Sunday, January 6, 2019

Prep and therapeutic self-delusions for two recent "shows"

Last month, I had two chances to get on stage in front of a lot of people—significantly more people than ever before—and do something. They happened back-to-back: I spoke for 2 minutes at the company engineering all-hands (a few hundred people) on a Wednesday, and played a 4-minute violin piece at the company variety show (~1300 people) the next night. Surprisingly, I didn't get very nervous, and they went well. The audience ended up hardly registering.

I prepared a lot—a well-known tactic. On top of that, two mental models (aka therapeutic self-delusions) helped.

I. Prep

Engineering All-Hands

In total, I spent at least seven hours on the two-minute presentation (guesstimating):

  • 2.5 hours on creating the content—outline, then slide deck
  • 0.5 hour (2 separate 15-minute sessions) practicing in front of my manager 1:1 and getting feedback
  • 1.5 hours in a required prep session for all speakers—did a dry run and listened to + gave feedback to all the other speakers
  • 2.5 hours practicing / refining on my own

Two minutes is both very short, so there's not much to prepare; and also more work because you need to trim your message to fit and then practice to stay within time. Between speaking and playing the violin in front of people, I have much less experience speaking, so the actual act felt more foreign and required more physical practice: just standing and saying the words at the right speed that would keep me in time; saying the words enough to develop muscle memory for them, to know them enough to not have to think. At two minutes, I had to get exact phrases nailed down, otherwise, as I discovered in practice, I would fumble or grasp for a transition and lose precious seconds.

Overall, seven hours for two minutes seems a lot. This time was spread over a week and does not include informal time consumed by the prospect of the work to be done hanging over my thoughts (kindly put, "background processing"). I expect a more experienced speaker could get their personal prep time down quite a bit. My manager said he used to also take a lot of time to prep, and nowadays he can do a similar talk with half-a-day's notice.

On the other hand, in the back of my head I keep this second-hand story from AriG in mind. Someone once asked Chris Cox, now the Facebook CPO, how he was able to do such a great 30-minute talk. Chris responded to the effect: "Easy. Just practiced it fifteen times." This exact number might be wrong, but the idea is if you do the math, it comes out to hours and hours of practice. (30 minutes x 15 = 7.5 hours)

Variety Show

For the variety show, David—my pianist friend and teammate—and I had a short timeline (2.5 weeks), so we chose a piece well within our comfort zones. I had performed the piece in the past, and our parts were technically undemanding for each of us, which meant the thrust of our rehearsals was staying in sync and hashing out musical choices.

We had two rehearsals on the preceding weekends (in addition to an initial "jam/reading" session to get to know each other, before we had decided to play in the show), and two pure run-through dress rehearsals. Weekend Rehearsal #1 was the nitty-gritty, deconstruct-reconstruct: 2.5 / 3 hours long. We played through the piece slowly with the metronome a number of times, then increased the speed to our liking; then dug in section-by-section to talk about what we wanted to do musically, and practiced each section before putting them back together. The second rehearsal was 1.5 / 2 hours, and we used it to reinforce things we'd discussed the previous week. We captured maybe 70-80% of our artistic ideal from the week before, but due to time constraints, we thought this was fine—better to aim to be comfortable and loose, and keep some freshness for the performance. (The last half hour of each rehearsal was reading / jamming on other pieces, a fun way to end.)

There was one required dress rehearsal at the venue for all performers. David and I showed up Tuesday night at 6:30 and sat in the chilly, warehouse-like auditorium until about 8:00, when we were called up, and played through the piece once. The auditorium was brightly-lit with harsh white LEDs, so we could see the sea of empty chairs, and there were a handful of "audience members": the variety show organizers, other performers, and the stage staff. In retrospect, the dress rehearsal was much more uncomfortable and nerve-wracking for the above reasons. In the actual performance, the venue was better heated; we had learned the outline of the show and so knew roughly when we would be called up; we could relax backstage in an informal green room; and on stage, the auditorium was dimmed and the stage lights so bright I could hardly see anyone in the audience.

We also ran through the piece twice on Wednesday morning (the show was Thursday evening), at the office on the roof. It was windy and cold, but also novel. Even before that rehearsal, I ran the piece twice by myself in an empty conference room (with practice mute on). By the time we walked on stage, I'd played the piece in four to five different settings and had a good sense of where I might mess up if I did and what to watch out for and what to think about throughout. In the actual performance, my mind was mostly on the piece itself.

II. Mental models

The main mental preparation was actual preparation. When I walked on stage for both events, I honestly believed there was a very minimal chance that I'd mess something up. Yes, I could forget the script, or potentially miss that high note, but if I haven't missed that high note in 95% of recent attempts, why would I now? (My mind does still find a way to doubt.)

The above assumptions rest on the performance feeling as similar to practice as possible. So my main therapeutic self-delusion was aimed at framing performance as ordinary.

#1: Downplaying and putting it in context

The eng all-hands was easy to downplay mentally: I was in a string of two-minute speakers, and this is an event similar to something that happens every two weeks with the whole company, that I've witnessed from the audience. Also, there is no expectation that you're good at speaking. People understand each team has been called up to present, and you're doing the deed.

The variety show was different: there were only ~5 performances, and the event felt semi-professionally produced. It was set up as a late-night show ("Llama Night Live!"), with a host and pre-taped intro reel reminiscent of SNL.

I realized that the main problem in the past for me has been thinking of performance as an event that showcases your ability to everyone. This is the slice that they will see and thus interpret as what you are capable of. This turns on the pressure to not mess up, and encourages you to choose a program at the edge of your technique.

I've now come to view performance as similar to a wedding in a human life; a snapshot and moment to consider, but not a defining event. Also—something you want to feel fairly comfortable while doing. If you trip on your way down the aisle, that doesn't doom the marriage (one hopes). It's ideally entertaining (by some meaning of entertaining) for everyone involved, and the degree of entertainment doesn't hinge on technical features. The analogy isn't perfect though, because the performance is really about the audience having a good time, which brings us to #2.

#2: Watching other people fail

Some people say, "act comfortable, even if you're not." I find this hard because I'm not good at acting. Ideally, I want to actually be comfortable.

The biggest motivation to be comfortable was realizing that the audience is only going to be as comfortable as I am. I realized this while watching a few people before me on stage each day who looked a bit nervous—and that made me nervous. And I thought, goddamn, can't do that! My role is to help people have a good time! This mindset made being nervous just not acceptable.

III. Compounding

A quick final note. At first glance, it might seem extra stressful to have two presentations to prepare for back-to-back, but that wasn't the case.

Incidentally, David, pianist and teammate, also gave a two-minute talk at the same Eng All-Hands. He remarked after that it actually helped to have the shorter, somewhat smaller event first, right before the bigger one. Prepping for the talk and doing the talk helped ramp us up for the somewhat higher-stakes variety show. I felt the same way.

Hopefully this stuff sticks. TBD.

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