The art of failing successfully

Last week I watched my 8-year-old son’s ‘Around the World’ assembly in awe. Not because of the kids’ extensive knowledge of geography, or because they could remember an astounding volume of lines and movement. It wasn’t their ability to sit still while their friends spoke, or the fact that not one of them yawned, picked their nose, bit their nails, sneezed, or cried (all of which make regular appearances on the Parent Assembly Bingo Card).

It was their comic timing.

They were so funny. Each in their own way, from the pause before the delivery of a killer line to physical comedy a clown would give their red nose for. The more I thought about it, the more I realised it was the one thing about the assembly that had been in their creative control. The rest had been written and rehearsed to death, to ensure no one screwed up on the day, but the way they delivered their part had been entirely up to them – and they’d really embraced it.

Afterwards, the teachers all commented on how well they’d done to learn everything. I got a bit sad about that, because even at aged 8, success was based on producing an altogether ‘safe’ experience. But by using comedy, each child stamped their own personality on what they’d been asked to do, confident that they could give it a go and that everyone watching would be on their side even if they didn’t quite pull it off. And because they embraced that feeling, they nailed it. (Of course, one might say that parents aren’t exactly the most critical of audiences, so how could we tell? But maybe you’ve never met a parent from Putney).

By taking a risk, they connected with their audience in a way that they wouldn’t have if they’d just said their lines and done their movements as they’d been written. One of the basic tenets of improvisation is to take risks, and it’s something that as adults, we find very difficult. We measure ourselves against perfection and have been taught over and over, at school and at university and in relationships and parenting and the workplace, that failure is a bad thing. This near-constant stream of feedback from a very young age stifles creativity, and it’s why so many people hate standing up and talking in front of a crowd. They are utterly terrified they will suck at it.

In improv, we teach failure as a good thing. Failure is the only way to learn. Failing, or the vulnerability you show when you acknowledge you might fail, is a way to connect with the audience. A moment of truth – such as Prince Harry muttering ‘I’m sh*tting myself’ at the altar in front of millions (which we are all desperate to believe really happened) – wins hearts in a way which simply delivering what is asked of you, wouldn’t.

In improvisation, we acknowledge that we’re trying to do the impossible. We’re standing on stage, making up a story as we go along, based on a word we’ve got at random from the lady in row 3 who we’ve never met before, and we’re expecting everyone else in the room – the other players, the lighting guy/gal, the pianist, the audience – to agree on what’s going to happen next, without anyone knowing what’s going to happen next. It’s simply never going to succeed all of the time. So we practice getting good at failure. We drill exercises and play games to make ourselves feel better about it, and we arm ourselves with a toolbox of skills to increase our chances of success, and then we go out in front of an audience and assume that if we fail, and fail happily, they’ll forgive us, they’ll root for us, and better still, be thoroughly entertained by us.

Some of you reading this will be thinking ‘yeah, but what does that have to do with real life? If I fail, my boss will never speak to me again.’ I’m certainly not saying you should immediately screw up your next presentation to see what reaction you get, or break into a stand up routine when you’re speaking on a panel to determine whether or not you’re the next Michael McIntyre. Embracing failure isn’t the same as being crap. There’s no glory to be taken from being unprepared, or under-skilled, and quite apart from making you feel terrible it makes your audience feel extremely uncomfortable, too.

Don’t short-cut preparation. Know your subject, and fill your own public speaking toolbox with the skills you need to feel confident. But once you’re in the room, take time to connect with your audience, make the presentation your own, and don’t worry if things are a little imperfect. An improv coach of mine once said, ‘on the breath and through the eyes’, by which she meant, don’t just speak the lines, be human and let your audience see the truth of who you are. If the audience are on your side, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to be great.

Basically, be the kid in assembly.

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