch of people and perform something and how it went. And it was probably the most disastrous public speaking gig that I’ve ever had in my life. So I had read the book. I had my report. It was a six-minute, get in front of the class and describe what happened in the book. And I was beside myself frozen in fear. How was I going to get up there and look at this classroom? And in my nine year old brain, I just, I really wanted to hide.
GT I didn’t want anyone to see me. And I thought, okay, well maybe if I can’t see them, they can’t see me. So I go up to the front of the class and I turn around and I think here’s what I’ll do. I’ll just pretend that I have this really big itch on my forehead, and then I have to scratch it. And so I’ll scratch the itch on my forehead, which will cover at least part of my eyes most of the time. So I stood in front of the class and I scratched my forehead and delivered my book report. Okay. And I can see sort of through my hands that people in the class are like, I see, like furrowed brows. I can see that everyone was wondering, like, if there was something wrong with me [laughs] and in my head, I’m like, yeah, it’s cool. I just have an itch. I mean, everybody itches, it’s going to be fine. And so I finish and I sit down and there’s kind of silence. And we move on to the next kid who has to give the book report. And I was like, wow, I got through it. Like that was, you know, a success. And later on, my teacher kind of pulled me aside and was like, Gina is everything okay? Like, do you feel okay? And I was like, yeah, yeah, I’m fine. This is also a tell for me—my voice goes up really high when I’m nervous. And she said, okay, so next time let’s try to maybe get your hands at your side—that would be better or maybe holding your paper. [Laughs.] Oh I was like, oh, so they noticed like, they noticed that I had an itch. I didn’t get away with it. I didn’t get away with hiding. So there’s nowhere to hide. When you’ve got a performance there’s nowhere to hide. And you can’t make up an itch. Yeah. And you have to be able to go up there and feel like I’m vulnerable and everyone can see me and I’m going to do this thing.
MS And that’s really hard in school just to be clear. School is probably the hardest environment to do that in. So the advice around deciding that everyone wants you to succeed. Let us just recognize that’s very hard to do in school, especially between the ages of nine and 16.
GT Oh, for sure. I’m not sure that everyone in that classroom wanted me to succeed. I think they were just more confused about what’s happening on my face.
MS Yeah, I can also share a painful moment and then maybe Chris can think of one. When I was at Interlochen in high school, every year, there’s a concerto competition—for people who don’t know what concerto is, it’s a piece where there’s a featured solo instrument with the orchestra behind it. So that’s like when you’re like the star. And so there are these competitions where on your instrument, you pick a concerto and you play it, usually with a pianist. And then the winner gets to play that piece with the orchestra, which is, you know, when you’re a youngster, that’s like a huge deal. And I was preparing for the competition. I was working on Weber’s second clarinet concerto. And I was working on the third movement, the finale. The last page of this concerto is—at the time—I felt extremely, extremely difficult. It’s very impressive. Lots of notes. Very fast. It’s exciting. And I had just been drilling that page for months and months and months, and this also had to be performed memorized. And so it comes time for the concerto competition. It’s my turn. I’m performing with a pianist and I’m on the previous page. And my memory goes totally blank. Easiest, super easy part. I’m on stage in front of all of my friends in high school, my teacher, and the memory just goes. Total memory slip on the easy part. And it sucked and it was really painful. And obviously I did not win. I nailed the last page. Last page was bodacious, but that doesn’t matter. [Everyone laughs.]
GT What did you do? Did you just pause or like?
MS I had to sort of pause and in a moment like that with a good pianist, there’s a lot of instinctual communication and they sort of help you find your way back. And we did, and it was fine, but a slip like that, you know, I mean, it’s like a stumble in the Olympics, like, that’s it, you’re done. And it took me a long time to understand why that happened and to learn from it. And that’s one of the experiences that generated some of the advice that’s in the piece and that we’ve been talking about because I had prepared to try to hit a one in a million shot on the finale of this thing, because I thought it was so hard and it had to be so impressive. And my preparation wasn’t holistic and the truth is I had mastered a couple of really difficult passages, but I hadn’t mastered the material holistically. I was not really in command of that story. And the universe showed me that when I was put under pressure, because I didn’t, I ran out of cycles. It was like, I ran out of the computer, ran out of memory. Right. And it froze. And that was it. I mean, looking back, I’m really glad it happened.
GT You learn from it and you’d go like, okay, here’s what I did. Here’s what I’m going to do to prevent that later.
