Sometimes, the reasons why I do what I do are perfectly clear. Gaining clarity in moments isn't always easy, but helps when you have a friend who is a professional photographer to catch the moment on film.
In the last twenty years, I have appeared on stages in more countries than I could easily count, in front of literally hundreds of thousands of people in the widest variety of circumstances. I always try to have have every moment under control. It comes from a lifetime of experience as a professional communicator. Everything gets thought through, considered, prepared for, and that work and readiness is what leads to solid events.
But at the core of it all, what matters most to me is creating real connection and real communication. If those elements aren't there in a presentation then all I am doing, regardless of the intensity and specificity of the preparation for a particular event, is just going through the motions.
And life is too short to waste anyone's time like that, especially that of my generous audiences. This brings me to my favorite presentation of the year. This has been a year that saw me onstage in front of three thousand people in Singapore talking about international connectedness, and then later in a huge theater packed full of real estate experts in Wisconsin talking about putting people before profits, and then in a club filled with hundreds of intensely connected listeners in St. Petersburg Russia, and on and on. The world is a criss-crossed dotted map of my travels. But one event last week stood out amongst them all.
My friend Sean's mom hasn't been feeling well recently. The specifics of her illness are her personal business, but suffice to say, a hospital stay that was supposed to be short was extended recently and I drove up to Canada to visit her in the hospital. She was hopeful that she'd be getting out in a few days and I told her that I would come back up and juggle for her and for her granddaughter when she finally was allowed to go home. It was just a simple gesture really, but it was what I had to offer. Now, I don't think there is anyone who while in the hospital thinks to themselves with any sense of urgency, "This hospital experience is terrible...what I REALLY need right now is a keynote speaking juggler."
My offer served a dual purpose: first of all, I thought it might be fun (this is the prime motivator for almost all of my actions in life). I thought it might be especially fun for the little granddaughter. Secondly, it could give Sean's mom something to look forward to. We all recognize that when we have meaning in our lives that the meaningful thing, whatever it might be (an unfulfilled dream, a relationship, a hope, a goal) can be fuel for us through our darkest days.
Fast forward a week. She got out of the hospital, and I drove the three hours north back up to Canada to visit her at home. With me I had five juggling beanbags. Nothing more. No microphone. No stage. None of the things I bring to my commercial speaking engagements. No expensive designer suit and tie. No comedy lines custom written for the event. Just five juggling beanbags, casual clothes, and of course a passport (they tend to not let you into the country without one when coming home).
Whereas all other times the lights are on, the stage is set, and every detail has been looked after and prepared to perfection, this was a night and a performance of a very different kind. The audience - Sean's mom and granddaughter and three more family members out of frame - were sitting on chairs and a couch or on the floor in a living room exactly like yours. I too sat on the floor.
When everyone was ready, rather than launch into a professional presentation of some kind, all I did was launch those beanbags aloft. Five of them started in motion in what is called a cascade, the most basic of juggling patterns.
The little girl's eyes went wide. She instantly lost her mind in the best way, laughing all the while. It was as if she couldn't believe what she was seeing. "Has she ever seen juggling before," I wondered? If she had, she wasn't letting on by way of her three-year-old semi intelligible descriptions to everyone of what she was looking at, or by way of her laughter.
And her grandmother, Sean's mom, had a priceless smile too. But her smile was from a few different sources: not only for her granddaughter's joy, but also for herself for finally being out of the hospital and at home with her family, and in appreciation for all of us taking the time to share and connect. (Ok, maybe a bit in wonder too at what she was seeing before her...)
They were happy. So happy. And the juggling and interaction and playing with them with those beanbags, whether by way of me juggling or by them trying themselves, went on for over an hour.
Typical audiences need something new every few seconds or so. They are trained by culture and communication norms to need constant stimuli, channel to channel, website to website, topic to topic, what's in it for me or I am moving on. And I feel that too when I am onstage. My pacing reflects that. Laugh, idea, repeat. Give them something new to think about, to hear, to see. But this night we all got back to basics. It was about sharing in the simplest of ways and enjoying it deeply.
In his classic theater book "The Empty Space", author Peter Brook opened with the line "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage". He meant that all one needs for theatre to happen is beyond the professional details. You need only a living room. A few willing people to watch. Someone with something to offer from the heart. And all of them with love to offer back. This moment, one that my friend captured so well, was simple. It was about connection and sharing. It was one of those moments which you reflect on after the face and realize with a smile, "Wow...that was something real."
Sean reflected on this moment later with me saying, "I'm trying to capture as many moments in my mom's life as possible. Its great to see her smile. Its few and far between."
After far more than half a lifetime communicating and sharing, I can say without a doubt that moments like that are what drive me - when there is a real need to connect, and then when sincerity and communication and willingness and wonder suddenly blend in a moment. To have a chance to help create moments like this is really why I do what I do.
(For more information on Sean's brilliant professional photography, please visit him here.)