It’s a dreary, wet September day and I am about to deliver the most wonderful of training days. I am full of energy and about to start my presentation. Everything has been prepared. This has been months in the making. Verifying the schedule, double- and triple-checking the content, practicing my presentation. This is the moment.
I step onto the stage. My host makes the most witty of introductions and I’m delighted the participants greet me with applause as I take the stage.
I have the remote to move the slides. Click. Click.
“Houston, I have a problem!”
Everything has frozen. Everything. Nothing works. I’m clicking the clicker but it isn’t doing anything.
My heart starts to race, I rush across to my laptop with the speed and verve of a possessed squirrel and frantically hack at the key board.
Nothing is working. Nada.
I look sheepishly towards the crowd and do the best I can do without the slides. At this point, I want the earth to swallow me up.
Most rooms I do presentations are the same…desks, chairs, windows (if you’re lucky), a screen and a projector. This particular room, however, is permanently etched in my memory for all the wrong reasons. What I presented to you in the story above was a worst case scenario for presenters. There are other classics like;
• Projector won’t work
• Sound doesn’t work
• Non-receptive audience
• The presenter before you runs way over so you have to instantly adjust your presentation
Now what if all of the above was to go wrong all at the same time? What would your back up be? Yep, I bet you all got the backups too;
• Printed copy of slides with notes
• Printed copy of slides as handouts
• Back up copy of slides on a memory stick
• Back up laptop and charger
So I was left to ponder the question, "why on earth would I not have any of those backups at my disposal on this particular day when EVERYTHING went spectacularly wrong?" The kind of flushing-red-in-face-want-to-curl-up-and-wimper-in-a-corner-rocking-backwards-and-forwards sort of wrong.
The answer: I had not practiced negative thinking.
Over many years I had very slowly but surely lulled myself into a false sense of security by doing similar presentations that had not gone wrong. Here is an example of my inner monologue before the event, “hey, I’ve done this kind of thing a 1001 times before and nothing has ever gone wrong. I don’t really need all of those backups. It won’t matter. It won’t happen to me.”
The better monologue should have been, “What if the computer decides not to work? What will I do if the I encounter a problem? What’s my backup if the backup fails?" How will I continue if everything breaks?
That is the power of negative thinking.
Negative thinking is powerful because it makes you prepare for lots of worst case scenarios. It makes you feel more confident knowing that you have it covered. And ultimately, it makes you acquire coping mechanisms and practicing these techniques ultimately leads to greater grit and resilience. This is an essential part of what Dweck calls a “growth mindset” and Matt Syed talks about it in his book, "Black Box Thinking". On the one hand you need to embrace positivity (that you and others have unlimited potential) but that also, things can and will go wrong.
The simple fact is we don’t practice enough of the ‘going wrong’ bit.
I don’t think we encourage negative thinking enough. To caveat, I’m not talking about the kind of doom spiral, catastrophizing scenarios that can quite easily lead to people not wanting to leave the house.
I’m talking about ordinary stuff. The little things that go wrong and become very acute problems very quickly.
What happens when the customer shouts at you, or worse swears at you? What are you going to say and how are you going to say it? What happens when you know that you’re not going to meet a deadline and many different stakeholders are affected? How are you going to deal with it? What will you do when you haven't printed off the documents for your next presentation and the printer breaks?
NASA are arguably the world’s best planners and simulators of ‘the worst case scenario’. In the fantastic book called, “An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth” by Chris Hadfield sums it up neatly:
“A lot of people talk about expecting the best but preparing for the worst, but I think that’s a seductively misleading concept. There’s never just one “worst”. Almost always there’s a whole spectrum of bad possibilities. The only thing that would really qualify as the worst would be not having a plan for how to cope.”
And on that note, I’m off to print a copy of my slides with notes for my next presentation.Chris Hadfield’s TED talk:www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zo62S0ulqhA