CL Yeah. Oh man. I do have a story. It is slightly different with a slightly different takeaway. I did a lot of theater growing up. I was very comfortable on stage, but when you’re doing a play, there are scenes that you’re in and there are moments where you are backstage, right? Just waiting for your cue or waiting to go on. And so I was totally prepared. But I remember distinctly, this was also in high school. I remember a performance of a play. It was Bye Bye Birdie and—
CL Yeah. And I missed a cue and it was just because I wasn’t paying attention. I was prepared, but I took my eye off the ball. And my castmates were able to recover and make it okay that I wasn’t on stage when I was supposed to be. And I got yelled at by the director after the show. Or after the scene, like what the hell was going on? And it felt awful, but it wasn’t a lack of preparation. It was a lack of attentiveness and being present in the moment, which is not something we talked a ton about, but I think is still something I think about in a sense to this day. Because if you are in the middle of one of these important performances, presentations, et cetera, like we’ve been talking about, it is also important to stay present and stay in the moment. And if you’ve done the preparation and if you’ve done the work, like, hopefully you can trust yourself, such that you get in the car and you stay in the car. And you drive the whole way through.
MS I really want to emphasize something you said about being present, right? We are not talking about eliminating mistakes from performance. I made mistakes, not in every performance, but I made mistakes throughout my whole career on stage—mistakes are okay. This is not about pursuing perfection. It’s about being present enough to negotiate with the mistakes as they happen, because usually the mistake is not nearly as distracting as a poor reaction to the mistake in the moment, right? This is really, really important. This is going back to raising the baseline. It’s not about eliminating mistakes. It’s about building good habits in and around them.
CL Yes, definitely. This is something I really respect about comedians. I feel like it would be so hard. I have never done standup comedy. I feel like it would be so difficult to do because it is half prepared performance, but then it is half it’s like, I mean, what do you call crowd work? It’s sort of improv kind of, but also it is all about staying present and responding and not getting thrown. And that is very challenging. And it’s exactly what you’re saying, Michael. It is not about if you’ve prepared for a big presentation, don’t expect that nothing is going to go wrong. That’s not the end goal. The goal is if and when something does go wrong, the response to it is easy and seamless and makes it feel like it is totally fine that that thing happened.
MS Thorough preparation isn’t supposed to put you on rails. It’s supposed to put you on like a hoverboard.
MS Right. Being on rails is actually like 50% preparation. You’re like halfway there, like once it’s on rails, like once you can do it one way at the standard you want in ideal circumstances, you’re halfway ready. Then you have to get off the rails onto your hoverboard. Because like I said earlier, if you’re not ready to improvise, you’re just not ready. And this is especially true with the kind of corporate storytelling, for lack of a better term, that sometimes we have to do with pitches and presentations explaining why we want to pursue a certain course of action or getting a group of disconnected people aligned around one goal or one mission, or one way of looking at something you’ve gotta be off the rails in a positive way in order to do that effectively.
GT I think it’s so useful to think about preparing for corporate storytelling, the way that you would prepare for a play or a musical performance.
[Outro music fades in, ramps up.]
GT Michael, thank you so much. I’m so glad that you joined us for this show.
MS Oh, my pleasure.
GT The piece on postlight.com is called How to Turn Anxiety into Great Performances at Work. We’re going to link it in the show notes. It’s definitely worth a read. I really appreciate this. And now I understand Michael, how you came to the place where, I mean, you are one of our best and strongest presenters at Postlight. And I think it’s really because of this background that you have and the way that you’ve internalized how to manage your own stress and anxiety and use it to your advantage to level yourself up. So yeah. Thank you so much for being with us today. This was fun.
MS Well if I can do it, anybody can do it. Seriously.
GT [Laughs.] Postlight is a digital strategy, design and engineering firm. We are based in New York City. We would love to hear from you.Thanks for listening today. And please get in touch.
CL If you want to reach out the best way to hit us up is firstname.lastname@example.org. We love getting email. If it’s feedback on this episode, we will route it to Michael, Michael’s team—the digital strategy team. We are a practitioner-led organization, and we love hearing about real business problems that can be solved with software. So if you’ve got something that you’ve been banging your head against, and you want to talk to a product manager or a designer or an engineer to help solve it, please reach out email@example.com. Thank you so much, Michael.
MS My pleasure. I can’t wait for the next one.
GT Thanks, Michael.
MS Yeah, absolutely.
GT Thanks everyone. Have a great day. Bye.