3000 People Were Staring at Me

On August 25th, 2017, I stood in front of 3000 people on the final stage of the World Championship of Public Speaking.

7 months before, I had no public speaking experience.

World Championship of Public Speaking Final Stage

Out of 30,000 competitors, it was now down to the last 10.

This was the very last step of my ultralearning project: 7 months of intense, focused study.

The next few minutes on this giant stage were the most exciting and surreal of my life.

But this project is not about those few minutes.

This project is about the hundreds of hours I spent learning the art of public speaking.

This project has reinforced and revealed to me invaluable insights about ultralearning, and today I’d like to share one of those insights with you here.

What should you do when you’re stuck?

Regardless of how great of a learner you are, no one is immune to hitting plateaus and witnessing their progress slow to a near complete stop.

When you’re stuck in a plateau, motivation threatens to disappear and the joys of the previous growth spurt quickly become a distant memory.

The difference between an amateur and an ultralearner is the speed at which the ultralearner can get OUT of the plateau, and back into the growth spurt.

In other words, ultralearning is largely about shortening or “short-circuiting” plateaus.

Unfortunately, there’s only one way to short-circuit a plateau, and you’re not going to like it.

I certainly didn’t like it.

But there’s no other way around it.

If you truly want to accelerate out of a plateau, if you really want breakthrough into a growth spurt, then there’s only one way to do it:

You must seek extreme uncomfortableness.

I was kicking and Screaming…

It took me 3 months to write the speech that earned me a spot in the semi-finals and I now needed to write a brand-new speech that could beat some of the best speakers in the world.

Mid-August 2017, less than 2 weeks before the semi-finals of the World Championships of Public Speaking, I was still struggling to write my speech.

I was terrified because at this point I understood that writing is only a small part of speech crafting:

After a rough draft comes the long process of testing, rewriting and refining. Which is then followed by memorization, stage direction, and many more important details.

Sunday morning, 12 days away, I had finally finished writing a new rough draft.

In 3 hours, I was scheduled to give that speech in front of a room full of strangers to get their feedback. But I hadn’t memorized a single word yet, and I knew I couldn’t do it in time.

I wasn’t ready.

My brain was yelling at me to cancel the speaking slot and to spend an extra two days rewriting and memorizing.

But I couldn’t afford that luxury.

I’d been stuck in a plateau as a speaker for the past 6 weeks and I desperately needed to get people’s feedback if wanted to have a chance of winning.

I thought my speech had the potential to win, but to know for sure I needed answers to the following questions FAST:

  • Was the speech as good as I thought it was?
  • Which jokes would hit, which wouldn’t?
  • Which parts were boring?
  • What works?!

There was only one way I could get answers to those questions before sundown, but it was so scary I was afraid to even consider it:

Learn as much of the speech as possible in 2 hours and fake confidence in front of the audience.

I knew that if I wanted to get valuable feedback, the audience had to believe I came prepared. They couldn’t know the truth beforehand.

Lucky for me, my coach Michael gave me the nudge I needed, and we spent the next 2 hours drilling the words mercilessly into my brain. Over and over and over.

It felt as if I was trying to cram 10 bath towels into an already-full washing machine. But we kept on trying.

As I sat next to Michael in the car on the way, we continued drilling the speech.

We arrived late, and I didn’t even have time to sit down. I set up my camera and jumped into the speech.

I went 3 minutes over time (in a contest you would be disqualified for going 1 second overtime), and I blanked 3 times. That means that 3 times, Michael had to feed me the next line, and I had to keep my composure as I watched person after person lose interest in the speech while I tried helplessly to draw them back in.

The feedback was awful. Crushing.

The speech didn’t hit. Most jokes fell flat. Some audience members even seemed to be mad at me for ‘wasting their time’.

As I walked out, I felt terrible.

I had 12 days left before the semi-finals and my speech wasn’t anywhere near championship material.

I was still stuck in a plateau.

Luckily, I didn’t walk out empty-handed.

A world-class speaker once told me:

You don’t have a first draft until you’ve given your speech in front of an audience at least once.

From this perspective, not only did I get direct feedback on my “first draft”, I was able to feel what hit and what didn’t.

When I got home that evening, I started applying all of the feedback I’d received, and the next day I gave a drastically improved version of the speech to a different crowd, with a very different reception.

From Monday to Thursday I tried my best to turn the speech into the best possible version it could be, always testing the improved version on a new audience.

On Friday, I threw the speech away.

I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to win the semi-finals of the World Championships with it. It was good, but it wasn’t great.

Getting rid of that speech days before the competition was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made, but I was thankful I did it.

I learned more in those few days of uncomfortableness leading up to the semi-finals than I ever would have over months of “easy riding”.

If I hadn’t pushed myself miles out of my comfort zone, I would have walked onto the semi-final stage with zero chances of winning.

I still would have been stuck in my plateau.

Instead, I tried to understand why the speech didn’t touch the audience the way I thought it would.

And I went back to the drawing board.

Saturday morning, 5 days from the semi-finals, I sat in front of a blank sheet of paper. On it, I wrote down every insight about public speaking that I had learned over the course of this 7-month project.

And then, I wrote the speech that would win me the semi-finals.

I made it out of my plateau.

The next day, on stage with the 9 other finalists.

Learning isn’t linear. A breakthrough can take weeks, or it could be 5 minutes away. But one thing is certain, you can’t reach that breakthrough without feeling uncomfortable.

Uncomfortableness is how you grow. Seek it.

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